Alabama Civil Rights How Far Have We Come in Alabama?
Could Alabama Hire a Black Head Coach without it being a Story?
As we reflect on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr today, the question came to me, could The University of Alabama ever hire a black head coach without the man’s race being part of the story? What is the state of Alabama Civil Rights regarding Alabama football?
The Historical Hire in 2003
In 2003, a historical hire nearly took place at The University of Alabama.
Looking for a replacement for Mike Price, Alabama seriously considered hiring the running backs coach for Green Bay Packers, Sylvester Croom, a 1974 Alabama alumnus, former center and assistant coach for Coach Bryant. I wanted Sylvester Croom to get the job. At that time, I thought that if he were a great coach, it would make Coach Bryant happy to know that Croom, who would have been Alabama’s first black coach, was there building on his work, and help heal some of the old segregation wounds in Alabama. The University went a different direction hiring Mike Shula, also an alumnus, 1987, and former quarterback and at the time was the quarterback coach for the Miami Dolphins, where his father, Don Shula, had been head coach from 1970 to 1995. Coach Croom went on to become the first black head coach in the SEC coaching for Mississippi State. Coach Croom may have been a bigger success as a head coach at Alabama with the support the bigger program than Mississippi State and perhaps Mike Shula would have been better off starting out at Mississippi State, since at the time, Alabama was too big, too much, and too big a leap in his career for him.
The Integration of Crimson Tide Football
In the late 60’s, Coach Bryant wanted to integrate The University of Alabama and his football team, but came up against the strong hold of segregation, Governor George Wallace, so much so that he publically considered running for office himself. Coming off a bad season, in April, 1970, Bryant flew to Los Angeles to meet with USC Coach John McKay and arrange a two-game series between the Crimson Tide and USC Trojans, who were thought to be in the hunt for a national championship title. USC was integrated and would be the first time The Tide would play an integrated team from outside the state to play in Alabama. The Trojans, with a black quarterback, Jimmy Jones, and two runners, Sam “Bam” Cunningham and Clarence Davis, stunned the crowd at Legion Field that night in a 42 – 21 beating in the season opener. The following year, the Crimson Tide had a black player, John Mitchell, the first black player to start for Alabama.
That 1970 season opening game would go on to change football in college, in the NFL, and in all of the country. Coach Bryant touched many lives and gave opportunities to black players who went on to set precedents in every area of the sport. Mitchell became the first black assistant coach at the University. Ozzie Newsome, Alabama’s All-American receiver in the mid-1970s, went on to become the first black general manager in the NFL, and Sylvester Croom, a center, returned as an assistant coach at Alabama and became the first black coach in the SEC at Mississippi State in 2004.
When Vanderbilt faced Kentucky in 2011, Coach James Franklin was asked by a sideline reporter, “What’s it like for you to be coaching in the first SEC game featuring two teams with African American coaches?” Kentucky’s head coach at that time was Joker Phillips, hired in 2010, was the first black head coach for the Kentucky football and the third for a major sport at that school. Coach Franklin replied, “I’m proud, but I don’t think of it that way and I hope it becomes something we don’t even notice.” In 2014 when Coach Franklin was hired at Penn State, he just happened to also be the first black head coach there and nobody noticed.
One of Bryant’s former players, Jerry Claiborne, famously said, of Coach Bryant and that 1970 USC game did “more for integration in Alabama in sixty minutes than Martin Luther King, Jr. did in 20 years.” Perhaps an exaggeration, but the work that Martin Luther King gave our country set the stage for Coach Bryant to do the right thing for his University and players. The ripples of acceptance advanced Alabama Civil Rights and moved throughout our State, the South and Our Country.
College Football Playoff Selection Committee
There’s no doubt of the contribution men of all races are making to college football and now that Condoleezza Rice is officially a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee we have a new question.
Is college football ready for a woman?
Being from Birmingham, we can all be proud of our fellow Alabamian’s achievements, (read Condi’s biography and you’ll become a fan too,) I’m delighted that the committee has someone of her caliber participating in decisions that mean a lot to me. As a human being, I’m thrilled that throughout the scrutiny of her selection, race was a non-story.