Early in 1970, University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was in Palm Springs to play in Bob Hope’s golf tournament. Before driving to Los Angeles, where he had a scheduled flight out of town at L.A. International Airport, Bryant called his good friend, Southern California coach John McKay. He asked to meet McKay at the airport before his flight took off. McKay asked what it was about, but Bryant just told him he would discuss it at the airport. McKay, who suspected he did know what it was for, had assistant coach Craig Fertig drive him to LAX. They were relaxing with Vodkas in the Western Airlines Horizon Room when Fertig spotted Bryant’s hound’s tooth cap. He looked like “Mt. Rushmore with legs,” said Fertig.
After imbibing a drink or two, Bryant got to the point. The NCAA just came out with a decision allowing college teams to play an 11th game in 1970 instead of the previous regular season limit of 10. For $150,000, would McKay agree to bring USC to Birmingham’s Legion Field for the 1970 opener in September?
McKay indeed did know what the meeting was for. He had a ready reply, that he would if Bryant would come to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum the following season (1971) for a guarantee of $250,000. Bryant agreed. They shook on it. History was being made. There was a fourth person sitting at their table in the Horizon Room that day. He was not physically there, but he was there nevertheless. There were many reasons why this game was to be played. Reason number one was the man who was not there but was: Jim Murray.
Jim Murray was in his first year as a Times columnist in 1961. The Big 10 had not signed a contract to continue sending their champions to the Rose Bowl. They were weighing their options. At the time, the Pacific Coast Conference was struggling. Big 10 teams were not so sure they made themselves look much better beating PCC teams at Pasadena. Maybe another bowl, against an SEC or Big 8 squad, would have more impact. Maybe they could talk Notre Dame into rescinding their bowl ban and play their champions. Woody Hayes and Duffy Daugherty against the Fighting Irish? That beat defeating Washington or Oregon or Cal.
For several years, the Big 10 accepted the Rose Bowl invite, but on a freelance basis. In 1961 Woody Hayes and Ohio State felt they were positioned to win a vote for the national title from somebody. If the AP or the UPI would not give it to them, maybe the Touchdown Club or the Columbus Quarterback Club could give them a plaque and they could call themselves “national champions.” Woody figured if he went to the Rose Bowl and lost to Washington, he would not get the Touchdown Club’s nod.
Word went out for an alternative. Alabama was unbeaten and untied. An invite came from the Southern California Football Writers Association, the Los Angeles Rotary Club and others. They voted to extend a Rose Bowl bid to the Crimson Tide. It seemed a natural. Alabama’s hallowed football history was built first and foremost on winning trips to Pasadena, where they won Rose Bowls en route to national titles in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1946 they walloped Southern California, the first bowl loss ever absorbed by the Trojans.
Woody Hayes figured if ‘Bama came to Pasadena and lost he would get the vote. He hoped the Crimson Tide would take up the challenge. In the end neither Ohio State nor Alabama stepped up. Big 10 runner-up Minnesota ended up playing UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State sat at home. Alabama beat Arkansas, 10-3 in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama tried to put a spin on it. The Sugar Bowl was “their” bowl. It was easier to travel for their fans. It was a regional thing. Hogwash, said Jim Murray.
Alabama was segregated. Images of Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor's troops using fire hoses and other strong-arm tactics on civil rights protestors were being broadcast across the nation. After a group of black students at UCLA announced plans to boycott and protest if Alabama played in the Rose Bowl, Murray weighed in on the situation.
“The University of Alabama just about wrapped up the all-white championship of the whole cotton-picking world,” he wrote after the Tide defeated Georgia Tech. Murray wrote positively about Alabama's on-the-field play, but continued his campaign of columns condemning the idea of inviting Alabama to play in the West Coast's prize bowl game.
The situation was a conundrum. Alabama, in the eyes of Jim Murray and much of the non-South sporting world, could not win for losing. There was vociferous criticism of any invitation of them. On the other hand, they were criticized for not accepting the invitations. Murray certainly saw nothing morally upright in Alabama’s position either way and wrote it, holding nothing back. It was literally a white-and-black issue with no grey area. The only way Alabama could get on the right side of the moral equation was to integrate.
After beating USC in the 1946 Rose Bowl, Alabama did not return. After World War II, the integrated Big 10 committed to playing the integrated PCC every year. Alabama and other Southern schools had their own bowls, mainly the Sugar (New Orleans), Orange (Miami) and Cotton (Dallas) Bowls. With collegiate sports integrating after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s “color barrier” in 1947, a de facto apartheid of sports settled over the scene. Northern and Western teams did not play Southern schools in the regular season or in bowls. In 1951, the University of San Francisco was unbeaten and untied. Their invitation to the Sugar Bowl came with a caveat: do not bring your two black players, Ollie Mattson and Burl Toler. They refused and were disinvited.
In the 1950s, there were very few games between Southern and non-Southern schools. Pittsburgh and Navy played in Southern bowls with black players. USC, with star black running back C.R. Roberts, went to Austin and beat Texas. The game was almost a riot. A loggerjams of sorts was at hand.
In the 1960s, USC and UCLA were the only schools that regularly played Southern opponents, sometimes on the road. John McKay’s Trojans took on Texas Christian, Georgia Tech, Southern Methodist, Duke, Texas A&M, Texas and Miami. UCLA took on North Carolina State, Vanderbilt, Rice, and Tennessee. Most Southeastern Conference teams never traveled north of the Mason-Dixie Line, nor invited any non-regional opponents into Dixie. That was only half of it. The bowls, once wild national contests pitting best vs. best champions, were now regional. For the most part, the Sugar or Orange Bowl was the Southeastern Conference vs. the Southwestern Conference. When Alabama played Nebraska with a handful of blacks in the Orange Bowl it created a howl and cry in ‘Bama. Lower level bowls like the Liberty Bowl and Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl gave teams a good excuse not to break the “college color barrier.”
Of all the sports teams, professional or college, the greatest heat was heaped upon the University of Alabama. They were in the Deep South. Unlike George, which had a big city, Atlanta, which in the decade welcomed the Braves and Falcons, or Florida, which brought in the Dolphins, states like Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina were the face of segregation, of Confederate intransigency. ‘Bama was the biggest name of the bunch, for a number of reasons. They had the most storied football history, and the most controversial political situation at the time.
