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Turning the 'Tide

USC's Convincing Victory at 'Bama in '70 With Integrated Team Changed Complexion of Football in South

August 30, 2000|DAVID DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By all accounts, when John McKay and his USC Trojans whipped Bear Bryant's Alabama Crimson Tide 30 years ago, on Sept. 12, 1970, the night was hot and sultry.

The weather in Birmingham, though, is about the only thing everyone agrees on about that night. That and the final score: USC 42, Alabama 21.

Everything else, even the statistics racked up by the Trojans' ground attack, has been disputed or distorted by amateur sociologists and media alike. That's what happens when myth and reality collide.

Even so, that USC-Alabama game remains one of the most heralded in college athletics, compared by many to the famous basketball game between Texas Western--now Texas El Paso--and Kentucky for the 1966 NCAA title. In that game, Texas Western's all-black starting five upset Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team, forever changing college basketball.

Four years later, when the Trojans went down to Dixie, they were the first fully integrated team to play in Alabama. USC was led by an all-black backfield of quarterback Jimmy Jones, running back Clarence Davis, and fullback Sam "Bam" Cunningham, whose nickname described his thunderous running style.

College football in Alabama--and in the South--was never the same.

As former Bryant assistant coach Jerry Claiborne noted, "Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years."

Jimmy Jones, among the first wave of Division I black quarterbacks, put it more succinctly: "It was no ordinary day."

Somewhere between hyperbole and understatement lies the truth about a game that, 30 years later, provides a window through which to view the South's racist past and its uneasy transition to integration.

The Background

In 1970, USC reigned as the powerhouse of the West. The Trojans had appeared in four consecutive Rose Bowl games, having won two of them, and had two recent Heisman Trophy winners, Mike Garrett in 1965 and O.J. Simpson in 1968. The team had gone undefeated at 10-0-1 in 1969, and was riding a 21-game regular-season unbeaten streak.

Before the season, McKay had high hopes that USC would return to the Rose Bowl. He boasted that his entire starting backfield was returning, and claimed that his defense was equal to that of the vaunted '69 "Wild Bunch." At least one publication believed him. In its preseason poll, Playboy picked the Trojans to finish first in the country.

Alabama, meanwhile, had excelled in the first half of the 1960s, winning national titles in 1961, '64 and '65. In a state where college football was a form of secular religion, Bear Bryant was the messiah. Once described by Jim Murray as "200 pounds of wrinkles, looking like a walking laundry bag," Bryant had transformed platoons of "skinny little white boys" into perennial winners.

"He was a hell of a coach, of course, and he came at the right time," says Taylor Watson, curator of the Bryant Museum in Birmingham. "The state was going through some serious problems and self-esteem was bad. Coach Bryant told his players to 'Work hard and do what I say, and we'll win.' And we did."

Many outside the region saw Alabama not as a football powerhouse but as a racist stronghold. In 1963, Gov. George Wallace had made his defiant "stand in the schoolhouse door," vowing to prevent blacks from enrolling at the university. That same year, four young African American girls were killed when their church was bombed. T. Eugene "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's police commissioner, gained national notoriety for using fire hoses and unleashing attack dogs on civil rights protesters.

Southern black athletes had two choices: They could attend predominantly black colleges, such as Grambling or Florida A&M, or integrated schools in the North and West. The University of Alabama was decidedly off limits.

Bryant's defenders have argued that the legendary coach cared more about wins than skin color, that he wanted to integrate but couldn't because Wallace controlled the university system. They maintain that Bryant had tried, in vain, to integrate Kentucky when he coached there in the '50s.

They note that the Tide played integrated schools, including Penn State in 1959, in the Liberty Bowl, and later Nebraska and Oklahoma.

"I don't know if he could have integrated earlier," says former Alabama basketball coach C.M. Newton. "Wallace was still the governor, Bryant was just a football coach. That's a hell of a difference in power."

Says Clem Gryska, a former assistant under Bryant, "The political climate in the state wasn't right."

Others have disputed that, noting that Bryant was so revered that he could have--and should have--challenged Wallace.

"Given the Bear's surpassing popularity, he had it within his power to assume a burden of leadership," wrote Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated. "Yet he held back on race and let other--and less entrenched--Southern coaches stick their necks out first."

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