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Turning of the TideHow One Game Changed the South
By Don Yaeger Sam Cunningham John Papadakis
CENTER STREETCopyright © 2006 Don Yaeger, John Papadakis, Sam Cunningham, and Mark Houska
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE GAME THAT CHANGED THE GAME
IT WAS 1970. The Vietnam War dominated headlines, protesters had been shot at Kent State, and rioters battled against mandatory busing. While racial tension rippled throughout the country, the Deep South was the fulcrum of the debate over segregation. And nowhere was that debate woven more deeply into the fabric of history than at the University of Alabama.
In June 1963, Alabama governor George Wallace-a man who had vowed, "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever"-had physically blocked the entrance to Foster Auditorium to prevent two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling in the University of Alabama. Wallace had capitulated only when President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and threatened to have guardsmen force their way into the building.
That day, Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, university president Frank Rose, and members of the board of trustees had witnessed Wallace's infamous stand from the Bear's second-story office just a Hail Mary pass away from Foster Auditorium. Weeks later, four young black girls would be killed in an explosion at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. And T. Eugene "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's police commissioner, had forever endeared himself to the state's Ku Klux Klansmen by unleashing attack dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters.
The reputation of the entire state was further tarnished over the ensuing years by the fact that its legendary championship caliber football program had never allowed a black to wear the precious Crimson and White uniform. A major civil rights breakthrough had occurred when Malone and Hood enrolled at Alabama in 1963. But they and many other blacks would graduate from the university before a black man would play football for Bryant's whites-only football team.
In August '63, two months after Malone and Hood matriculated at Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of more than 100,000 people. King had performed some of his greatest work in the state of Alabama. In 1957, he led the effort that integrated the Montgomery bus lines. In 1963, King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" emphasized that violence was not an acceptable method of protest for his followers even though he sat behind bars. In 1965, he fought for black voter registration by leading the Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery.
King also had major influence on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited segregation in public places and guaranteed equal employment.
Despite all the change he had effected in the state of Alabama and across the nation, not a single black football player was playing for the University of Alabama when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on a Memphis hotel balcony in April 1968. Two years later, public high schools, even in Alabama, had been integrated, but the most hallowed football program in the South had yet to allow a black athlete to take the field for the game that was more religion than sport in that state.
By playing in the largely segregated Southeastern Conference, the Crimson Tide had seldom faced a team with more than a handful of black players. Teams in the north, east, west, and midwest had all fully been integrated, some for decades. In the SEC, Alabama's rival, Tennessee, had a black running back, Lester McClain, who lettered in 1968 and 1969. But boosters and political leaders from Alabama had made sure their University of Alabama boys had stayed color-blind by not competing against anyone of color-as long as they could avoid it.
September 12, 1970-the oppressive late-summer heat had given way to withering humidity as the sun set on Birmingham's Legion Field. The lights were on, the stands were filling up, and, in a grand Alabama tradition, Bear Bryant exited the end zone locker room with his starting quarterback at his side.
As the pair made their way around the stadium, section by section, fans rose in a thunderous ovation. At various points, Bear stopped to tip his trademark hound's-tooth hat to an influential booster or a young fan clamoring for his attention. He even stopped to kiss a baby.
Football season was about to begin. And for fans of the Crimson Tide, it couldn't start soon enough. The game that night was against a western powerhouse, the University of Southern California, which had never visited Alabama before. And after successive subpar seasons, fans were ready to see if Bryant could once again will the South to rise against an intersectional opponent.
The media had billed it as a game between two of college football's perennial powerhouses: Alabama, the team of Joe Namath, Lee Roy Jordan, and Ken Stabler, against USC, long known as Tailback U for its collection of outstanding running backs. It ended with a sense that only one was a powerhouse still.
The game's tone was set early. Alabama won the toss and opted to test the USC defense. Tailback Johnny Musso took the first two snaps and gained six yards. But on third down, Scott Hunter went back to pass and collapsed under an avalanche of Trojan pressure led by defensive end Willie Hall. The 15-yard loss forced a Tide punt and USC's offense set up on its own 47- yard line.
Cunningham, a 6-foot-3, 212-pound one-man wrecking crew, entered to play his first collegiate game on USC's fourth play after starting fullback Charlie Evans was called for a false start. Two plays later, Cunningham ran untouched off left tackle for 16 yards. After a short gain by tailback and Birmingham native Clarence Davis, Cunningham took the ball again, this time finding pay dirt 22 yards and four missed tackles later.