In 1958, George Wallace ran for Governor of Alabama. By ‘Bama standards, he was a liberal, campaigning for the black vote while attempting to build a coalition as did Huey and Earl Long of Louisiana in the 1930s. A strict segregationist, John Patterson beat him. He vowed he would “never be out-n------d again.”
In 1962 he ran, this time vowing to keep Alabama white. He won, and in his inauguration speech announced his policy was, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” This was a clarion call to action for the Civil Rights Movement. Further anger was stirred in 1963 when the Federal government ordered the University of Alabama to allow two blacks students into school. Governor Wallace stood at the schoolhouse door literally blocking them before troops orchestrated the students’ into the building to register. National TV captured all of this.
In 1962 Federal troops had to enforce integration in Mississippi, pitting Governor Ross Barnett against President Kennedy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Washington in 1963, declaring, “I have a dream.” Riots ensued in Birmingham that year. In 1964, civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. In 1965, more riots occurred in Alabama, not to mention in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The Great Society was signed into law in 1965, essentially making segregation illegal all over America.
Between 1965 and 1970, the anger spilled into Northern cities, with riots in Newark, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere. Black Muslim Leader Malcolm X was assassinated. After Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, the Civil Rights Movement became militant, led by the Black Panthers.
The Los Angeles Times covered all of this as thoroughly as any newspaper in the nation. Many, even in the South, felt they were the most fair-minded. The New York Times, the Washington Post and network television were viewed as “New York liberals,” old Civil War enemies. But in Los Angeles there was a sense of palatability, within its media, its politics and it sports, that was more acceptable to the South. Jim Murray, however, was not palatable. He held nothing back. He admired Bear Bryant and the great skill of his athletes, but found nothing favorable in their racial politics. He said so often.
Alabama football was certainly not his only foray into racial politics, or social culture, or whatever term is applied to the subject. He was a man of pathos. On January 30, 1962, when Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame, he wrote “Jack Be Nimble.” First he pointed out something profound about Robinson’s impact on his team. For 46 years before he became a Dodger, Brooklyn won two pennants and no World Series. In his 10 years with them they captured six pennants, lost one in a play-off, another in the last game of the year, won one World Championship, and never finished lower than second. In all five of those Series losses, the Dodgers scraped until the end. In the five years that passed since he retired and Murray wrote the column, they won one pennant. But it was Robinson’s social role that defined him, of course.
“But the trouble Jackie made was good for the country like the trouble Lincoln made,” he wrote. Robinson chided the Yankees for discrimination. “The Yankees denied it,” wrote Murray. “But went out the next year and got Elston Howard.”
In 1964, Murray wrote a piece about Negro League baseball. He was one of those advocating former Negro Leaguers like Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, which Paige eventually was. In a column called “Lot of Character,” he wrote a column praising the black umpire Emmett Ashford. He wrote a positive column praising black golfer Charlie Sifford. No black Dodger, Laker, Trojan or other L.A. athlete ever found any fault in Murray. Many became close friends with him. He was from Connecticut, lived in a diverse city and was surrounded by great athletes of all colors. He was willing to do what was right, but he also willing to go beyond that.
On January 21, 1969, Murray wrote a “Tribute to Abe,” as in Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein. His team, he wrote, was as “powerful a lever at toppling prejudice as the Constitutional Amendment.”
In 1966 everything boiled to a head. It was a pivotal year in the civil rights era. 1963-65 had been a time of violence in the South. The violence after that, ironically, was more in the North and the West. Watts exploded in Los Angeles. After King was shot, blacks in so-called “safe” cities like Newark and Oakland began to unleash their fury. But after a confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the South entered a period of relative, uneasy calm. It was sports that re-stirred the hornet’s nest. National television coverage of college football was huge by 1966. Color TV was just coming into popularity. Fans in all regions of the country regularly saw games featuring teams from other regions. Whether they were integrated or not was glaringly obvious.
In basketball, 1966 was a big year for integration. Texas Western University (now UTEP) somehow managed to make it to the NCAA basketball championship game. Featuring five black starters, they faced all-white Kentucky, led by a coach people say was racist, Adolph Rupp. When Texas Western triumphed it shocked the nation.
Slowly but surely, black faces began to dot the rosters of Southern college football teams; at Wake Forest, at Southern Methodist, eventually at Kentucky, Florida and Auburn. But Alabama was completely white and resistant to any change. This was the cause of much angst in the state. Wallace and his wife, Lurleen dominated ‘Bama’s all-Democrat Jim Crow politics of the decade. But even in Alabama there were voices of change. A black lawyer was threatening a lawsuit against Bear Bryant for not providing athletic scholarships to black players.
A white attorney, Richmond Flowers, Sr. battled the KKK. In an ironic twist, his son, Richmond Flowers, Jr., was dubbed the “fastest white boy alive,” an Alabama prep football-track star. The possibility of his playing for Bear Bryant was cause for much discussion. When he chose Tennessee he became “the most hated white boy alive,” at least in ‘Bama.
In 1964 and 1965, some of America was aghast at the sight of the all-white Crimson Tide not only winning consecutive national championships, but in the luckiest, and in the first case most illegitimate, of manners. In 1964 the team was unbeaten with quarterback Joe Namath. Both the AP and UPI voted them national champions. The problem was they still had to play Texas in the Orange Bowl. When they were upset, it threw the entire bowl and poll scenario into a tizzy, far from the first time it had happened. Alabama fans were fit to be tied when the media consensus arrived at the conclusion Arkansas, unbeaten and winners of the Cotton Bowl, should be the legit national champions of 1964. They rolled out some seldom referred to computer polls that actually had been around since the Rockne era, proclaiming the Razorbacks number one. Crimson Tide supporters calling themselves “national champions” sounded like a President touting his economy with unemployment around 10 percent. They were laughed at. Most felt it served them right for being segregated.
