BEAR BRYANT’S BIGGEST SCORE
By Allen Barra for American Legacy Magazine, the magazine of African-American History (Winter 2006), pp.58-64
This decade has been a good one or three graduates of the University of Alabama. John Mitchell, class of 1972, is the defensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were just one game away from going to the Super Bowl this past season. Sylvester Croom, class of 1975, became head football coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Ozzie Newsome, class of 1977, is general manager of the Baltimore Ravens, who have been in the playoffs three times in the last five seasons and won the 2001 Super Bowl.
Besides having been stars for the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, these three have two other things in common: They are black; and they played for and had their careers shaped by the greatest coach in college football history, Paul William "Bear" Bryant.
As late as the spring of 1970----when the number of African-American students at the University of Alabama was less than 300, or approximately 2 percent of the overall student body----the odds of Mitchell, Croom, Newsome, or any other black players attending school there were low. Bear Bryant (he earned the nickname when, as a teen, he wrestled a bear in a local theater) was no progressive on the issue of race, but recently evidence has surfaced that he was years ahead of most of his contemporaries. One of 12 children born to a family of farmers in a tiny place called Moro Bottom, Arkansas, Bryant learned about discrimination----class discrimination----at a very early age. When he was a boy, his mother would hitch up the family mule and ride to the nearest town to sell eggs and vegetables. The local school children jeered at Paul, shoeless and in overalls; Bryant never forgot the humiliation. Nearly half a century later, he told a biographer, "I can still remember the name of every kid who laughed at me."
Bryant fought his way out of poverty and developed a lifelong admiration for boys who also had to fight to earn a place in the world. As head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats from 1946 to 1953, he was a friend of the former commissioner of baseball and future governor of Kentucky, Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler, who had supported Branch Rickey in bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Bryant made overtures to the University of Kentucky administration about integrating its football team. He was rebuffed and did not press the issue, a fact Bryant would come to regret years later. Three years before his death in 1983, he told a reporter, "I wanted to be the Branch Rickey of college football."
In the mid-1950s while a coach at Texas A&M, Bryant tried to integrate its football team, but again he hit a stone wall. "We'll be the last football team in the Southwest Conference to integrate," he was told by a Texas A&M official. "Well," Bryant replied, "then that's where we're going to finish in football."
Despite these setbacks Bryant knew full well which way the winds were blowing in American sports, and, like many, he expected that integration would come peaceably over time. In 1958 he returned to his alma mater, the University of Alabama, for whom he had starred as an end player in the 1935 Rose Bowl. He had no idea that he had come home to a maelstrom of racial and political strife.
In 1958 the Alabama attorney general John Patterson beat out George Wallace, then a district judge, for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and he did it largely through the support of the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. For at least the next dozen years, race would be the predominant factor in Alabama politics, particularly in 1962, when Wallace became governor. He was especially watchful of the University of Alabama and let it be- known to the school's president, Frank Rose, that funds would be cut if he crossed swords with Wallace on racial policies. The result was that several Southeastern Conference schools, even Alabama's cross-state rival, Auburn University, integrated their football teams before Alabama. As the Auburn historian Professor Wayne Flint phrased it, "George Wallace knew the value of a symbol. In 1963 he stood in the doorway to make it appear as if he was blocking the entrance to [black students] Vivian Malone and James Hood. He knew very well he couldn't block their admission, but it looked good to his racist constituency."
[I was at Auburn then working on my MA degree, and the attitude of my fellow graduate students convinced me that it was time for me to work as hard as possible and get this degree I one year---thesis and all. I did.]
Bryant decided to take a chance. In 1959 he turned down other postseason bowl bids to play an integrated Penn State team in the Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia. Alabama's president received anonymous death threats but the game came off without incident. Although Bryant thought this might lead to swifter integration of the sports teams, nothing came of it.