Two possessions later, Cunningham did it again. After Alabama went three-and-out late in the first quarter, the Crimson Tide punt was returned 32 yards by Tyrone Hudson, setting up the powerful USC offense with first down on the Alabama 37- yard line. USC ran twice off right tackle to get the ball to the four-yard line. Then Jones handed the ball to Cunningham, who bulled his way over from the four. Cunningham was met at the goal line by three Alabama defenders, but used his brute strength to push his way in with 49 seconds left to go in the quarter.
Alabama, which had hoped to run the ball behind Musso, its star tailback, in an effort to keep the USC offense off the field, found itself down by two touchdowns and had to abandon its game plan.
The hole only got deeper for the Tide. On Alabama's next offensive play, backup quarterback Neb Hayden hit fullback Joe LaBue in the right flat. As LaBue attempted to elude tacklers, he fumbled the ball. USC middle linebacker John Papadakis, the team's leading tackler that night, recovered the loose ball on the Alabama 21-yard line. On the first play of the second quarter, kicker Ron Ayala kicked the first of his USC-record three field goals in the game.
The teams traded touchdowns the rest of the second quarter. Musso capped a 49-yard, seven-play drive with a one-yard dive with 10:41 left in the half. The drive, which included four straight completions by Hunter covering 41 yards, was set up by a fumble by USC's Clarence Davis, who had grown up in Birmingham before moving west at eleven years of age.
The Trojans bounced right back, driving 60 yards in nine plays for a seven-yard score, also by a USC fullback. This time, it was the starter, Evans, who bolted over the left guard and carried two Alabama defenders into the end zone with him.
By the time the two teams reached the half, the scoreboard read 22-7. But the stat sheet showed the truer picture of the rout. Southern Cal had 226 yards rushing in the first two quarters to 35 for Alabama. Total offense: USC 263, Alabama 92. USC never needed to punt, while Alabama's punter had made his way to the field five times. USC, in fact, wouldn't punt until just three minutes remained in the game.
The trend continued in the second half. USC's first two possessions ended with a 23-yard touchdown pass to tailback Davis and another Ayala field goal. The third quarter was only half over and the scoreboard read USC 32, Alabama 7.
By the time the fourth quarter began, many of the Alabama faithful had headed for the exits. Most of USC's starting team had exited with them. Even some of the second-teamers like Cunningham found their way to the bench. USC's last touchdown was scored when third-string fullback Bill Holland caught a six-yard pass from backup quarterback Mike Rae.
The final stat sheet was impressive. USC ran for 485 yards. Alabama, which had come into the game hoping for a strong ground game, finished with 32. Six Trojans rushed for more than 50 yards each, led by Cunningham's 135 yards on only 12 carries. Musso was Alabama's leading rusher, gaining 41 yards on 15 carries. The Tide, behind early, had been forced to throw the ball 36 times in its efforts to catch up.
"We knew Sam Cunningham was a great runner," McKay told reporters after the game. "He's what you call a good-sized horse. All our backs ran well. There's not much difference between the three tailbacks."
Bryant said at game's end that he had seldom been part of such a one-sided contest. "Their quarterbacks got outside on us a lot," the legendary Alabama coach said. "And after they saw it was going well, they kept going back to it. I didn't see any of their backs who weren't terrific runners."
As for the USC defense, Bryant said: "We couldn't block them. We protected the passer pretty well, but we couldn't block 'em on the running stuff. They blocked us well and ran over us ... we didn't tackle them ... they were just too good that way. "Needless to say, we were soundly and convincingly beaten by a far superior football team," he said. "They toyed with us, as a matter of fact. I know they are a fine team and they may be a great team for all I know. If they aren't now, they may be by the end of the year.
"There is nothing we can do about this one," Bryant told reporters. "I hope we will suck our guts up and use it as a steppingstone to try and improve, to try to keep building for the future. Whether the future will be the distant future or how long, I just don't know."
Nearly everyone involved in 1970's game between Alabama and USC acknowledges that media accounts in the days after it didn't capture the gravity of USC's win. Neither did statistics. Nor did the myths that grew over time.
The vanquished Bryant was the first to acknowledge the lopsidedness of the defeat. Before heading to Alabama's locker room in Legion Field's south end zone, he made his way over to see McKay and the Trojans.
"When he walked in, it caught everyone's attention," USC assistant coach Craig Fertig said. "A legend was among us."
