The 1970 college football game between the University of Alabama and the University of Southern California may not truly be “the most important game in college football history.” But when the superb documentary Against the Tide suggests that it is, it’s hard not to want to agree.
Against the Tide, which premieres Friday night on Showtime, tells the story of a legendary game that almost didn’t happen. Before the 1970 college football season, the National Collegiate Athletic Association allowed colleges to add an extra game to their schedule, probably to increase revenues. Most schools set up matches with teams from smaller nearby colleges or other patsies in order to grab an easy win and a quick payday.
But Alabama’s head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Southern Cal’s John McKay, whose two teams had won half the national championships in the 1960s, made different plans. In April, Bryant flew to Los Angeles to meet his longtime friend McKay and set up a two-game series between the Crimson Tide and Trojans.
The first game would open their 1970 season and would be played on September 12 at Legion Field in Birmingham. Alabama was coming off a poor season under Bryant (they were 6-5) and was taking on, in USC, a team that some thought had a shot at the national title. And, far more significantly, Bryant was, for the first time, inviting an integrated team from outside the state to play in Alabama against one of the last schools in the country with an all-white team. That game would go on to change football in the South, in the National Football League, and in all of the country: The Trojans, with a black quarterback (Jimmy Jones) and two fine runners (Sam “Bam” Cunningham, who ran over the Tide for 13 yards, and Clarence Davis, who scored two touchdowns), humbled Alabama before a nearly silent home crowd and showed fans, spectators, and football authorities alike that integration was the future of football.