The University of Alabama had won the national championship in 1961, 1964, and 1965 with all-white teams. The knowledge that his teams were held up as a symbol of white supremacy angered Bryant, but for years he felt there was little he could do. In the early 1960s he began telling people that he was considering running for public office; dearly he intended this as a signal to Wallace and his most ardent supporters, but nothing tangible came of the talk. He may also have discussed the possibility of a visit with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963. Kennedy, at the time, was locked in a battle with Wallace on the integration of Alabama schools and was likely seeking Bryant as an ally. But Bryant was hesitant to openly defy Wallace if it might hurt the University of Alabama.
The 1966 season, though, sent out a message that no one in Alabama could ignore. The Crimson Tide had won back-to-back national championships in 1964 and 1965 and went a perfect 11 wins, no losses, in 1966. But the Associated Press and United Press International polls ranked Alabama behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, which both finished at 9 wins, 1 loss, and 1 tie. If Alabama fans did not understand, Bear Bryant certainly did: The Crimson Tide would win no more national titles with all-white teams.
But Bryant soon discovered that George Wallace had made Alabama an unpopular place for top black football prospects. For that matter, segregation was costing Alabama the top white talent as well. In 1965 Richmond Flowers, Jr., [who attended my class at U. Ga. Before transferring to UT] a track star and football prospect who proclaimed himself the "fastest white boy alive," chose Tennessee over Alabama when his father, the Alabama attorney general Richmond Flowers, was heaped with abuse for opposing Wallace's policies.
In 1969 and 1970 Alabama won just 12 of 23 games, its worst showing since Bryant had become head coach. Before the start of the 1970 season, Bryant decided to take the initiative. At a January coaches meeting, he ran into his friend John McKay, the head coach of the University of Southern California Trojans, one of college football's most celebrated integrated teams. The two men talked about setting up a series between their schools; the NCAA would allow an extra game for the 1970 and 1971 seasons. A few months later, their plan was set: The Trojans would play in Birmingham to open the 1970 season, and Alabama would return the favor in Los Angeles the following autumn. Bryant must have known that his talent-deficient Tide team was no match for Southern Cal, and that proved to be the case. USC's two great black running backs, Sam "the Bam" Cunningham, who scored three touchdowns that afternoon, and Clarence Davis, who had been born in Birmingham, ran all over Alabama for a crushing 42-21 victory.
The one-sidedness of the defeat shocked many Alabamians, and Bryant was confident that they had received the proper message. The legend persists that Bryant went into Southern Cat's locker room, shook hands with Sam Cunningham, and proceeded to take him into the Alabama locker room, where he announced, "Gentlemen, this is what a football player looks like." Bryant did go to the USC locker room to congratulate Cunningham, but the rest is fiction: The Alabama players didn't need to be told that the Tide had to integrate. It was the die-hards in the university administration who needed the message, and Southern Cal had delivered it dearly and forcibly.
What Alabama fans didn't yet know was that Bryant had already crossed the color line. Sitting in the stands that day was the university's first black scholarship player, Wilbur Jackson, who watched as Sam Cunningham, in Bear Bryant's words, "did more to integrate Alabama in one afternoon than Martin Luther King had in years."
That winter, Bryant was playing golf with John McKay in California when the Southern Cal coach mentioned a great black prospect from Alabama named John Mitchell, who was playing for a junior college in Arizona. McKay made a remark something along the lines of "It's a shame you can't be signing kids like him." McKay didn't know that, in fact, Bryant was by then working hard at getting kids like John Mitchell. Bryant excused himself from the game and went into the clubhouse to call his assistant coach Clem Gryska back in Tuscaloosa. He told Gryska, "Check into this John Mitchell, and if he's not signed, get after him."
Gryska made some calls and determined that Mitchell's family was from Mobile. Later that day, Bryant phoned their home. He picked a lucky moment to call John was there on break, and Bryant had a chance to make his pitch to mama, papa, and son all at the same time. He singled out Mrs. Mitchell; 25 years of recruiting players had taught him who usually made the decision. .
John Mitchell was immediately intrigued. "I'd always been a big fan of Alabama," he says. "Alabama won, Bear Bryant won. I wasn't put off by the fact that the teams were all-white. That just made me want to be a part of them even more."
