The University of Alabama is an unquestioned football dynasty, one of the most successful programs in any sport, at any level. But of all their victories, of all their national championships – however many there may be – a game the Crimson Tide lost was likely the most significant in the history of the program, the SEC, and the South.
On September 12, 1970, the University of Southern California – an integrated football program – entered Legion Field in Birmingham and served all-white Alabama with a beating that reverberated throughout the entire region. That game, and the change that sprang from it, is the focus of a new documentary, "Against The Tide," now airing on Showtime. It's strongly recommended for fans of college football and students of American history.
Right now, Alabama stands as the most powerful football program in college football, and there isn't a close second. But while Nick Saban may rule his dominion without peer, he'll still never approach the power and influence at Alabama of Bear Bryant. Saban is a maestro. Bryant was a god.
"To this day," says Joe Namath, Bryant's celebrated quarterback in the early 1960s, "he's the most beloved figure that's ever walked the fields of Alabama."
And because of his power, Bryant was able to do something no football coach could replicate today: change the social fabric of an entire region.
By 1970, much of Alabama's 1960s luster had dimmed. Namath and his successor Ken Stabler were changing the face of the NFL. Bryant still commanded respect in the South, but outside the region, programs like USC were ascendant. It's not hard to see why: as a football team, as a state, Alabama remained staunchly segregated.
Bryant's initial national championships stood as a stark point of pride in a state that was the centerpiece for some of the ugliest moments in the Civil Rights era. While Namath and Bryant were winning titles, Alabama Gov. George Wallace was proclaiming "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!", then standing in a door to block African-American students from registering at Alabama. In the most despicable episode of the era, four little girls died in a church bombing not far from Legion Field.
Bryant saw the changes happening, and, according to the documentary, wanted to bring African-Americans onto his team but couldn't because of the school's existing rules. "Any time you got good players, you come see ol' Bear," one coach recalls him telling Tuscaloosa-area black high school coaches. "I want 'em, and one day I'm going to get 'em.” (Of note: Bryant comes in for some criticism for not speaking up more publicly against segregation.)
The story of segregation and the Alabama football team took on a new wrinkle in 1970. The NCAA had permitted colleges to add an 11th game, and while most added a cupcake team, Bryant had a bigger game in mind.
Bryant and John McKay, head coach at USC, were longtime friends. Between the two of them, they'd won five of the previous nine national championships, and were two of the most famous men in the country. (The documentary recounts an instance where Bryant and McKay entered a restaurant where Frank Sinatra was dining. Sinatra sent word that the men should come visit his table. Bryant sent back word that Sinatra was welcome to visit their table, and thirty seconds later, there came Frank.)
Before the 1970 season, Bryant approached his colleague and rival with a plan: bring the Trojans to Alabama to kick off the season for $150,000. McKay countered with an even more compelling offer: a home-and-home series for 1970 and 1971.
So on September 11, 1970, USC journeyed to Alabama, not without trepidation. "We'd heard the stories," Sam Cunningham, a USC running back for the game, told Yahoo Sports. "We'd seen the news. We knew enough to be thankful we didn't live there."
Even before the game got underway, both the Alabama fans and players could see there was something very different about this USC team, and it wasn't just their skin color … though there was that.
The game wasn't even close. USC dominated Alabama in every phase, winning 42-21. Cunningham, who is black, led the Trojan charge, scoring two touchdowns and totaling 135 yards on just 12 carries.
The significance of an African American player dominating the game reverberated across the south.
"Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years,” said then-Kentucky coach Jerry Claiborne, a former Bryant assistant.
It's an absurd oversimplification, but it's not entirely untrue.
"If I'd known this game would be this important, I would have paid more attention" joked Cunningham. "I was just focused on playing well enough to play next Saturday against Nebraska." He scoffs at the MLK comparison: "There might be a drop of truth in it, but there's no possible way in my mind what I did should be compared to Dr. King."
To this day, the question remains: why did Bryant schedule mighty USC in the first place? Was it to test his team? To strike a deal with a good friend? Or was it, as many suspect, to demonstrate that Alabama could never again be a dominant football team with a segregated roster?
Regardless, change came, and with it more national championships. The very next year, Alabama recruited its first African-American player, John Mitchell, stealing him in a recruiting battle with none other than John McKay and USC.
"I can only imagine the guarantees Coach Bryant had to make to the parents of the young [African-American] men who came to play for him," Cunningham says. "A lot of stuff was still happening even at that time."
And on the field, Bryant got the last laugh. The next season, after sending USC spring game film of their old offense, a customary tradition, Bryant ordered his team to learn the wishbone offense in just three weeks, and permitted no observers to practice. The move caught USC off-guard in the first game of the 1971 season, and before the Trojans could figure it out, Alabama had snuck out of L.A. Coliseum with a 17-10 victory. Two years later, Bryant would win his fourth national title.
(McKay gets short shrift in the documentary; while Bryant holds the role of statesman and symbolic icon, McKay, in this story, is "merely" an exceptional football coach. The idea that Bryant invited USC to Tuscaloosa with the intention of losing puts McKay somewhat in the role of either dupe or accomplice.)
The Alabama-USC game is one of college football's pivot points, a moment after which nothing about the sport was entirely the same. Whether or not it's the most important college football game ever played, it's certainly in the conversation … as much for what it started as for what it demonstrated.
"We did a lot," Cunningham says, "but the lion's share of the credit goes to the black athletes who decided to become a part of those programs."
“Against the Tide” premieres this weekend on Showtime.