The Day Alabama Football Changed Colors.

Bear Bryant among the Crimson Tide. Art: Rick Rush.
Bear Bryant among the Crimson Tide. Painting by Rick Rush.

The world around Bear Bryant was changing.

He was not afraid to change with it.

A year earlier, his old friend John McKay had brought the University of California to Alabama and taught him a valuable lesson. It had been a hard lesson.

It woke him up.

Southern football might still be in the race, but it was lagging far behind and, the Bear believed, lagging behind for the wrong reasons.

Back in the 1960s, the Bear had read the words of Jim Murray. They had cut deep. They cut even deeper because they were true. The Los Angeles columnist had written: “Alabama wanted to come to the Rose Bowl. The Bluebonnet Bowl gets to be a drag after a while. They thought all they had to do was beat Georgia Tech. What they had to beat was a hundred years of history. The word from Integration, U.S.A. was ‘you can play us in Pasadena when we can play you in Tuscaloosa – or Birmingham.’”

The Bear had met McKay secretly and far removed from the press. He knew that the tragedy of integration was doomed, especially in football. But he feared that the powers, the boosters, the regents holding Alabama purse strings would never agree to abolishing the sanctity of segregation unless he showed them up close and personal just how good the black athletes were.

Over a drink of hard whiskey, he asked McKay, “What if we offered you a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to come to Alabama and play us?”

McKay smiled. “Okay,” he said, “but only if you take two hundred and fifty thousand dollars the next year to come out to California and play us.”

The deal was struck. A passing era was fading before them.

Sam Cunningham hammers his way through the Alabama line.
Sam Cunningham hammers his way through the Alabama line.

By the first game in 1970, the Trojans were in town.

The Bear had defied history and tradition. Southern Cal was playing in a southern stadium, and John McKay had a team loaded with an array of great black athletes.

The Trojans romped to a 42-21 victory. USC rambled for four hundred and eighty-five yards. Alabama amassed thirty-two. Southern Cal had six backs who each gained more than fifty yards, led by Sam Cunningham who butchered the Tide for a hundred and thirty-five yards.

Bear Bryant knew he had a young team. It was, in fact, the youngest team he had ever coached. But that hadn’t been the difference.

The time, Bear knew, had come to change the color of Alabama’s skin.

As Jim Minter wrote in The Atlanta Journal: “Southern Cal may have added an exclamation point to the end of an era.”

The devastating loss to USC would forever more be known as the game that changed Southern football.

In the late hours, Jim Murray wrote: “Well, Alabama can come to the Rose Bowl now. They’re as welcome as Harvard and, if I know football coaches, you won’t be able to tell Alabama by the color of its skin much longer. Grambling may be in for a helluva recruitment fight any year now.”

The Bear had been soundly beaten, and he knew it. But he was a man of class and civility, a gift of the South. He headed straight to the Southern Cal locker room. “When he walked in,” said Trojan assistant coach Craig Fertig, “it caught everyone’s attention. A legend was among us.”

Bryant congratulated John McKay.

That was to be expected.

He sought out other players, both black and white, and shook their hands.

He had special praise for Sam Cunningham, who had trampled his defense. He met with Clarence Davis, who had grown up in Birmingham, and said, “If only I had known about you two years ago. I was hoping you might not be very good, but I’m a believer now.”

That was not expected.

Bear Bryant realized what he had known all along. Everyone’s sweat was the same color. He never forgot it.

A year had passed. A new season was beginning. And Alabama was flying west and on its way to California. Bear Bryant read over the scouting report one more time. Southern Cal was bigger than last year. And better. The Bear didn’t care.

The defeat at the hands of USC had been the game that gnawed at his psyche, kept him awake at night, and robbed him of his inner peace. He never doubted himself or his team, but he knew there was a new road he must travel, and it would begin in California.

This was the game he wanted. The Bear said privately, “I’d rather win this game than anything next to going to Heaven.”

Wilbur Jackson changed the color line at Alabama.
Wilbur Jackson broke the color line at Alabama.

