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The RBR Reading Room: One Night, Two Teams

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The contest between Alabama and USC on Sept. 12, 1970 at Legion Field in Birmingham has come to represent a watershed moment in the Crimson Tide football program's long journey toward integration. When the Trojan team, led by the black running back Sam Cunningham, trounced the Tide 42-21 the last vestiges of segregation were swept away and Bear Bryant was finally forced to make room on his roster for African-American athletes.

Which is all wonderful and inspiring except for the bothersome fact that it is absolutely untrue.

By the time of the 1970 season opener, the Alabama program had been moving toward integration for more than a decade and actually had one black player on the roster (but, as a freshman, was ineligible to play due to NCAA rules). While integration came slowly to Alabama the last barriers barring blacks from Crimson Tide sideline fell in the same time period as the rest of the Southeast Conference. A little later than some, a little earlier than others.

Needless to say, the presence of these facts hasn't stopped the mythology factory cranking out ham-fisted reinterpretations of the 1970 season opener and at the top of this unsightly heap is Steven Travers' 2007 tome, One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game that Changed a Nation.

The book is an almost unreadable mishmash of idle historical observation, philosophical navel gazing and patronizing pontification. Every now and then you stumble on a bit about football and, if you are lucky, it might even be relevant to the 1970 Alabama USC game. One Night, Two Teams gains a little more coherence toward the end while giving its account of the game itself but any goodwill toward the work was burned up a good 200 pages prior.

But let's talk about the positive aspects of this effort before diving into the details of its many many flaws. Travers clearly did a yeoman's job getting interviews with many of the people who participated in the 1970 game as well as their contemporaries. To its credit, One Night, Two Teams presents many of these as unexpurgated question and answer passages which provide a great historical resource.

And it has an index. Which is handy.

Outside of that One Night, Two Teams is pretty much a horrorshow. The first problem is the reader has to wade through pages upon pages of almost completely unrelated sermonizing to find material that has anything to do with the teams and people involved in the game that is ostensibly the book's subject. This is complicated by an incoherent organization that presents the information in such a haphazard manner it's impossible to detect any type of narrative structure to the work.

Here's an example. The book's second chapter is titled "Platonic Justice." The title isn't a metaphor. You literally get five pages of discussion of Greek philosophy that culminates in a bizarre exposition of Plato's Republic that concludes with a florid and completely irrelevant violation of Godwin's Law. Just when you think your eyes could possibly roll out of your head you get this passage:

How does this apply to the 1970 USC-Alabama game? By understanding the nature of truth, which is never misunderstood when it is viewed in the American arena. The fans at Legion Field were observing the truth.

So, it seems, we backwards and parochial Southerners had to have a team from the enlightened paradise of the West Coast demonstrate the ills of segregation for the scales to fall from our eyes, reveal unto us our sins and lead us all upward to a better tomorrow.

And here we didn't even send a "Thank You" card.

If the "truth" of the 1970 Alabama vs USC game was so self evident why is it that most of coverage of the event at the time missed it completely? For the most part overviews of the contest, such as Sports Illustrated's the following week, focused on the financial windfall the teams enjoyed for scheduling the extra game and didn't even mention the "unmistakable" racial aspect Travers alleges transpired. (Well, other than noting $50K of the take went academic scholarships for minorities.)

And it isn't like the regional press were ignoring the issue either. The day after the contest the Tuscaloosa News' Charles Land penned a column noting the pains the Tide team had taken to avoid any kind of situation that could have been interpreted as negative toward the black USC players. In fact, the lack of any sort of issue on the field had "surprised" the Trojan players who clearly expected the worst from their hosts.

It turns out the only media at the time crowing about the radical racial breakthrough the game purportedly represented were those from -- you guessed it -- the West Coast. The game was, the LA Times insisted, " a lesson in understanding and fairness, a confrontation between races without the club, or the bayonet." And it seems Travers swallowed that take of the tale hook, line and sinker.

Of course, there is a very good argument to be made that the Trojan/Tide tilt in 1970 marked a significant milestone for the Alabama football program's progress toward integration. The problem is that revisionists like Travers want you to believe the game was a catalyst for the end of segregation in the Crimson Tide program and that's simply not the case. And, in the end, that point of view perversely diminishes the measure of what the Trojans' win actually means.

The 1970 Alabama vs USC game has obviously come to represent a tipping point in the public perception concerning the presence of blacks on the football field of one of the final college programs to integrate. This is not an insignificant point. But too often tinpot scholars try and conflate the the integration of UA football program with the infinitely more contentious and violent civil rights struggle in the state. Turns out both are far less straightforward than they would have you believe and the evidence of a parallel relationship isn't clear either.

In fact, a growing body of historical research shows that a key factor in forcing integration at the most intransigent southern football programs was the threat of losing federal funds due to violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While schools had been required to integrate their sports teams at the time of the law's passage, it was not until the late 1960s that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare began strict enforcement of those provisions. Once they did, the color line fell quickly.

And since we're on the subject, lets clear something up that tends to get overlooked due to these slipshod efforts to glaze over Alabama's football past in the veneer of cardinal and gold. The 1970 USC game was not the first time the Crimson Tide faced an integrated squad at Birmingham's Legion Field as Trojan fans like to believe. It is the 1969 Tennessee Volunteers who hold that honor.

The men who broke the color barrier at Legion Field,
Tennessee's Lester McClain and Jackie Walker.