Bryant didn't sugarcoat the situation for him. But he told him, "You'll be the first black player ever to start for Alabama' and that should mean something to you." (Wilbur Jackson, Alabama's first black scholarship player, was not yet on the starting team.) Mitchell liked the idea of a challenge, and Bryant liked that.
In the first game of the 1971 season in Los Angeles, John McKay watched in frustration as the linebacker John Mitchell ran downfield on the opening kick-off and helped to make the play. Mitchell and the Crimson Tide defense would not allow Sam Cunningham three touchdowns on this day; Alabama shut down the Trojan defense and won a major 10-7 upset. Alabama would go on to an undefeated regular season, and Mitchell would become the first black All-American in Tide history.
The following winter Bryant signed another top black prospect, this one closer to home. Sylvester Croom was Bear's first black offensive lineman. He had grown up in Tuscaloosa, a center for the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. "To be frank," says Croom, "I didn't know where I stood as a potential college player. I had played several positions, but maybe because I had done so many things on offense and defense, I didn't get much attention from recruiters. But a couple of former Alabama players had been student teaching at my high school, and they suggested I think about Alabama.
"Back then, just hearing the name Bear Bryant could make a black kid like me break out in goose bumps. I knew the color line had been broken, but realistically did I have a chance to make it at Alabama? I can tell you there was a lot of skepticism in the black community in Tuscaloosa. And then, while I was thinking about it and just about deciding that I could make it at Alabama if I set my mind to it, bang! The phone rang. I heard this deep, gravelly voice which I'd heard on TV I don't know how many times, and I knew immediately who it was. He said, 'This is Coach Bryant at Alabama. Is this Sylvester Croom?' I was too excited to speak. I just nodded back into the telephone. He said that a couple of his boys said I was good enough to play for Alabama, but did I think I was? If I did, he said he wanted me."
Croom became an All-Southeastern Conference offensive lineman and was selected for the Kodak All-America team. In 1973 he earned a national championship ring. He impressed Bryant so much with his dedication that he named an award in Croom's honor: Every spring the Alabama coaching staff chooses a player to receive the Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award.
During Croom's senior year at Alabama, in 1974, he influenced a young freshman who would go on to become the greatest receiver in Alabama history. "I've been around a lot of great leaders in my career," says Ozzie Newsome, "but for being a real leader in the huddle, it's hard to top Sylvester Croom." Not that Newsome needed to be led. Like all of Alabama's great stars, Ozzie was a self-starter. He was recruited out of Colbert County High in north Alabama, a school that had been integrated in 197°, his freshman year, and had produced several fine athletes, including Phil Gargis, who would quarterback for Auburn, and Leon Douglas, who would become one of the University of Alabama's finest basketball players. Ozzie was an all-around athlete who starred in baseball, basketball, and football; like almost all aspiring football players in the state, he grew up watching The Bear Bryant Show on Sundays in the fall. He had thoughts, though, of going to. Auburn, where he could catch passes from his high school battery mate, Gargis. But Bryant dispatched John Mitchell to Colbert County to reel Ozzie in. "By the time John Mitchell had finished talking up Bear Bryant and Alabama to me," says Newsome, "there was no way I was going anywhere else."
"The Wizard of Oz," as he came to be known, became a consensus All-American and went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Cleveland Browns, catching more passes than any tight end in NFL history. He is currently the general manager of the Baltimore Ravens, and one of the highest-ranking black executives in the league.
No one ever said it was going to be easy, and it wasn't. Playing football for the nation's number-one college football program in the 1970S was a pressure cooker, especially for black athletes. John Mitchell says, "He told me before I made my decision to go to Alabama, 'I'm not saying there aren't some people out there who aren't going to be against you because of what you are. All I ask is that if you do have problems, you come and talk to me first before you say anything to the press.'" Mitchell trusted his coach and had his trust rewarded. In 1972 he became the first black team captain of the Crimson Tide.
