Bear Bryant of Alabama and John McKay of Southern California were friends because they could be — two coaches who enjoyed a round of golf, a good joke and didn’t have to worry about stepping on each other, because they worked on opposite sides of the country.
Back in the late 1960s, presumably during 18 holes, they shook hands on a home-and-home series that would change Alabama football forever.
The first game, in Birmingham in 1970, is widely viewed as one of the critical steps in bringing black players onto the Alabama roster. The second game, in Los Angeles in 1971, is widely viewed as the start of a renaissance in Bryant’s storied career with the Crimson Tide.
The Tide is out West again this week on a rare trip back to Los Angeles with more history on the line.
This time, it’s the BCS title game, with top-ranked Bama playing Thursday against No. 2 Texas.
“Back then, the thought of going to Los Angeles was viewed as sort of a rare opportunity,” said Ken Gaddy, director of the Bear Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa. “Obviously, it was a travel issue for everyone, going that far. But Coach Bryant had played in the Rose Bowl, so he was familiar.”
Indeed, Alabama has been to the Rose Bowl six times — all before 1947 and before the Southeastern Conference became what it is today — and the game is mentioned in the Crimson Tide fight song.
But until this week, the Tide’s most substantial L.A. connection was that series in 1970 and 1971, when Bryant, the Alabama football program and the Deep South found themselves at a crossroads.
Integration slowly was seeping into big-time football programs in the region, but Alabama was a last bastion. Bryant, who had tried to bring a black player onto the Kentucky team he coached in the 1950s, wanted to integrate his team.
But George Wallace, and his wife, Lurleen, were Alabama’s governors through most of the 1960s. George Wallace built his following thanks in part to his famous stand in the schoolhouse door — when he attempted to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling on the Tuscaloosa campus.
Bryant was, by almost every account, more popular. But he was a state employee with a good sense of which fights to pick, and he didn’t want to mix it up with the governor.
“He was afraid they’d cut funds for the university and make it a tough situation for everyone — academically, financially and socially,” said Clem Gryska, a longtime assistant for Bryant. “He was never against blacks on the team. But he was scared of the governor. Well, not scared of him, but he respected him.”
Though most Alabama football historians say the legend is overblown, the boilerplate story is that Bryant wanted that game against USC to show to the Crimson Tide faithful the kind of football a roster filled with great athletes, black and white, could really produce.
USC fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham did most of the explaining that night at Legion Field.
He scored two touchdowns in the first quarter and finished with 135 yards. USC ran for 485 yards and won 42-21. And regardless of whether Bryant specifically acknowledged after the game that Alabama could use a few players like Cunningham on the team — as the old story goes — the point had been proven: To win at the highest level, teams needed the best players, and picking from a whites-only talent pool was no longer a realistic option.
“The reality was that guys wanted to win,” said John David Briley, author of “Career in Crisis, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant and the 1971 Season of Change.” “It didn’t matter what color the players were, they wanted to win. I think that game gave Bryant, if he needed any, it gave him some cover.”
As much as that game, however, USC’s biggest contribution to Alabama football may have been the tip McKay gave Bryant about a promising player out of Mobile, Ala.
His name was John Mitchell. He was playing junior college ball at Eastern Arizona Junior College and was being heavily recruited by USC.
Soon after hearing about Mitchell, Bryant had his recruiters scouring the Mobile phone books, calling all the Mitchells to find out where the player lived.
A few weeks later, Mitchell and his mother were in the Bear’s office.
“In the midst of the conversation, I almost crawled under my chair, my mom stopped and said, ‘Now, what’s your name again?’” Mitchell recalled. “He said ‘It’s Paul Bryant.’”
Mitchell’s mom was not a football fan — but even if she had been, the idea of her son playing at Alabama seemed a little farfetched. Quite simply, if you were a black kid playing high school ball in Alabama in the 1960s, you dreamed of playing at a historically black school such as Grambling State or Florida A&M, or maybe a USC or Michigan State. You didn’t dream of playing for Bear Bryant.
“Growing up in the state, I knew quite a bit about Alabama,” Mitchell said. “In the back of my mind, you’re thinking, that’s where I want to go. A lot of kids wanted to go there. But you didn’t know, deep down, if you’d be able to cut the mustard if you got the chance.”
Though other black players had tried to walk on at Alabama in the 1960s, Mitchell was the first to suit up for the Crimson Tide.
That was in 1971 — a year when another revolution took place within the program, one that wasn’t socially significant but is widely credited with pulling Bryant and the Crimson Tide out of the doldrums.
After going 28-15-2 — mediocre by his standards — over the previous four seasons, Bryant spent the summer of 1971 learning the wishbone from another good friend, Darrell Royal of Texas.
He first used it in the rematch with USC in Los Angeles.
Johnny Musso scored two touchdowns and the Tide rushed for 302 yards in a 17-10 win over the Trojans — a game that was not televised in Alabama, back in a day when TV games were more of a treat than an expectation.
“Coach Bryant had implied to Darrell Royal that if things didn’t work out in 1971, he was either getting out of coaching or going to the pros, because he had really had it,” Briley said. “They went in there, they surprised USC with that offense. Their defense was much better than what it had been. And as the old cliche goes, defense wins championships.”
‘Worked out pretty well’
Bryant’s teams won at least nine games every season from 1971-1981. They won AP national titles in 1978 and 1979. Briley estimated about a third of the Alabama roster was black by then.
Bryant retired in 1982, the same year that Wallace, the hard-line segregationist, won the governorship after seeking forgiveness from blacks he had discriminated against in the past.
Race, of course, has never gone away as an issue in America, but on the Alabama football team, there’s nothing groundbreaking about having a black player on the roster anymore.
Since 1971, Alabama has returned to play in Los Angeles only twice, once against USC and once against UCLA. The third will come Thursday, when 15 of the 22 starters in the title game against Texas will be black.
“Coach Bryant and his coaches knew that integrating the team was the thing to do,” Gaddy said. “They were just waiting for the opportunity. Sometimes, you’ve got to take advantage of opportunities when they come. It worked out pretty well for us.”