When the Vols arrived in Birmingham on Oct. 18, 1969 for the Third Saturday in October no less than three of the players on the roster were black including two starters; wide receiver Lester McClain and linebacker Jackie Walker.

The game turned out to be even more decisive defeat for the Crimson Tide than the USC game the following season.

"They beat us 41-to-something [14] and it could have been nothing," Bryant later recalled. "They had us down 34-zip, crushed us, embarrassed us, dog-whipped us -- you name it."

The integrated Tennessee squad claimed the Vols' third-straight win over the Tide in front of the largest crowd to ever see a game in the Birmingham venue -- 72,433. (And the USC game couldn't even match this total as there were 258 fewer attendees in the stands for the 1970 season opener -- the second largest Legion Field crowd until that point.)

It was such a blowout that Tennessee coach Doug Dickey ended up going deep in his reserves allowing a third black player, Andy Bennett, to see action as well. Interestingly, there aren't any improbable stories or too-good-to-be-true quotes circulating today about the aftermath of that game.

McClain's experiences as Tennessee's first black player were very similar to other African-American athletes who had the nerve and dedication to cross the color barrier on football teams across the Southeastern Conference. Almost all faced tremendous obstacles in painful isolation as they were invariably one of only a few blacks enrolled at their respective schools -- not to mention meeting the demands of competing at the highest level of the sport.

Cunningham, in contrast, played on a team with almost two dozen other black players on a campus with a student body that boasted a substantial black population. To his credit, Cunningham has always acknowledged the difference of his experience and the trailblazing black athletes in the SEC schools.

"We flew in, played and won a football game, and left," he said. "We only had to deal with the South for two nights, and then we were gone."

That's all a bit too bland for Travers. His champions have to be nothing less than epically heroic and none more than USC coach John McKay. The Trojan coach is described in One Night, Two Teams as a "modern-day Moses of progressivism" who benevolently ruled over a program nestled in the bosom of USC's racial Eden where "white and black brothers and sisters walked hand in hand."

"Nobody opened more doors for black athletes than John McKay," Travers bloviates. Hyperbole, it seems, has no room for the likes of Hayden Fry and Don Haskins.

Another problem with One Night, Two Teams is Travers' selective memory. He takes great pains to explain how California was "a more tolerant place than the rest of the country" but doesn't spend a lot of time discussing the gravity of the Watts riots that had occurred just five years prior and the severe racial divisions they had exposed.

His Trojan homerism is pretty appalling as well. He ticks off the litany of early USC successes, particularly those occurring on New Years Day in Pasadena but then, for some reason, omits the Trojans' performance in the 1946 Rose Bowl. Weird. Later, Travers takes great pains to illustrate which of Alabama's national championships he considers "illegitimate" but seems to overlook any controversy about the Trojans' claims on historical titles.

Given all this, the description of the antagonists in One Night, Two Teams is about what you expect. Travers gets downright poetic when describing the "semi-insolent Southern manner" he claims to have gleaned from microscopic investigation of newsreel footage from the era.

"It was as if they wanted to get their way and look like there was never a doubt about it -- a smug smile, a dangling cigarette, a splatter of tobacco juice for good measure."

Bryant on the Alabama sideline the night of the 1970 USC game
with Scott Hunter, Jerry Cash and assistant John David Crow.

Coach Bryant fares better but not by much. The book presents him as a drawling "hillbilly" who happened to be sly enough to understand that his hopes of success in the 70s would rely on the ability to attract talented black athletes to his famed program. To achieve that, Travers insists, Bryant set up the 1970 USC game with the intent of losing in order to force the integration his program.

And if you made it through that last sentence without even a twinge of disbelief we'll just assume the visage of Lane Kiffin appears somewhere on your computer desktop wallpaper.

Interestingly, as much ink as Travers spills in One Night, Two Teams to lionize the 1970 USC team there's barely a mention of the Trojan's performance in the first game of the following season.

In 1971 the Crimson Tide traveled to Los Angeles for the first game of the season, unveiled the wishbone offense and whipped the Trojans 17 to 10 in Memorial Coliseum. The Alabama starting lineup for that game featured John Mitchell, the first black player to don the Crimson and White for a varsity game.

In terms of breakthroughs, that contest marked one far more important than what transpired at Legion Field a year prior. It represented the flowering of more than a decade of effort by Bryant and a host of others within the university to integrate the Tide squad while the state of Alabama grappled with the most horrific incidents of the civil rights struggle.

Travers skims over that and simply quotes McCay noting "they gave us a big surprise." Seems Platonic truth took off for Santa Barbara or somewhere that weekend instead of hanging around the basin.

In the past half-decade or so there has been an explosion of superb books examining the integration of collegiate athletics. Charles Martin's Benching Jim Crow and Kurt Kemper's College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era both spring to mind immediately. These authors have painstakingly done the detailed research and present the subject in a clear and objective manner.

The result isn't a portrait of ethical clarity but rather a troubling and convoluted series of actions that resist simple explanations. These events were usually propelled by the unclear motivations of men caught up in the sweep of larger circumstances they didn't fully understand. Martin and Kemper's works not only question the traditionally accepted accounts of the events they recount but they also force the reader to ask difficult questions about their own assumptions concerning them.

One Night, Two Teams, in contrast, simply offers up cheap platitudes and self-righteous sermonizing. The book serves only to feed the perceptions of people who don't really understand what transpired that fall day 42 years ago and aren't particularly interested in finding out.