Bryant had broken the fading color line when he recruited Wilbur Jackson, a quiet young man, studious, polite, and soft-spoken. He was fast as blue blazes.

Wilbur Jackson said he did not particularly come to Alabama to play for a legend. He did not come because of the storied Crimson Tide tradition. He did not come for the privilege of being the first black athlete to play for Alabama.

He came to get a good education.

Bryant roomed him with Danny Taylor, a white athlete from Mississippi. The times? They were definitely changing. By the end of the first week of practice, Wilbur Jackson was running first team.

The Bear found a big defensive end named John Mitchell at Eastern Arizona Junior College. Everyone thought he was headed to Southern Cal. Everyone was wrong.

Bryant brought him home to Alabama. John Mitchell had played high school football down in Mobile. He was strong. He had quick feet for a big man weighing over two hundred and thirty pounds. No one worked harder.

Bear always regretted that he had to go so far to find him.

Mobile was a lot closer than Eastern Arizona.

A year earlier, Alabama had been embarrassed by Southern Cal. Some doubted Bryant’s sanity for taking his team back into the teeth of a USC meat grinder. Jim Murray wrote: “Custer was coming back for more, and Custer should have stayed in the fort. Alabama should have stayed in the hominy belt. The wipeout last September would have been as total as Custer’s except that USC, in effect, took pity and took prisoners.”

Of the Crimson Tide, he wrote, “The cotillion was over. Alabama had to recruit black players – and God knows there were enough for a national championship within field goal range of Tuscaloosa.”

Alabama stormed onto the Rose Bowl field, running the wishbone, a triple option offense under the guidance of quarterback Terry Davis and running backs Johnny Musso and Joe LaBue. It was a new look. It relied on power and speed. USC needed a fast set of linebackers to stop it. USC had fast linebackers. They wouldn’t be fast enough.

Bryant said, “We couldn’t win last year with a pro-style passer, so I flew out to Austin, got with Darrel Royal, looked at his game films, and decided we were going to sink, swim, or die with the Texas stuff.”

His mind was made up. Forget the pass. All he needed to do was find a magician to play quarterback, get a bruising fullback, and let the speedsters run wide and often wild. He stuck one offensive philosophy in its grave and unearthed another.

Before the game, Johnny Musso said, ‘Last year, we played bad and didn’t know what to expect. We won’t be surprised this time.”

Southern Cal settled back and waited for Custer.

Another massacre? Perhaps.

A win? Go ahead and chalk it up.

Custer won.

Musso raced for ninety-four yards and two touchdowns. He scored the first one when the game was barely three minutes old. Bryant would call him the “best back in America,” and the Bear had seen Sam Cunningham. Bryant said, “If you don’t believe it, just watch him play. The worst thing Musso does is carry the football. He’s a great blocking back, a great leader.”

On a night when he had to lead, Musso, the Italian Stallion, took charge.

And the Alabama defense refused to crumble. It didn’t tame the Southern Cal tornado, but it did cut back the sheer force of the headwinds.

Sam Cunningham only managed seventy-six yards this time.

But the Trojans would not go away quietly, not at home, not when Custer had brought reinforcements. With Alabama leading, 17-10, USC’s Lynn Swan returned a punt fifty-seven yards and almost broke it for a touchdown.

The Tide’s David Bailey stood in his way.

He was the only one to stand in Swann’s way.

Bailey said, “I grabbed him by his jersey. Then my hands slipped down and knocked one of his legs into the other. I didn’t get him by much.”

Lynn Swann lay sprawled on the ground.

Nothing else mattered.

John McKay would say, “Alabama out-hit us and out-ran us.”

And Bear Bryant had Wilbur Jackson and John Mitchell waiting in the wings. A new era was on its way. And Alabama couldn’t wait.

Wilbur Jackson and John Mitchell would do just fine.

Their blood was the color of Crimson.

In 1973, Bear Bryant would be asked by a reporter just before the Cotton Bowl, “How many black players do you have on your team, Coach?’

Bryant replied, “I don’t have any. I don’t have any white ones. I don’t have any black ones. I just have football players. They come in all colors.”

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Posts