Bear went over to McKay, congratulated him on the win, and then sought out Clarence Davis. "He told me about how he'd read that stuff in the paper about me," Davis told the Los Angeles Times, "about how I used to live in Birmingham and how I thought about what it would be like to be one of the first black players at Alabama. He said to me, 'If only I had known about you two years ago. I was hoping you might not be very good, but now I'm a believer.'"
The coach, who ceded his lead as the winningest active college coach by percentage to McKay by losing that night, then stepped three lockers over and congratulated Cunningham. "I remember he told me what a great game I had played," Cunningham said in 2005. "It was kind of odd hearing a compliment like that from another coach, and a legendary coach at that. What I remember most was that as he walked away, all the seniors looked over at me and told me I better not get the big head after hearing all that praise. They wanted me to forget the nice words and focus on the next week."
By the time the two teams lined up that night, the NFL had already been integrated for five decades, Fritz Pollard and Rube Marshall having joined the pro football teams in Akron and Rock Island, respectively, as those teams joined the league in 1920. NBA owners saw the need to enlist black players after the powerful Minneapolis Lakers, led by all-world center George Mikan, lost 61-59 to the talented all-black Harlem Globetrotters in February 1948. It took less than two years for Sweetwater Clifton, Chuck Cooper, and Earl Lloyd to become the first black players in professional basketball. In 1947, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, spelling the end of the old Negro Leagues a year later. By 1970 every major league team had African-American players on their rosters.
And in 1966, one of the most famous college basketball games of all time pitted Texas Western University, with an all-black starting five, against a University of Kentucky team that was entirely white. At stake: the NCAA basketball national championship. Starting in the 1940s, Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp had built a dominant program, and to this day ranks as one of the most successful coaches of all time with four NCAA titles. Rupp was widely recognized as a racist; many believe he had no intention of ever allowing a black player to wear a Kentucky uniform. But on a March night in 1966 Texas Western (now the University of Texas-El Paso) whipped Rupp's Wildcats to win the national crown. In 1969 Rupp finally integrated his team. While college basketball was altered that night, its football-playing siblings were still years behind.
At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, six months after Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, progress in the civil rights movement was in full display. United States sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third in the 200-meter dash. Controversially, they each raised a fist with a black glove on the medal stand while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played. Both athletes had been approached earlier in the year to boycott the Olympics as a statement against the poor treatment of blacks in America. Smith raised his fist for Black Power and Carlos's fist represented unity in black America. Both men were immediately suspended and kicked out of the Olympic Village.
Only Southern college football, among the major sporting franchises, had been left behind.
"This was the game that changed the game," said U. W. Clemon, then a Birmingham civil rights lawyer who had filed a lawsuit against Bear Bryant for failing to integrate Alabama's football program. "I didn't go to the game, but many of my African-American friends said the opinion of Alabama fans and boosters after the game was universal: we need to get us some of those black football players. I described it then as a Damascus Road experience for many of them."
Los Angeles Times writer Jeff Prugh, in fact, wrote a story for the newspaper's September 14, 1970, edition about his encounter with four Alabama fans the morning after the game. "You knew which team was their pride and joy simply by listening to them say 'Bayah' for 'Bear' and 'Todd' for 'Tide,'" Prugh wrote. "They were football fans, all four of them, and they were sharing breakfast Sunday in a Birmingham motel and rehashing the debacle of the night before. The wounds of USC's 42-21 devastation of Alabama were deep and painful. 'You know,' said a man in a plaid shirt, 'I sure bet the Bear wishes he had two or three of them Nigra boys on his team now. They were huge!'"
Bryant, who came to Los Angeles the next summer to visit McKay, sat down with Los Angeles Times reporter Dwight Chapin and explained the significance of the dominating performance of the black players during that game: every touchdown scored by USC that night was scored by a black player. Bryant told Chapin that two black players would don Alabama uniforms the next fall-running back Wilbur Jackson and defensive end John Mitchell-and that three more black players would join the team's freshman squad. How has the move been accepted in Alabama, Chapin asked Bryant, who had joked that Cunningham's performance had made believers out of many white Alabama fans. "The best answer to that is a comment that [former Alabama-assistant coach] Jerry Claiborne made after [we played] USC last year. That's the game when John's [McKay] fullback Sam Cunningham killed us. Anyway, Claiborne said that USC, and in particular Cunningham, did more for integration in 60 minutes than had been done in 50 years."
Excerpted from Turning of the Tide by Don Yaeger Sam Cunningham John Papadakis Copyright © 2006 by Don Yaeger, John Papadakis, Sam Cunningham, and Mark Houska. Excerpted by permission.
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