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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

"Coach Bryant asked me about black players and how to treat them," McKay recalls. "I said, 'Treat 'em like everybody else,' and then mentioned I had a black student-athlete coming from Mobile. That was the last time I saw Mitchell. I didn't think Coach Bryant would recruit Mitchell, but he did."

McKay chuckles at the memory of being outfoxed by the Bear. "I forgave him, but I don't forget."

The '71 game at the Coliseum was noteworthy for another reason. With the graduation of quarterback Scott Hunter, a drop-back passer, Bryant tinkered with his offensive scheme. Tutored by Texas coach Darrell Royal, Bryant installed the wishbone after spring practice in 1971.

"Rather than send someone to scout them, we asked them to send us their spring practice movies," McKay says. "It was the same offense as before and we prepared for it. When they came out, they're in the wishbone. They scored 17 straight points before we straightened that out, but we lost [17-10]. Afterward, Bryant said he was sorry."

McKay sighs. Duped again.

In the 1970s, with ever-increasing numbers of black players at Alabama, the Bear duped everybody. The Tide went 11-1 in 1971 and was the winningest college football team of the decade, going 103-16-1 and winning three national championships. When the team went 12-0 in 1979, 16 African Americans started for Alabama.

Bryant became college football's winningest coach, although his 323 victories were eventually eclipsed by Grambling's Eddie Robinson, the patriarch of football at black colleges. The two legendary coaches became friends, but integration inadvertently contributed to the decline of football at predominantly black colleges.

"Integration did major damage to football at black colleges," says Fred Whitted, author of "The Black College Sports Encyclopedia." "The stronger programs stayed strong, but there's been a major dilution of talent. Previously, Florida players--like Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith--would've played under [Florida A&M Coach] Jake Gaither. Now they go to Florida State."

That's the final, ironic twist to this story. But for those who played in the game that started it all 30 years ago, the memory of having changed the course of history supersedes such concerns.

"I don't think any of us knew at the time how important the game was historically," Jones says. "The major thing was, we won the football game. For Americans to see that we accomplished this in the deep South, where blacks have been mistreated for a long time, was a major statement."

Papadakis says, "Before, they believed that white was better. We changed their perception and showed what the truth is, that there's parity between blacks and whites. The bigger winner is America."

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David Davis is a freelance writer from Los Angeles who specializes in sports.

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