Monday, June 16, 2008

The Bear, The Bam, and Southern Integration

Some folks in the Southeastern conference aren’t particularly fond of USC. Those people likely live the present state of college football, without remembering or not knowing its history. To know the history would be to offer cheers of gratitude for a program that assisted in the integration of Southern football and lifted a failing conference to the level of superiority is has become today.

Through history, the University of Southern California and the University of Alabama are forever intertwined. These storied programs played a game that provided a huge stepping stone for change in the South. And not only did it bring about change in Southern football, it created a shift in football power across the nation.

In 1970, Coach John McKay packed up his integrated USC football program and traveled to Alabama to face the legendary Bear Bryant and his all White football team. The kickoff was historic, marking the first integrated game in the State of Alabama. The final score was lopsided, with the Trojans cruising to a 42-21 victory. But the impact was greater and had more lasting effects than any rankings, title hopes, or win-loss records.

Though Governor George Wallace preached his message of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever,” Bear Bryant had his own agenda, and he was willing to use the USC Trojans to carve the path and deliver a statement. This was more than a game. It was a political gathering organized on Wallace’s home turf. On this day, two coaches, and a running back named Sam Cunningham, delivered a statement louder than Wallace ever imagined.

Sam “The Bam” Cunningham isn’t a glorified name in collegiate history books. Modernly, he’s usually referenced with a notation, as the “older brother of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham”. But on that day, this African American running back from Southern California ran with ease through the Tide defense, picking up 135 yards and 2 touchdowns, on just 12 carries.

In the games conclusion, Bear Bryant entered the visitor’s locker room to make a request, and it was granted. He brought a visitor back to his home locker room, ready to address his team. He gave a formal introduction of the man that ripped through their defense for 4 quarters. He pointed to Sam Cunningham, and stripping all descriptive words and phrases, he left only one. He looked at his team, and said “This is a football player”. Cunningham represented a future course the Crimson Tide would take, and others in the South would follow.

Integration breathed new life into Southeastern football, as homegrown African American males no longer had to push North and to the West to play for Division I teams. The effects remain visible today, with the SEC currently boasting back to back National Championships, and LSU being the first program to own 2 BCS trophies.

John McKay and Bear Bryant have passed on, and Sam Cunningham has become an afterthought. Nick Saban now owns the current task of restoring the glory of Alabama. And as a supportive friend out West, I find myself reminiscing of historic times, and rooting for the success of an old friend down south. After overcoming segregation, today’s obstacles appear minor, leaving little doubt that the Tide will roll again.

"Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years."~Bryant assistant, Jerry Claiborne