If you’re a fan of college football, like me, then it’s the best time of the year (fingers firmly crossed!). That’s when the shock of helmets and shoulder pads gives you a better jolt than doubling up on morning coffee. That’s when rooting for your favorite school becomes an opportunity to witness, in unison, an important moment that will be remembered forever. This decade is easily tied to the University of Alabama and head coach Nick Saban. The Tide has won four national championships in the past 10 seasons, including five in the past 11.
And I don’t believe that would have happened if The Tide hadn’t made a groundbreaking decision half a century ago. 50 years ago this week, two legendary college football programs played a game in Birmingham that many believe completely changed the course of college football.
It was 1970 and with the radio playing hit songs like “Let It Be” by the Beatles, the college football world would soon see Alabama State singing a new tune. Coach John McKay and the University of Southern California were invited by iconic Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to see which team was better. Despite the fact that Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball 23 years earlier, there was not a single black player on the Alabama varsity roster in 1970. Then this game happened and the backlash changed the tide for good.
I had the opportunity to write a book about the game between USC and Alabama – researching and tracking down notable figures to really celebrate the significance of this big night. Both teams entered this season loaded with young talent, but Southern Cal had long since made the decision to embrace integration and allow black players to contribute to the team’s on-field success. Bryant wanted to do the same, but politics and pressure had prevented such a move. Bear Bryant’s genius was deciding to play against USC, which at the time had 18 black players on the team, including the team’s starting quarterback, a rarity in sports. It meant the Alabama faithful would get a first-hand view of how integration might look on the football field.
To say the Tide was overwhelmed would be an understatement. USC beat Bama 42-21 and all 6 Trojans touchdowns were scored by black players. The star of the game was a running back named Sam “Bam” Cunningham who made his college football debut rushing 12 times for 135 yards and 2 touchdowns. USC’s victory, coupled with Cunningham’s dominating performance, was the feather in the hat Coach Bryant needed to convince fans and superiors that the University should actively recruit and play black players in the league. football team.
Sports are often a catalyst for change, and this game revved up the engines and added fresh tires for the advancement of college football in Alabama. By 1979, the team had grown from zero black players to 18 black players on the roster. They had also won three national championships, posting a 107-13 win-loss record during that 10-year window. In 1971, junior college transfer defensive lineman Johnny Mitchell became the first black player at Alabama to see playing time. That same year, another black player, running back Wilbur Jackson would join him on the ground. In fact, Jackson was in the stands watching the game as a freshman. Then, in 1973, Mitchell would be invited back by Bryant to become Alabama’s first black assistant coach. Mitchell is currently an assistant coach for Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The game’s backstory makes this even more compelling. Bryant had put it on the schedule a few months prior after a brief encounter with McKay at the Los Angeles airport. He recognized the opportunity to make a statement about the need to integrate his team. He knew his decision would not be popular with many in Alabama, but enlightening them on what could be achieved in a fully integrated world could only come from someone with his influence and stature. Bryant’s genius was in recognizing the importance of the moment and building on it.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the game that turned the tide, I decided to dedicate a podcast episode to asking three players who were there on USC’s victory night what they thought about the importance of The Corporate Competitor podcast airs on Friday, and then my colleagues at ESPN plan to celebrate history as well on their College GameDay broadcast on Saturday.
Why is sport important? Why isn’t it just a game? That’s why! Because sports personalities like Bear Bryant knew they could make a difference. This is why today’s athletes are able to use their voice to address social issues and concerns. You could say Coach Bryant just wanted to win more football games, but regardless of his reasoning, his decision reshaped history.
As we enter unprecedented times in college football with a season of limited in-stadium fans and entire conferences stepping down through 2021, I recall that college football has gone through unprecedented times in the past and fared better.