But in 1965 Bear Bryant’s crew got, if not the “last laugh,” a big laugh. With a loss and a tie they seemed also rans. Victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl appeared little more than a nice ending to a successful season, but number one Michigan State lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Normally the Spartans would have been able to call themselves “national champions” with the same lackluster vainglory as ‘Bama the previous year, taking their plaque home to hide in a broom closet. But for one year and one year only the AP delayed the final vote until after the bowls. ‘Bama was named national champions. The next year they returned to the before-the-bowls poll, for some odd reason.
Enter Jim Murray. Calling his column “ ‘Bama in the Balkans,” he opened, “So Alabama is the ‘National Champion,’ is it? Hah?
“ ‘National’ champion of what? The Confederacy?
“This team hasn’t poked its head above the Mason-Dixon line since Appomattox. They’ve almost NEVER played a Big 10 team. One measly game with Wisconsin back in 1928 is all I can find. They lost.
“This teams wins the Front-of-the-Bus championship every year – largely with Pennsylvania quarterbacks. How can you win a ‘national’ championship playing in a closet? How can you get to be ‘Number One’ if you don’t play anybody but your kinfolks? How do you know whether these guys are kicking over baby-carriages or slaying dragons?”
He went on to say he might respect Alabama’s “national championship” if they played Ohio State in Columbus, Michigan in Ann Arbor, or Notre Dame “anywhere.” Bryant claimed his schedule was the best in the country, but Murray said there was no way to prove than since none of the other SEC teams played anybody “you couldn’t invite to the Cotillion.”
He excoriated the conference and Alabama for letting great black athletes – who were “Americans” too, in case anybody forgot that – go to the Big 10, the Pacific Coast, or Syracuse every year. Their flag, he said, should be “all white,” absent the red, the blue and the stars. Murray freely stated they played “ferocious” football in Dixie, but added that the word also applied to a Balkan war. Bulgaria, he said, could not slaughter England, “just because it obliterates Mesopotamia.”
Then Murray did the unforgiveable. He made fun of Bryant, who actually “walked on water” in a Coca-Cola billboard along the Alabama highway. He tied him in with Wallace, already touting himself as a Presidential candidate. Murray was mistaken in this area. Bryant and Wallace did not get along. Bryant mistrusted him, but Wallace knew he needed to look close to the coach to get votes.
For Alabama to be given real national title consideration, Murray wrote, they needed to “venture up in the snow country where the field is white but the players not necessarily . . .
“Until then,” he concluded, “don’t make me laugh.” Murray once called the Sugar Bowl the “White Supremacy Bowl.” Bryant, he wrote, was “tired of winning the Magnolia championship.” Murray’s chidings did not go unnoticed by Alabama fans or Coach Bryant. While most in the region simply took umbrage, Bryant was smart enough to know that Jim Murray was a nationally read sports columnist, highly respected and influential. He needed the likes of Jim Murray in order to create respect for his football team. He needed the Jim Murrays of the American sporting scene to give his team the number one vote in the polls when they were in contention for it. He and John McKay were close personal friends. Bryant knew that John McKay had great respect for Jim Murray! Murray could not simply be brushed aside as a “Connecticut Yankee” or a “liberal.” He was a man of substance and needed to be dealt with.
In 1965 Bryant granted an interview to Look magazine. Bryant may very well have been aiming his words at Jim Murray when he indicated change was in the air, and that black players were coming to the Southeastern Conference. Bryant was looking for the right time, the right opportunity. The George Wallace situation, his alumni base, the politics of the times made this perilous, but he had a plan, perhaps best exemplified by his statement that he would not be the first to integrate, “but I won’t be third, either.”
Murray responded with this riposte: “The South asks for terms.”
It was on. Murray’s column spread in viral fashion in the 1960s. “Thems was fightin’ words” in Alabama. By proxy, it made USC a rival, since USC was the school in Murray’s Los Angeles that did play anybody, anywhere.
Not everybody in Alabama was following Murray’s every word with baited breath, although in the case of Forrest Gump author Winston Groom, he was not even in Alabama at the time.
“I was in Vietnam in the 1960s when Murray was writing about Alabama’s national championships so I was not paying any attention to that stuff,” he said. Obviously he had greater concerns but, “My reaction was that people in Alabama could not care less what the hell Jim Murray was writing about them in Los Angeles.” Nevertheless, they did care.
So, the stage was set for more fireworks, and in the fall and winter of 1966 they exploded. All season long, three teams maintained an unbeaten record, headed for a showdown for the national championship. Alabama moved up to third in the rankings, but had no overriding claim to the top spot. That was reserved first for Notre Dame and, if not the Fighting Irish, then Michigan State. These were two of the greatest teams ever assembled.
It was Ara Parseghian’s best team ever at South Bend. All-American defensive end Alan Page, a future star with the Minnesota Vikings and state supreme court judge, was black. Notre Dame always had an open door racial policy. Michigan State was flat blatant about it. Coach Duffy Daugherty’s Spartans were called the “underground railroad,” loading their roster with black stars from the South. In 1966 they featured two all-time greats, linebacker George Webster and defensive end Bubba Smith.
The ‘Bama faithful chafed all year as their team compiled an unbeaten record, but both the Irish and Spartans were also unbeaten, ranked ahead of them. Bryant’s team was great, but absent all other considerations, the two teams rated above them were a little better. The hope that both those teams would lose was compounded by the fact they were scheduled to play each other at season’s end.
They called it the “Game of the Century.” Played at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan, the result was precisely what Alabama hoped for, or at least thought they hoped for. Tied 10-10, the Fighting Irish got the ball deep in their own territory with little time left. Instead of trying to drive the field to set up a game-winning field goal, Parseghian played a set of racial, political, regional and religious percentages that would have made Niccolo Machiavelli proud. He ran the ball until time expired. Ara “tied one for the Gipper.”
Alabama fans watching on TV were at first overjoyed, then struck by a nauseating reality. Playing for a tie, at first and in their mind, meant they would ascend to the number one slot. Then they realized Parseghian knew something they were only beginning to understand. He would get the number one vote anyway. Notre Dame had just the right “constituency,” which consisted of the East Coast press and the “Catholic vote.” But most important, Ara knew years before anybody heard of the term “politically incorrect,” it was just that to vote for the all-white Crimson Tide.
