Alabama’s ‘other’ historic game with USC, 50 years laterSeptember 12, 2021
If it wasn’t the “game that changed college football,” it was definitely the one that changed Alabama football.
Fifty years ago, on Sept. 10, 1971, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Crimson Tide traveled to the West Coast to meet heavily favored Southern Cal at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The game came a year after a fully integrated USC team had routed all-white Alabama 42-21 at Legion Field in Birmingham, sending the Crimson Tide to a disappointing 6-5-1 finish.
For the return engagement with the Trojans, Bryant’s team had two new elements, one a total secret, the other completely above-board, but no less historic. Alabama unveiled the wishbone offense on unsuspecting USC that Friday night, building an early lead before holding on for a 17-10 victory.
More importantly, Alabama had African-American players on its varsity roster for the first time. John Mitchell, a junior-college transfer who had signed with the Crimson Tide the previous winter, started the game at defensive end, while Wilbur Jackson, a sophomore halfback, watched from the bench. (Jackson had played for Alabama’s freshman team in 1970, and would make his varsity debut in the second game of the 1971 season against Southern Miss.)
“After the game, we came in for a team prayer, but Coach Bryant prayed,” Jackson said in a 2020 short film “Breaking Barriers,” produced by the Alabama athletic department. “The seniors and juniors, those guys that had been there before, some of those guys were crying. I remember over the next three years that I was there, when we had a team prayer, Coach Bryant only prayed maybe four times.
“So it had to be something really big or special, for Coach Bryant to play. And those guys that were crying, they knew that.”
The USC game was only the beginning, both for Alabama’s on-field dominance with the wishbone and for the program’s embrace of integrated college football. A school and a state that been widely (and justifiably) criticized for holding onto oppressive, obsolete ways of life had finally joined the 20th century from a cultural standpoint.
Though the game was not televised, it was being followed closely within the African-American community as well as by Alabama’s core white fanbase. Ralph Stokes — then a freshman halfback who had signed with Alabama a year after Jackson and a few months after Mitchell — remembers listening on the radio, and later watching highlight shows to prove to himself that what he was hearing was real — young Black men were actually playing for the Crimson Tide.
“I recall listening to it, but I recall watching the replays and highlights on ABC News or whatever the station was,” Stokes told AL.com. “And then we watched Coach Bryant’s (television) show that aired on Sunday afternoons. And I watched that to actually see some of the replays. And there was a couple of clips in there. They didn’t make a huge, big deal of it on Coach Bryant’s show, but you got a couple of clips of John playing. And so that was good to be able to see, that it really did happen.”
Alabama would ride the wishbone offense to five consecutive SEC championships between 1971-75 and three more from 1977-79, plus national titles in 1973, 1977 and 1979, a run detailed in the recently released documentary “The Wishbone Boys.” Bryant added another SEC crown in 1981, and was still running the offense up until his retirement at the end of the 1982 season.
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Bryant was no less committed to integrating his program than he was to the wishbone, by all indications. Stokes, center Sylvester Croom and defensive back Mike Washington joined the Crimson Tide as freshmen in 1971, and made their varsity debuts the following season.
Freshmen became eligible to play for the varsity in 1972, and future African-American standouts such as Woodrow Lowe, George Pugh, Will Shelby and Calvin Culliver had arrived in Tuscaloosa by 1973. By 1975, Alabama had 20 Black players on its roster.
“It really moved quickly,” said Keith Dunnavant, author of several books related to Alabama football, including “Coach” and “The Missing Ring.” “Basically, a third of the starters were Black by 1973. By that point, the wishbone was going so great guns that ‘starters’ was kind of a misnomer because they played three complete teams. But that is a key point about the integration of the Alabama program, because once Wilbur and John hit, that next year, the gates opened and it had a profound impact on the program. And of course, I believe it also had a profound impact on culture as well.”
Mitchell was an All-American in 1972, and both he and Jackson were widely recognized for exhibiting the hard work and “class” that Bryant preached to those within his program. Mitchell was elected as a team captain in 1972, an honor Jackson repeated the following season.
And because they succeeded so immediately and so fully as both players and students at Alabama, it made the transition easier for those who came behind them. In “Breaking Barriers,” African-American Crimson Tide predecessors such as Pugh and Ozzie Newsome — as well as white teammates alike — sung the praises of Mitchell and Jackson.
“When John and Wilbur integrated Alabama, history was being made,” said Pugh, an All-SEC tight end at Alabama and later head football coach at Alabama A&M. “I don’t think there were very many Black athletes playing in the South. … I felt like I could have been the next Wilbur Jackson. I looked forward to being recruited by most of the major colleges in America. When I realized I had that opportunity, it just motivated me to dig a little bit deeper.”
Alabama football quickly became a true meritocracy on the field.
When Alabama played for the national championship in 1992, 15 members of the regular starting line-up — including 11 of 12 on the team’s top-rated defense — were Black. The exceptions were quarterback Jay Barker, tight end Steve Busky, offensive linemen Matt Hammond, Jon Stevenson, George Wilson and Tobie Shiels and safety Chris Donnelly.
Of the 22 players who started on offense and defense in Alabama’s season-opener vs. Miami last Saturday, 20 were African-American. The only exceptions were slot receiver Slade Bolden, who is white, and linebacker Henry To’o To’o, who is of Polynesian ancestry.
Though Alabama has never had a Black head football coach, Bryant and every Crimson Tide head coach after him has had African-Americans in key coaching positions. Woody McCorvey was Alabama’s first Black offensive coordinator in 1996, and typically one-third to one-half of Nick Saban’s recent coaching staffs have been comprised of minorities.
“There is still work to do,” said Stokes, now a successful businessman in Atlanta whose own memoir “One of the First,” was published earlier this year. “But over time, the transition happened to where schools evaluated talent and players based on the abilities that they could bring to their program. And it just happened that, for the African-American community, football is so important. Over time, the coaching and the preparation of the athlete got better. They were taught better, so they could learn to compete at a high level.
“And so they became players that Southeastern Conference schools and so many teams would recruit because they were trained well, they knew the game, they were smart enough to learn all the systems. And now most of the schools in the conferences are over 80% African-American. That’s a huge change. But more importantly, it changed the culture of our whole southeastern states, because these young people are getting educations at these institutions.”
Mitchell became Alabama’s first African-American assistant coach in 1973, and has for the last 27 years been on the staff of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. He rose to the title of assistant head coach in 2007.
Jackson, who played nine years in the NFL — winning a Super Bowl ring with the San Francisco 49ers after the 1981 season — is now retired in his hometown of Ozark. Earlier this summer, city officials dedicated a downtown mural in his honor.
“When Wilbur Jackson got that scholarship, along with Wendell Hudson in basketball the year before, that was a game-changer,” said Newsome, a Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end with the Cleveland Browns and for many years a decorated executive with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. “That opened it up for all the young Black athletes that was growing up in the state of Alabama, growing up in the South. Now that opportunity go to Alabama was there for us.