On Monday of last week, the Alabama Crimson Tide football team defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 42-14. It was one of the most lopsided national championship victories in history, and discussions ensued about whether Alabama was, once again, a college football dynasty. What was lacking, in my opinion, was a reflection on how Alabama got back to the top-and a discussion on how much the team, and the South, has changed.
42 years ago, the University of Alabama football team was all white-the University had integrated in 1963-but the football team had not. Paul “Bear” Bryant was the coach. He had taken over in 1958, and he was already becoming a legend in the college football world. Between 1961-1966, Alabama was a powerhouse, winning three national championships. Near the end of the 1960s, Bear Bryant coached a team that had still refused to integrate. The University of Maryland recruited Darryl Hill in 1963, the first black player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Jerry LeVias, an African American player from Beaumont, Texas, joined Southern Methodist University in 1966. Integration of college football was coming, but Alabama refused to read the writing on the wall. Instead, it would take two lopsided losses to convince the boosters that integration was no longer a question of if, but when.
In 1970, in the first game of the season, Alabama played the University of Southern California. USC had an all black backfield, led by Jimmy Jones at QB, Clarence Davis at RB, and Sam Cunningham at FB. Sam Cunningham, in his first varsity game, ran roughshod over the Crimson Tide defense, rolling up 150 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-21 beat down of the Tide. This was a monumental symbolic victory. Jones, Davis, and Cunningham sent a message to Alabama and the South: integration is coming, get on board, or get ready to lose. The next year, Alabama had a great season and reached the national championship game where they faced off against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. On Nebraska’s roster were many African Americans, many of whom were future award winners. Johnny Rodgers, an African American from Omaha would win the Heisman Trophy in 1972. Rich Glover, an African American from New Jersey, won the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Trophy in 1972, and is widely considered one of the best defensive tackles to play college football. At halftime, the Cornhuskers led the Crimson Tide 28-0! The final score was a lopsided 38-6. This was another tremendous symbolic victory, demonstrating to Alabama, that black athletes were just as capable, if not better than white athletes.
Nebraska assistant coach at the time, Tom Osborne, remembered a time after that game when the Alabama assistant coaches asked him where he recruited his black players. Osborne told them there were plenty of great black players in the state of Alabama. In 1995, Nebraska beat Michigan State University on the way to a national championship. On the field that day, Tom Osborne, now head coach, shook hands with the young head coach of MSU, Nick Saban. Saban, of course, went on to become head coach of Alabama and led them to three national championships.