Indeed, Notre Dame retained the number one slot. Alabama did not even pass Michigan State. Both the AP (after one year of “sanity”) and the UPI still maintained the incredibly stupid practice of voting for the national championship before the bowls. If there was any doubt, Notre Dame eliminated it with an unreal 51-0 pasting of Southern Cal at the Coliseum to close their season.
Further frustration ensued for Alabama when they destroyed Nebraska, 34-7 in the Sugar Bowl to finish 11-0. Notre Dame still had a self-imposed bowl ban (between 1926-69). Michigan State was constrained by another bad rule, the Big 10’s refusal to let champions repeat trips to Pasadena. Michigan State went the previous year. The rule was not rescinded until the 1973 Rose Bowl. Despite both teams spending New Year’s at home, the polls were closed, as if the Sugar Bowl were an all-star game or an exhibition, with victorious ‘Bama stuck at third behind the Irish and the Spartans. Alabama fans unfurled banners blaming Notre Dame of playing politics. A ‘Bama newspaper showed a disgruntled Confederate soldier holding the AP poll and saying, “NUMBER 3 – HELL!”
In three years they had gotten lucky twice and been relatively screwed once. It was all quite even, really, but Alabama was furious.
The fall-out was tremendous. Not since the Civil War had the South felt so cornered as they did during this infamous period. Every pundit in the nation weighed in. None were so opinionated and open in their disdain of the University of Alabama as Mr. James Murray, Irish Catholic gentleman, Malibu, California. The Internet was unknown, but his columns were read far and wide. There was no BCS, no computers. Sportswriters like Jim Murray determined their fate. They had incredible influence. None had more than he. There was no question in the minds of the Alabama football faithful that Murray was everything incorrigible in this world: Irish, Catholic, an East Coast native, now a West Coast liberal in the land of war protestors, hippies and dilettantes. He could not have engendered greater hatred had he flown to Hanoi and taken photos on a North Vietnamese tank, but of course nobody would have been that crazy . . .
“Jim Murray wrote a lot about this issue,” Art Spander recalled in One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007). “He had a real social conscience. I met him in 1959 when he was at Sports Illustrated . . . Jim and I were very good friends. He was a great guy and a fantastic writer. He once wrote that Alabama was ‘the King of the Caucasians.’ There was debate about Alabama winning the national championship one year, and Jim influenced the votes by emphasizing that Alabama didn’t have any blacks and didn’t play any teams with blacks. There was a lot of stuff in the papers about that.”
In the aftermath of the 1966 season, there was much soul-searching and blame-gaming in Alabama. The fans and the press tended to hunker down, taking an “us vs. them” attitude. They were in the right, their traditions were intruded on, the Feds had no right to come to their state, these were states’ rights issues, et al. But Bear Bryant did not go in that direction. He took responsibility. He said he needed to schedule a tougher, more diverse schedule. He said he wanted to field a team leaving no doubt they were the best, not leaving it up to the opinion of pollsters. The fact of the matter is he was already meticulously planning to make drastic change. He just needed the opportunity.
Bryant was born dirt poor in Arkansas. He identified with the plight of blacks because he, too, came from nothing. As a child he befriended black kids. He served in the Navy and managed a blues band. He coached at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M before coming to Alabama in 1958. He attempted to integrate each program. He was re-buffed by the alumni and administration at each turn.
“That’s the last thing we’re gonna do,” he was told at Texas A&M when he suggested integrating.
“Well, last’s where we’ll finish then,” he drawled.
The politics of Alabama made it impossible to integrate when he arrived. A 1959 Liberty Bowl game with integrated Penn State was treated like the plague. Then Bryant did something that set integration back years: he won three national titles. True, the 1964 title was not legitimate, as the Tide lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl, but the team’s incredible success in the 1960s led everybody in the state to conclude they simply did not need to integrate.
Enter John McKay. Cigar-chomping, iconoclastic, whiskey-drinking, conservative, Republican, Irish, Catholic, and Southern – from West Virginia – he was a good ol’ boy tempered by military service and years on the West Coast, at Oregon and USC. As Catholics in West Virginia, his family once had a cross burned on their lawn by the KKK. He turned USC from a power into a dynasty, largely on the strength of increased integration in the 1960s. John Wooden did the same thing with UCLA’s basketball team during those years. The country took notice. Alumni at colleges everywhere realized they could have champions if they, too, could get the next Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Mike Garrett, Bobby Bell or Lew Alcindor.
In 1963 McKay met Bryant at a California high school coaching clinic. They discovered a shared love of whiskey and duck hunting. Something clicked. Bryant found in McKay a kindred spirit. He could talk to him, reveal secrets, and say things he could not say to anybody, much less for public consumption, in Alabama. Every year in the 1960s, they met at coaching clinics. McKay and his wife would fly to Bryant’s Alabama gulf coast retreat. Their wives became good friends.
Bryant loved California. He could let his hair down there. After winning the national title, he even started recruiting there. McKay’s own son, hotshot wide receiver John “J.K.” McKay, seriously considered playing for him. At some point, McKay and Bryant began discussing playing each other. There was a taboo side to it. It was unspoken, really, because they were not “allowed” to play because of the race issue. Neither came right out and said anything so blatant as “if we played it would open up the South to integration” or “if I played against USC it would allow me to recruit blacks to Alabama.” It was subtle. McKay respected Bear and never hit him over the head with the subject, but the fact he had a superb, classy, championship program with a healthy mix of whites and blacks was impossible not to notice. It was without doubt a template on how to effectively succeed.
While Jim Murray knew McKay well, the conversations and “plans” he made with Bryant were private. Murray was not privy to the side of Bear McKay saw. All he saw was a segregationist. When Bryant told Look magazine that integration was coming to the Southeastern Conference within four years, and he wanted to be the “Branch Rickey of college football,” Murray and others wanted action, not just words. In 1966, Bryant had a chance meeting with black baseball star Reggie Jackson (an ex-Arizona State football player), playing for the Birmingham minor league team run by Bryant’s son, Paul, Jr. Bryant revealed to Jackson he was the kind of player he could use to “get things done at school,” i.e., integrate.
But time continued to pass. Bryant did not integrate. Murray and others grew impatient. Murray’s columns struck raw nerves in Dixie. Denial of a national title was a direct hit, ostensibly due to the race issue. Bryant wanted to integrate, but how? Governor Wallace and his wife dominated Alabama politics. As powerful as he was, he was unable to effectively make the move. He bided his time. Meanwhile, Jim Murray led a chorus of boos.
