A Changing Tide

I used to have as the wallpaper on my computer this great picture of Coach Bear Bryant leading his team onto the field with an unfiltered cigarette in one hand and his rolled up roster sheets in the other. I finally replaced it with a current season photograph because I got tired of the frustration I felt every time someone looked over my shoulder and asked if “that old man” was my grandpa.

Growing up in a family that worships the Alabama Crimson Tide, I have revered Coach Bryant my whole life. When the people looking at my computer asked me that ridiculous question, I simply replied “yes”. I did so because it amused me, but also because few people will sit still long enough to hear my history lesson of the man, Coach Bryant, and his true legacy: the one where he, a loudly outspoken man, quietly helped to finally defeat one university’s tradition of athletic segregation in a program that was not quite ready for it.

Coach Bryant coached at the University of Alabama for 25 years (1958-1982). At that time, my Uncle, Sam Chalker, both an Alabama native and a Crimson Tide fan, lived in Birmingham. When I asked him what football at Alabama was like back then, he said, “At the time SEC football was a cultural thing. We were the South. We’d lost the Civil War, we were considered to be backwards, ignorant, racist rednecks by people in the Northeast and the West. Football was our point of pride. Football was our revenge for the Civil War. The general attitude at the time was ‘You may be smarter than us and maybe even have more money and class, but by God we can play football’”.

In the fall of 1970, the University had already been integrated for seven years (see the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, courtesy of then Governer George Wallace.) Bryant and the Tide had long been playing integrated teams, and Bryant was well known for his insistence that his players treat ALL of the opposing team’s players, black or white, with class and integrity. It was equally well known that throughout the years that Bryant had been trying to figure out how to integrate his football teams at Alabama, he was met with constant, stiff resistance from Governor Wallace, who was in charge of the University’s (and thus the athletic program’s) funding. Where Coach Bryant was constantly frustrated by talented black football players being recruited out of his state to go North and West to play on integrated teams, Governor Wallace just saw their skin color.

All of that changed on September 12, 1970, when Coach John McKay and his integrated USC Trojans came to Legion Field in Birmingham to orchestrate perhaps one of the most lopsided defeats in Alabama history.

My Uncle Sam, who was in the stands that day, recalls the entire home crowd being absolutely stunned by a black USC running back named Sam “The Bam” Cunningham, who, as my Uncle puts it, “ran around us, over us, and through us, just like a turkey through the corn”. The Bam was joined on the field by another talented black running back, Birmingham native Clarence Davis. Cunningham, Davis and the rest of the Trojan’s offense left the ‘Bama fans both shocked and humiliated as they carved through the vaunted ‘Bama defense like “a hot knife through butter”. USC won that game that day with an easy 42-21 victory.

I realize that it’s a simplistic and romantic view of a complicated situation to propose that Sam Cunningham and his team’s victory was the reason that Alabama football was finally integrated. But, what few people know about that day is that there was already a black player on the Freshman team roster named Wilbur Jackson, who actually signed with the Tide in 1970 but couldn’t yet play varsity ball. Moreover it is worth noting that USC came to Birmingham that day on invitation from Coach Bryant himself. It has been part of the Coach’s mythos that he asked his friend McKay to come to Alabama and deliver a lesson in the form of a sure loss at the hands of an integrated team. From everything I have ever learned about the man, I do not believe this to be the case. Coach Bryant didn’t know how to be anything but a winner, and would never have gone into a game expecting to lose. I do believe, however, that he saw an opportunity in the loss to USC, and he took it and set about integrating his team. My Uncle called it “serendipity”. Several sports writers in the ensuing years have called it opportunism. I call it genius.

The very next year, when the Tide went out to California to play the rematch, Coach Bryant brought his first black starter, junior college transfer John Mitchell, along with Bama’s newly installed Wishbone Offense. The Tide won 17-10 in a major upset.

This year on Friday, September 11th, my fellow Alabama fans will have noted that it was Coach Bryant’s birthday. And in honor of his birthday, I’d like us to think about this:

While some may say that Coach Bryant’s legacy rests in rock solid numbers like 6 national titles, 13 SEC titles, and an overall record of 232-46-9, I believe that to be the less important part of it. The most enduring part of his legend is the fact that now, today, like Bryant back then, Bama fans don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, or orange with yellow polka dots; as long as you can play championship football, you’re our guy.

On opening weekend, when Bama’s star running back Mark Ingram was running ALL OVER Virginia Tech’s defense? Every Crimson Tide fan in the world was on his side and nobody cared about the color of his skin…

Thank you for listening and Roll Tide.

Shanna Hinton is a columnist for redbrownandblue.com and a lifelong Alabama Crimson Tide Fan striving to represent the ‘Bama fanbase in Texas.