"Turning of the Tide"

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The contention at the center of "Turning of the Tide" is that as the football coach at the University of Alabama, Paul "Bear" Bryant set the stage for the integration of what had previously been an all-white team. According to Don Yaeger, who wrote the book, Bryant accomplished this feat by inviting his friend John McKay, the football coach at the University of Southern California, to bring his excellent team east for a game in September, 1970. According to Yaeger, Bryant knew that the integrated U.S.C. team would beat Alabama badly enough so that even the most racist fans of the Crimson Tide would say of the great Black athletes on the other side of the field, "We got to get some of those."

When the fateful game was played, Bryant had already recruited his first Black player, but he was a freshman and would not play for Alabama until the following year.

Yaeger, who had help with the book from Sam Cunningham and John Papadakis, two U.S.C. players who figured prominently in the game, makes a fair case for Bryant as a pioneer of sorts. But the "of sorts" qualification is certainly necessary. By the time Alabama football was finally integrated, Major League Baseball was celebrating the 23rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The rest of the pro sports were also thoroughly integrated, as were college football and basketball across the rest of the country. The bluster of demagogues like George Wallace and Lester Maddox notwithstanding, one wonders why Bryant, who may have been the most charismatic public figure in the entire south, waited so long to make his move.

The book leaves various other questions unanswered. Yaeger maintains that Bryant felt the great performances by Sam Cunningham and other Black players on the U.S.C. squad would convince Alabama fans that Black athletes could help the home team. How stupid would those fans have to have been to have disregarded the performances of Jim Brown and various other Black players who'd been setting records in the N.F.L. for years?

Then there is the question of whether Bryant, allegedly realizing that if Alabama won the game he'd have a harder time convincing the powers at the university (He wasn't The Power?) to offer scholarships to Black football players, effectively tanked the game. John Papadakis says in Turning of the Tide that the Alabama seemed to slack off after failing to run on U.S.C. in the first quarter. Slacking off was not Alabama's style. They lost the game, 42-21.

Those who see Bryant as the wise but careful father of integrated football at Alabama would maintain simultaneously that "Bear" wanted to win, knew he would lose, and figured the means of that particular game would be justified by the ends he had in mind: an integrated team, and more national championships.

This program aired on September 7, 2006. The audio for this program is not available.

Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.