Between 1967 and 1970, things changed. The Vietnam War heated up. This had a huge effect on attitudes, especially among the young. According to Alabama football players ranging from Joe Namath to Ken Stabler to Scott Hunter, the players were ready for integration. Staunch, reactionary alumni and administration were not. Alabama had sub-par years in 1968 and 1969. Questions were asked. Had the game passed Bear Bryant by? Was he still up to the task? But in the South there was still no cry for integration.
The lawsuit filed by a black civil rights attorney caused a stir. Legally, the University of Alabama was integrated. They had a handful of black students brought in by court order. Bryant had three or four “walk-ons” who practiced, but they were strictly tokens. They did not suit up for games. Bryant knew the best black high school football players in the state. He kept their names and information in his desk drawer. It was ammunition for the lawsuit, so he could say he knew the prospects, he even offered them scholarships, but none wanted to play for him. He also said the poor academic standards at all-black high schools made it difficult to find black kids who could handle the “vigorous” standards at Alabama, which was not a proposition taken with much seriousness.
Then Lurleen Wallace died. Neither she nor her husband was Governor any longer. Wallace declared his candidacy for the Democrat nomination for President in 1968. He ran strong and determined to try again in 1972. His stance on integration modified as he became a national figure. Thus, Bryant saw an opening.
The tiniest of stirrings within the Alabama sports media began when Clarence Davis, born in Birmingham, made All-American as O.J. Simpson’s replacement at USC in 1969. Bryant decided to recruit a black player. The school’s basketball team already had one, Wendell Hudson. He went after Wilbur Jackson, a talented, quiet, Christian kid with good grades from a good family in Ozark, Alabama. Undoubtedly, he wanted to do something to make Jackson’s initiation as painless as possible. But his recruitment of Jackson taught him a lesson.
As he spoke to young black prep stars in the South about taking on the challenge of breaking ‘Bama’s “color barrier,” he heard the same thing over and over. If they were to come there, not only did they want fellow black teammates, they wanted to play games against integrated teams in integrated settings. Blacks were not keen on playing all their games at hostile, all-white settings like Oxford, Mississippi, or Columbia, South Carolina. Could a game in Los Angeles, or Syracuse, or Ann Arbor be arranged? A relatively friendly location instead of constant, unending racial tension?
This ultimately led to Bear Bryant’s most powerful motivation: the national championship. The voices of a nation, led by Jim Murray, told him if the vote were at all close, he would be denied such a thing so long as he continued to play all-white opponents in all-white settings. He was also persuaded by the fact that all-white Texas was awarded the 1969 national championship only after beating integrated Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
In January of 1970, the stage was set. Jackson was signed and would be a freshman in the fall. But a college football schedule is usually set three, four, even five years in advance. If Bryant were to schedule truly integrated games, he would not see the fruits of his decision for years, possibly with more national titles denied him, not to mention a bumper crop of black “blue chippers” going someplace else. The “horse was out of the barn,” really. If he did not take the lead, Auburn or Florida, especially thought of as a “sleeping giant” in the SEC, undoubtedly would steal his thunder.
Then, like Manna from Heaven, came the break he was looking for, in the form of the NCAA’s decision to allow an 11th game to be scheduled in the fall. Bryant called McKay, met him at the LAX Western Airlines Horizon Room, and over cocktails arranged a home-and-home game. If USC won, he could tell his alumni he needed to get the kind of “horses” they had in order to compete. If he beat the Trojans, his task would be trickier. He would face the old “why do we need to integrate?” question. But he knew the Jim Murrays of the world would react to a failure to do so with more righteous might than ever before. He was counting on the manifest sight of a classy, well-coached, highly disciplined Trojans squad impressing upon the ‘Bama faithful a visual feast they could get used to seeing. Over 30 years before, the sight of integrated USC-UCLA games were self-evident social statements.
Finally, there was the choice of USC. Why the Trojans as opposed to Stanford, Syracuse, Michigan, even Oklahoma, a quasi-Southern college that successfully integrated a decade earlier? Certainly there was the friendship between Bryant and McKay.
“I can see that Bryant chose McKay out of friendship, more so than choosing somebody else, based upon being less bitterly divisive than a school from the Yankee North,” said L.A. Times sportswriter Jeff Prugh.
“I know my dad and Jim were very close and my dad had the greatest respect for him,” recalled McKay’s son, John K. “J.K.” McKay, a Trojan star of the 1970s who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, became an L.A. attorney, and is now USC’s associate athletic director.
“I can only imagine there was pressure in those times to speed up integration as it relates to sports. I was not frankly aware that Murray was writing those columns but he carried a lot of weight. He was a friend of my dad’s, so that gave him credibility in Bear’s eyes.”
Aside from the Bryant-McKay relationship, USC and California represented a politically viable choice. USC was a conservative, private school. Alabama fans would not have taken kindly to losing to a team like California, whose campus was viewed as fomenting anti-Americanism while the South filled the ranks of Vietnam-era soldiers at a much higher rate than any region of America.
Then there was Richard Nixon and, to a lesser extent, Ronald Reagan. These right wing Republicans represented an anti-Communist image, affixed in the national consciousness with Orange County – a place actually known as “Trojan country” for its strong alumni identity with USC – that Alabama could find common purpose in.
Finally, as big a reason as any. USC and Los Angeles were Jim Murray’s “team” and city. He would write about it. His column would carry a lot of weight. In the long run, if Murray got on board, the by-product of all this might just be the deciding AP and UPI votes giving his team a national championship in the next few years.
Then came the game.
“Jim Murray and I went to Birmingham [to cover this game] - me first, Jim second, on Wednesday,” recalled Prugh. “The next day, we drove to Tuscaloosa, and Jim good-humoredly described as ‘elephant disease’ our appointment with Bryant. We went in at 10 A.M. and his office looked like the president of General Motors; mahogany paneling, Oriental trappings, with Bryant sitting at his desk in a dress shirt and tie, and the shirt looked like he had slept in it. As he talked, he spat into a large ashtray. Whether it was snuff or not, I don’t know.