"I had no trouble with my teammates at all," says Mitchell. "Everyone was a little awkward around me at first, but on the whole they were supportive." Scott Hunter, who had been Alabama's quarterback the season before Mitchell's arrival, recalls: "Coach Bryant told us that black players were the coming thing at Alabama, that integration would happen soon, and that when it happened, we were to treat them exactly as we wished to be treated ourselves. And the real truth is that we didn't need to be told this. By 1970 the players on the team were all ready for integration." For his part, Mitchell admits' "There were fans who were not ready to see me out there and would let me know it in the nastiest terms they could think of. But once they saw that I could play, there was never any doubt that I would be accepted by the majority."
As for Bryant, "he treated me like I was his son. I can tell you he kept his word. I didn't have a single problem with my coach."
The integration of the Alabama football team had been a tortu0us process, but the integration of the coaching staff was accomplished with surprising swiftness and no controversy at all. In 1973 the first black player to take the field for Alabama became the first black assistant coach. "I was surprised when he asked me to join the staff," John Mitchell recalls, "because aside from football, I can't say we were that close while I was playing." This was an approach Bryant had learned from his own coach in the 1930'S, Frank Thomas, who seldom spoke to his players on a personal level but singled out the most promising football minds for coaching positions after graduation. Bryant said he never really became friends with Coach Thomas until his playing days were over.
It was the same for John Mitchell. "In 1980 I was an assistant coach at Arkansas, and Alabama was getting ready to play Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. We were going to play our bowl game in Framingham, and I called Coach Bryant to tell him I wanted to drop in during the Alabama practice." Bryant was in his famous tower watching practice when he spotted his former player and coach. "John Mitchell," he called out, "you get on up here." "I had never seen him bring one of his players up there," says Mitchell. "When I reached the top of the tower, I began to tear up. I was almost overcome. I couldn't look him in the eye. I didn't want him to see me like that."
In 1975 Sylvester Croom graduated with a bachelor's degree in history and a minor in biology and signed on with the NFL's New Orleans Saints as a free agent. After graduation, Bryant stopped him in the hallway and put a hand on his shoulder. "If things don't work out for you in the NFL," Bryant said, "come back and see me." Croom was surprised: "I hadn't realized that he thought about me as a possible coach. Outside of football, we hadn't talked all that much while I was a player." Croom played for one season with the Saints, then returned to Tuscaloosa to become Alabama's second black assistant coach. He also went back to school and earned his master's in educational administration in 1977. After working as an assistant coach for the Green Bay Packers for three seasons, in December 2003 Sylvester Croom joined Mississippi State to become the Southeastern Conference's first black head coach.
For Croom, the new job was bitter sweet; he had thought, like many fans and sportswriters, that he would be given the job of head coach at the University of Alabama during the summer of 2003, after Mike Price was released following an off-campus scandal. The position eventually went to Mike Shula, a quarterback on a post-Bryant Crimson Tide team, whose father is Don Shula, the winningest coach in National Football League history. At the time, Croom made no secret of the fact that he was more qualified for the job than Shula. "That wasn't my opinion," he says now. "It was a fact. I wasn't saying that Mike wasn't a good choice and wouldn't make a fine coach. I was just pointing out that I had more experience than he had at both the college and professional coaching levels. But that's all behind us now. I hope Mike Shula and the University of Alabama win every football game they play-except when they're playing Mississippi State."
Mitchell, Croom, and Newsome are all generous in crediting their old coach with their success on and off the field. "I've got to hand it to him," says MitchelL "He had to overcome a lot of conditioning in his background to become so open-minded. He's been gone 22 years, and I still want to pick up the phone every week and ask his advice on something."
"He kept his promise to me," says Croom. "I found out very quickly that he didn't have white players or black players at Alabama. He just had football players."
Says Ozzie Newsome, "Martin Luther King, Jr., preached equality. Coach Bryant practiced it. . . . I can tell you that the man practiced what he preached."
Allen Barra is a contributing editor for American Heritage magazine and the author of The Last Coach-A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant, from W. W. Norton.