Here we go again.
USC and Alabama play Saturday night at JerryWorld in Arlington, Texas. The encrusted myths encasing the 1970 USC-Alabama game played at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, are being dusted off.
Revisionist history in the media created among fans the idea that Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant slyly sought to spur lily-white Crimson Tide fans into accepting desegregation with a loss suffered at the hands of USC’s integrated roster.
It makes for a good story transcending football, but the only truth is USC routed Alabama, 42-21. The matchup had nothing to do with fox-like Bryant conspiring with his good friend John McKay, USC’s head coach, to enlighten Alabama’s fans.
There is a famous line from the 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that applies here: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The problem is the legend-turned-fact has denied the late Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State’s College Football Hall of Fame coach from 1954 to 1972, his true national legacy. Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams in the Civil Rights Era led the path to integration as college football’s first fully integrated rosters.
The 1965 Spartans were named national champions by the UPI coaches’ poll. The 1966 team was named co-champion with Notre Dame by the National Football Foundation’s MacArthur Bowl. That selection followed MSU’s 10-10 tie in the Game of the Century, played Nov. 19, 1966, before what was then the largest TV audience to watch a football game in the pre-Super Bowl era.
Among the black players Daugherty recruited from the segregated South were three two-time All-Americans enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame: defensive lineman Bubba Smith (Beaumont, Texas), rover/linebacker George Webster (Anderson, S.C.) and wide receiver Gene Washington (La Porte, Texas).
Those back-to-back championship teams dressed 20 black players and 11 black starters. That may not sound like much today, but consider the times.
In 1960, Minnesota had only five black players on its national championship team.
In 1966, Notre Dame had only one black player, Alan Page, on its roster that met the Spartans in the Game of the Century, which ended in a controversial 10-10 tie.
In 1967, USC’s national championship team had only seven black players, but by 1972, USC’s national champions numbered 23 black players. Daugherty’s Spartans had shown the Trojans the way.
Daugherty broke barriers in many ways.
Daugherty’s quarterback in 1966 was Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C. He was the first black quarterback from the South to win a national title.
His team captains were Webster and Clinton Jones, a two-time All-American halfback also in the College Football Hall of Fame. They were the first two black team captains in college football as voted by teammates, without a white player sharing the role.
Daugherty’s 1965-’66 teams not only cracked open doors in the segregated South; they thrust open wider doors in the rest of the nation.
The influence of Michigan State’s groundbreaking teams made college football integration a fait accompli by the time USC and Alabama took the field in 1970 (in a game that wasn’t even televised).
Five Southeastern Conference teams had integrated varsity rosters ahead of Alabama: Kentucky, 1967; Tennessee, 1968; in-state rival Auburn, 1970; Florida, 1970; and even Mississippi State, 1970.
Bryant once said he may not be the first SEC coach to integrate, but he wouldn’t be the third. If he was in such a hurry to teach Alabama’s fans it was time to recruit black players, why was he tied for fifth with Vanderbilt in 1971?
Some more USC-Alabama myths:
— Bryant had already recruited his first black player before the 1970 game. Wilbur Jackson, who went on to play in the NFL, watched the game from the stands as a freshman. The NCAA didn’t permit freshman eligibility until 1972.
— Alabama high schools desegregated in 1969, Marshall’s senior year in Ozark, Alabama. There no longer was a reason for Bryant to limit recruiting to all-white high schools.
— Bryant was sued by the Alabama Afro-American Student Association in 1969 for failing to recruit black players. Alabama was desegregated in 1963 when Vivian Malone and James Hood were escorted through the school-house door by federal officials. Once Bryant recruited Marshall, the lawsuit went away.
— The myth includes Bryant parading USC fullback Sam Cunningham, who had run wild in the game, through Alabama’s locker room. He told his players this was what a football player looked like. When Alabama’s players were asked years later about the myth, they said it never happened.
Cunningham himself fails to confirm the myth: “I kind of think it didn’t happen,” he said in Allen Barra’s book on Bryant, The Last Coach. “I think I would remember, but I don’t want to be the guy who said it didn’t happen.”
— Bryant had no way of banking on Cunningham or black players showing up his team. Cunningham was a sophomore making his varsity debut. He was one of only five black starters along with quarterback Jimmy Jones, halfback Clarence Davis, defensive end Tody Smith and linebacker Charlie Weaver.
— The same year Jimmy Jones led USC past Alabama, Condredge Holloway was a senior black quarterback in Huntsville, Alabama. Holloway said Bryant told him he wouldn’t recruit him as a quarterback. Using the Cunningham analogy, Bryant should have recognized Jones was an example for his fans. Holloway instead went to rival Tennessee as the SEC’s first starting black quarterback from 1972 to 1974.
— The late Clem Gryska, one of Bryant’s longtime assistant coaches and Paul Bryant Museum administrator, disputes the myth in both an HBO documentary, “Breaking the Huddle,” and Barra’s book.
“Coach Bryant never scheduled a game in his life in order to lose it,” said Gryska, adding the two-game series was played for national exposure.
Stories crop up these days that dispel the myths, but too late to prevent the legend from being printed as fact.
Duffy Daugherty deserved his due before this year’s 50th anniversary of the 1966 Game of the Century.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055