“It was very clear in talking to Bryant that he understood the social implications of this game. He volunteered that he was bemoaning the fact that USC had Clarence Davis at tailback, that he was born in Birmingham, and he was one who got away. Davis was the symbolism that Bryant was trying to convey. If Davis had stayed in Alabama all those years, he’d’ve been at [the University of] Alabama.”
Bryant made a big play of impressing Murray. There was no question he understood he needed this man to be with him. Many in the media did not quite grasp the social importance of the game. Bryant knew Murray did.
“My dad’s relationship with Jim, a man of such stature, widely respected, I can see where Bryant would have wanted to have the opportunity to sit down and explain his position,” said John K. “J.K.” McKay.
Some have argued Bryant wanted his team to lose, figuring if they did it would force his fans to realize they needed to change their ways if they were to keep up with the USC’s of college football. Bryant did not want to lose. He was too competitive for that. He had a contingency plan in case his boys made good, but when USC trampled Alabama, 42-21 it turned out to be the best result he could have asked for.
Not only was USC integrated, with a black assistant coach (Willie Brown), they featured a rare black starting quarterback, Jimmy Jones. They had the only all-black backfield in history up until then (Jones, tailback Clarence Davis, fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham). Their defensive core, particularly at linebacker, was big, black and imposing. They were a visual sight, to be sure.
Jones was a fine field general. Davis played a great game, but the star was the sophomore from Santa Barbara, Cunningham. He rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, but his numbers belie his awesome effect. He literally bounced off ‘Bama defenders. It was not just speed or elusiveness. He could not be tackled. By the fourth quarter, the crowd was so quiet, they could hear the shouts of USC players on the sidelines. Or the cheers of a few black fans given high end zone seats, rooting not for the Tide but the Trojans. Finally, towards the end, the sound of Biblical hymnals could be heard. A crowd of local blacks gathered outside Legion Field with Bibles and candles to “witness” a kind of deliverance. They sang songs of Christian joy.
When the game was over, a throng of reporters, administration and alumni crowded into the USC dressing room, spilling out in the hallway. The sense of excitement and exhilaration was marked by a little bit of confusion. What just happened? Obviously the Trojans had won a big victory, but they sensed something larger was at play. Then Bryant entered their dressing room, asking to “borrow” Cunningham.
Two people accompanied them. One was Loel Schrader of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. The other was assistant coach Craig Fertig. Friendly alums and press diverted Fertig’s attention. Always sociable, he was chatting it up with these people. Schrader swore that Bryant took Cunningham into the ‘Bama dressing room. Glistening with sweat, shirtless and wearing only hip pads, he was propped up on a stool, looking down on the beaten white boys of Alabama.
Bryant was said to have stated, “Gentleman, this ol’ boy, I mean this man, Sam Cunningham, number 39. This man and his Trojan brothers just ran us right out of Legion Field. Raise you heads and open your eyes. This here’s what a football player looks like.”
Then, the coach is said to have instructed each Tide player to shake Sam’s hand. Various phrases like, “You’re a better man than me,” a (phrase attributed to ‘Bama quarterback Scott Hunter and others) were stated to Cunningham.
This story became Holy Grail, repeated by McKay, Fertig, assistant coach Marv Goux, announcer Tom Kelly, and others in the media and at alumni banquets for years. There is no evidence Murray ever repeated it. Perhaps because the Irishman sensed, through his experience, wisdom and years of professional acumen, that it was malarkey.
It was not until 2004-07, when a book on the subject was being researched and published, with a movie on it entering development, that the truth, as much as can be divined, came out. Murray was gone by then, but not one single Alabama player or assistant coach in that dressing room said it happened. Cunningham said, “I hate to be the one to admit it didn’t happen, but it didn’t.” Fertig admitted he was busy yakking it up with others and missed whatever happened. Schrader clung to his version, but it would not be accurate to suggest he lied. Time, a deadline, excitement, passion, heat; all these factors played into a fuzziness of memory, especially as the story was repeated and re-told over the years without anybody offered the chance to refute it.
The research that went into the book, One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game that Changed the Nation reveals what most probably happened. Bryant likely took Cunningham into the crowded hallway. There, in front of press, alumni and administrators, he most likely told him he was “what a football player looks like,” shaking his hand in political manner as an object lesson to reactionary elements in his state. He probably repeated the phrase Cunningham was “what a football player looks like” in that hallway several times and later, within earshot of writers. Cunningham himself said the door to the ‘Bama dressing room was open. He could see players inside, obviously quiet and beaten. A few of them could see and hear what Bryant was doing with him in the hallway. A few, according to Sam, came into the hallway to shake his hand. Cunningham himself never heard the story until his pro career ended more than a decade later. By then the legend was complete and he just played along, his memory fuzzy.
How it went down was rather immaterial. “No, it didn’t happen,” said Scott Hunter, “but it should have happened. The story was too good not to be true.” He was right, because the spirit of Bryant’s words somehow changed hearts and minds in the South.
It was a night game, starting at seven P.M. The West Coast writers had three hours of leeway, but were still under a deadline to get the interviews, post-game anecdotes, and compile game stories and columns for the Sunday, September 13 editions. While the Trojans were showering and celebrating, Jim Murray and beat writer Jeff Prugh were working. They were under pressure to deliver stories worthy of the occasion.
The September 13, 1970 L.A. Times sports page featured a photo of quarterback Jimmy Jones throwing a pass, next to the headline “Trojans Fall on Alabama; Bruins’ Rally Defeats OSU.” Prugh’s friend and colleague Dwight Chapin missed history covering UCLA quarterback Dennis Dummit’s performance in leading his team to a 14–9 win at Oregon State.
Prugh wrote, “It was a night when stars of Cardinal and Gold fell on Alabama. And the brightest star of them all - as USC’s Trojans blasted once mighty Alabama, 42–21, Saturday night - was Sam Cunningham, a towering rookie fullback who runs like a locomotive.”
The game was not televised, so what happened on Legion Field almost had a Gettysburg quality to it requiring Lincoln-esque words painting a visual picture. Nobody was better equipped for the task.
