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Countdown to Kickoff: 50 years ago, the color barrier was broken for Alabama football

The 1971 season was a watershed moment for the Bryant era.

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The success of the Bear Bryant era in Tuscaloosa is well documented, but many forget the turbulence that was the late 1960s. After Ara Parseghian’s cowardice was rewarded in 1966, snubbing the unbeaten Tide from a deserved national title, Bryant and company hit a relative rough patch with 15 losses and two ties over the next four seasons. Alabama limped to a 6-5-1 record in 1970, with one of those losses coming at the hands of USC in the famous Sam Cunningham game that is credited with inspiring Bryant to integrate his all-white football program. In reality, Bryant had begun recruiting Black players as early as 1968.

Still, it was 1970 before Wilbur Jackson became the first Black player to receive a football scholarship from Alabama. Jackson first played in the 1971 season and rushed for over 1500 yards at Alabama before going in the first round to San Francisco. He spent eight years in the NFL and boasts both a national title from his college days and a Super Bowl ring. Jackson is a native of Ozark, AL where the mayor has ordered a soon to be completed 86-foot mural of Jackson celebrating the 50th anniversary of his accomplishment.

Jackson was not the first Black player to actually see the field for Alabama, however. That distinction went to junior college transfer DE John Mitchell, who suited up for the 1971 season opening rematch with the Trojans that the Tide won 17-10.

While it couldn’t have been easy, Mitchell says that the team generally treated him well.

“I wouldn’t say everyone accepted me, but Coach Bryant was fair so the players all treated me the same,” Mitchell said.

While Mitchell seems nonchalant, perhaps it is because he has grown so used to being the first to do many things. At Alabama, he was also the first African-American student athlete to room with a white student. His roommate Robert Stanford and he are still best friends

“They could not have picked a better person to be the first African-American to be on the team because John was there to play football and get an education,” Stanford said. “He didn’t expect any special treatment and he didn’t get any, but he was treated fairly. He was a great person and a heck of a ballplayer.”

Mitchell went on to become the first Black assistant coach at Alabama and the first Black defensive coordinator in the SEC when he was promoted into that role at LSU in 1990.

The 1971 season also happened to be the year that Bryant installed his famed wishbone offense. They finished 11-1 that year, kicking off a dominant 58-3 run in SEC play through the 1979 season that included the Bear’s last three national championships.

The USC game was featured in the “Bama’s Greatest Games” video series, which I have embedded below for your enjoyment.

We are now 50 days from kickoff.

Roll Tide.