Jim Murray was the finest sportswriter of all time. Of all the columns he ever wrote, however, the one printed on the entire top of the September 13, 1970 L.A. Times sports page remains the best of his career. Whether Murray came up with the headline is not known. Whoever did deserves the Congressional Medal of Freedom. It stated, “Hatred Shut Out as Alabama Finally Joins the Union.” The article read, in part:
“BIRMINGHAM - OK, you can put another star in the Flag.
“On a warm and sultry night when you could hear train whistles hooting through the piney woods half county away, the state of Alabama joined the Union. They ratified the Constitution, signed the Bill of Rights. They have struck the Stars and Bars. They now hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal in the eyes of the Creator.
“Our newest state took the field against a mixed bag of hostile black and white American citizens without police dogs, tear gas, rubber hoses or fire hoses. They struggled fairly without the aid of their formidable ally, Jim Crow.
“Bigotry wasn’t suited up for a change. Prejudice got cut from the squad. Will you all please stand and welcome the sovereign state of Alabama to the United States of America? It was a long time coming, but we always knew we’d be 50 states strong some day, didn’t we? Now, we can get on with it. So chew a carpet, George Wallace . . . Get out of our way. We’re trying to build a country to form a Democracy.
“The game? Shucks, it was just a game. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all . . . Hatred got shut out, that’s the point. Ignorance got shut out, that’s the point. Ignorance fumbled on the goal line. Stupidity never got to the line of scrimmage. The big lie got tackled in the end zone . . .”
Murray would go on to write the previous time he had been in Alabama, the only black man in the stadium was carrying towels. But “a man named Martin Luther King” thought that if you paid for a seat on the bus, one ought to be able to sit in it. The only thing white folk in the state cared about was “beating Georgia Tech."
Murray pointed out that the citizens of Alabama took their football so seriously that they realized if they wanted to play in the big time, it would require integration. Otherwise, instead of invites to all the best bowl games, they would continue to be relegated to the Bluebonnet Bowl.
“And,” wrote Murray, “if I know football coaches, you won’t be able to tell Alabama by the color of their skin much longer. You’ll need a program just like the Big 10."
He was prescient, but remarkably few others were. In his September 13, 1970 column, however, Murray recognized what Coach Bryant was now trying to do, something even the likes of McKay, Marv Goux, Sam Cunningham, and the fans in the stands did not fully understand. After this game, hatred was benched, and a nation lived up to its creed.
“That’s what Jim Murray wrote in the Times,” recalled USC assistant coach Goux in 2000, prior to his 2002 passing. Murray’s turning of phrases, “Hatred got shut out . . . Ignorance fumbled on the goal line . . . Stupidity never got to the line of scrimmage,” were classics. Few if any writer of any genre ever really came up with this these kinds of terms before. In 2006, CBS and College Sports Television produced a documentary about the game. Its title was pure Jim Murray: Tackling Segregation.
“I can’t say for certain, but I think Murray got involved in this whole debate, but when I heard that Sam Cunningham ‘integrated’ Alabama football, then all the South, well Jim influenced those events,” recalled Art Spander.
“A little anecdote is, I reported this on the Monday follow-up, I was at the Holiday Inn in Birmingham, and men were sitting around the table, obviously football fans,” recalled Prugh. “I overhead both men say, ‘I bet Bear wishes he had some of them nigra boys on their team.’ That was the new sentiment, the post-mortem, and it was revolutionary. It was obvious that things were going to change from that day forward, but I could not anticipate the pace and speed of change.”
Keith Dunnavant is the author of The Missing Ring, the story of Alabama’s missed 1966 national championship, and Coach: Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“Jim Murray was one of the writers who got me excited about being a sports journalist out of college,” he said. “I started at the Times in 1988. I was on the Orange County staff, a mere punk of 22, for less than a year. He was the master of simile with an incredible turn of phrase.
“In 1961 he had a big impact on Alabama not being invited to the Rose Bowl. There was no doubt that this was a turning point in the program, causing new thinking to enter into the process. It certainly inspired them to change with the times.”
Dunnavant was asked whether Bryant scheduled the game to appease the likes of Jim Murray, and whether Bear Bryant made a purposeful decision to host an extended in-office interview the week of the game with Murray and Jeff Prugh.
“Coaches did more interviews with the media in those days,” he replied. “Let’s clear up a myth. Alabama was already integrated, but Jim’s 1970 column was a huge part of the process. But let me be on the record on saying that Wilbur Jackson already was on that team, but Bear was trying to change Alabamian minds, plus Wendell Hudson was a basketball player there. I agree with the premise that he had to change hearts and minds in his fan base in order to help smooth the path for Wilbur. Teams were already being integrated. ‘Bama was not on the leading edge of this, but not that far out.
“There were several reasons they did not win in 1966. One that tipped the balance in a contentious struggle was the Alabama football team was in a struggle for the meaning of the name of Alabama in the nation’s consciousness. Is it Wallace or is it Bryant? It was both. Lots of people assumed certain things, but even though ‘Bama was segregated, it was more complicated than, pardon, black and white.
“Another issue that comes to mind, and I guess I am liberal on the racial question - I never went to segregated schools, never saw violence - but they looked at a guy like Jim Murray and said he was acting hypocritically. He was right on the larger point that Alabama had no blacks, but there were no blacks on the news staff of the L.A. Times at the time of the 1965 Watts riots. Racism was a stain on America, but it looked different in the South than in the North and West at the time that Murray was writing about the issue.
“I was in grade school, four years at an integrated school when rioting broke out in south Boston over busing. The horror of all that stuff never; I’d experienced anything like that not in my little town. People like Wilbur Jackson and Sylvester Croom were transforming the culture of Alabama.
“Let me stress what an admirer I am of Murray, an incredible wordsmith, one of the 20th centuries’ iconic names in sports journalism, right near the top of the list. I grew up with Murray and Dave Kindred of the Atlanta Journal-Constitutional, Frank Deford; if you lived in a big city with at least one newspaper and were a sports fan, you connected with that guy three, four times a week. You saw his picture, felt you knew him. He was the identity of that paper, and Murray was the Times shining light, a beacon.”
“With Jim, civil rights was a moral issue,” said his widow, Linda McCoy-Murray. “It was not a religious issue really, but just the right thing to do. He hated injustice and used his position when he saw a wrong being perpetrated.”
In 1971, Alabama indeed came to L.A. In addition to Jackson, they recruited more blacks. They defeated USC in the re-match, 17-10. By 1973 Jackson was voted team captain and their roster was dotted with black players now regarded as all-time greats in the Crimson Tide pantheon. Asked in 2005 about his time there, Jackson said, “If it was not as great as it was I never would have sent both my daughters there,” which is, as Murray might have pointed, voting with your feet . . . or your pocketbook. Fully integrated, they enjoyed their greatest decade in the 1970s, winning national championships in 1978-79. Bryant retired in 1983 the winningest coach of all time.
Jim Murray became a fan of Bear Bryant, even a friend. He wrote of him often, always glowingly. The South came to realize Murray was merely prodding them to listen to the better angels of their nature. Incredibly, his voice remains the only one that really “got it” then and there. No Alabama media outlet made mention of race in the immediate aftermath of the game. There were no editorials suggesting that integration might just help the Tide roll faster. But if they were hoping to “sweep it under the rug,” they would not be able to since, to use another cliché, the “horse was out of the barn.”
But Murray had vision. “Birmingham will never be the same,” he wrote. “And brother, it’s a good thing. The point of the game will not be the score, the Bear, the Trojans; the point of the game will be Reason, Democracy, Hope. The real winner will be the South. It’ll be their first since the second day at Gettysburg, or maybe, The Wilderness.”
The following Thursday, in a column titled “Language of Alabama,” Murray wrote, “Time to time, when I visit a neighboring country to the South, I try to pass on to you some of the key phrases which will help you to get along in a strange tongue . . . Alabama is a body of land separated from the main body of the United States by a century.” Murray continued with a “non-Berlitz course,” engendering a flood of letters to the Times over the next couple of weeks. In the years after he wrote about the game, Murray was happy to discover the South indeed had grown up, and he was more than pleased to eat any non-complimentary words he wrote about ‘Bama and the American South.
Birmingham-born Florida State coach Bobby Bowden felt the game was able to “change the minds of Alabama fans.” Indeed, he got it right. Not Murray’s admonitions, Federal troops, legislation, speeches or protest marches could change “hearts and minds.” The Catholic Murray did not like to trumpet Christian faith in his columns, but in private he probably would agree, at least to some extent, that God used the players, coaches, even himself, as vessels to effect change. The second civil war was over.
It could be argued that the American South between 1970 and 1973, and then over a more prolonged period, changed faster and for the better more so than any region in history. In analyzing this, the prospect of God’s will becomes more profound. In so doing they “rose again.” The region became an economic juggernaut. Pro franchises flooded into their big cities – Jacksonville, Nashville, Charlotte – and their college sports programs became the envy of a nation. Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics.
Husbanded into the union, the mainstream of American politics so to speak, by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, they became a “Republican lock,” to the consternation of Democrats and the left. This development has an unsettling effect upon analysis. When they were ignorant and racist they were Democrats. Upon enlightenment they became Republicans. This manifest truth has proven to be the GOP’s strongest selling point during a 40-year stretch that has seen their greatest electoral winning streaks.
On a less political, secular note, consider the 1978 football season. USC returned to Birmingham. Of course the Trojans were loaded with black stars as always, but so was Alabama. Writers and players making that trip do not recall the racial issue ever raised. In this respect, its success is most obvious. It was subliminal, quiet and peaceful, just as Bryant planned it. It just happened. It was self-evident, manifest. It needed no champion, no loud voices. It just was, but that was not the half of it.
USC again defeated Alabama, the Tide’s only loss. USC lost one game. Both teams won their bowls and finished the season with one defeat. Logically, everything being equal, the national championship should have been awarded to the Trojans. They beat Alabama on their field. Instead, USC had to share the championship, capturing the UPI (coaches) poll while Alabama took the AP (writer’s) poll.
Contrast that with 12 years earlier, when the vote so famously went against the Tide. Now, having successfully integrated, Bear Bryant was a beloved figure, his team a source of pride and joy to people of all colors. Nobody said it at the time, but Bryant and his team should have called a press conference to thank Jim Murray. Murray’s exhortation of the coach and school to do the right thing, then praise of them when they did, did as much to change the “hearts and minds” of voters as Sam Cunningham’s touchdown runs.
Jim Murray continued to write about race, politics and social issues, although never with the religious urgency he felt compelled to exhibit in the 1960s. He wrote a chapter in his autobiography called “Some of My Best Friends Are . . .”
“In the decades since Robinson, baseball’s integration is taken for granted,” he wrote. “It is sometimes a non-issue. But it surfaces from time to time where you least expect it. An Al Campanis takes to the air to spout a lot of nonsense about black capabilities – managing or general-managing a baseball team is probably the easiest thing to do in our society next to be being a guard at a railroad crossing where two trains a week come through.
“But the integration, astonishingly, has never become total. You have thought by now these would be fast, permanent interracial friendships. That players of different colors would become cronies after years of dressing and playing and showering alongside each other.
“If so, I have never observed it. Back in the days when players slept two to a room, some clubs endeavored to hasten the mix by rooming blacks with whites. The facts of the matter are that neither the blacks nor whites were happy with this arrangement.
“There are still some clubhouses where there seems to be two teams, one white, one black. Sometimes, there’s a third: Spanish-speaking. On occasion, when teammates get in a barroom fracas or otherwise on a police blotter, you can read the resultant story and find the miscreants are either all white – or all black.”
It was what it was. Jim Murray did the best he could and let the chips fall where they may. A Utopian society was not in the cards. It was not unlike the 1971 Alabama victory over USC. John McKay graciously granted his friend’s team a game he needed to effectuate change. In 1971 at the Coliseum, the first ‘Bama player to run past him on the opening kick was John Mitchell, an African-American star from Alabama ticketed for USC until Bryant integrated and “stole” him away.
“Well,” McKay said wryly as he turned to Craig Fertig, “that’s what you get.”
So too with the 1978 split national title decision. Murray the Trojan fan undoubtedly voted USC number one, but his work had contributed toward the conditions making it possible for the Tide to now get the vote they previously did not get.
Well, that’s what you get!
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism