Winning At Football Became More Important to White Southerners Than All-White Teams

College football is a religion in the South.  In the 1950’s, major college football programs from Maryland around to Texas were all white. The Atlantic Coast (ACC), Southeast (SEC), and Southwest (SWC) Conferences were segregated.

NCAA Logo

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tolerated segregated sports teams, even on the lucrative national TV broadcasts the NCAA controlled itself.

That’s unthinkable today.  Fifty years ago, it was just as unthinkable for a sports federation to interfere with the racial policies of individual states and universities.

By 1975, all college football programs were integrated.  The main motive was winning football games, not social justice. Integrating college football played a big role in integrating the South.

White football fans realized, one university at a time, that African American players could help their teams win. Many of these alumni and boosters were conservatives, wired into their states’ political and business establishment.

When they demanded black players to help win, they got them. Winning football games became more important than racial purity on the football field.

College dormitories and dining rooms, hotels and restaurants across the South had to integrate to accommodate football teams and coaches that would not make their Afro-American players eat and sleep in separate facilities.  They had to accommodate the players’ families, and, when the walls did not collapse, the general Afro-American population.

The Sugar Bowl, 1969

Tulane Stadium, Site of 1969 Sugar Bowl

In 1968-9, I went to New Orleans for New Year’s weekend and the Sugar Bowl.  In a bar on New Year’s Eve, someone said the University of Houston’s football team had two “colored boys.”

At that moment, a player from the University of Georgia team came in. “You got any colored boys?” the guy asked.

“We don’t need any,” the player said.

The next day, Georgia got whipped in the Sugar Bowl and recruited some “colored boys.” They needed some.

University of Alabama and Bear Bryant 

In 1970, the University of Alabama opened its football season in Birmingham against the University of Southern California (USC), its first integrated opponent from outside the Deep South.

The stadium is just a few blocks from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where, in 1963,four Afro-American children were killed in a racially-motivated bomb attack, near the site where Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor turned police dogs and fire hoses on children demonstrating peacefully for integration

Alabama Crimson Tide

By 1970, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama’s great coach, had been trying to schedule big integrated teams for several years, and already had an African American player on his freshman team.

In 1966, Alabama had been the only undefeated school in the country, but it finished behind Notre Dame and Michigan State in the voting for national champion.

Alabama only played opponents in the Deep South. State law and custom did not allow the University to schedule the big, integrated national powers.  That left  Alabama with several pushover opponents on its schedule ever year, and only a few real challenges.

Sportswriters who voted for the national champion downgraded Alabama because the other teams won their games against tougher opponents.

University of Alabama Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant

Bryant had already integrated Louisville University’s team before he came to Alabama, and it was no secret he wanted African American players at Alabama.

But the political climate in George Wallace’s Alabama did not allow it. Bryant took responsibility for losing that championship and promised to play better teams.

He said he would not be the first coach in the SEC to integrate, but would not be the third, either.

USC was coming off an undefeated season, with an all-black backfield. An all-white crowd of Alabama dignitaries and brass bands greeted USC’s airplane at the Birmingham airport.

On the bus ride to the team hotel, African Americans lined the streets and cheered the USC players.

Seventy-six thousand white fans inside the stadium watched USC roll over ‘Bama 41-21. Tens of thousands of black fans, who were not allowed inside, ringed the outside of the segregated stadium, listening to the game on transistor radios, cheering for USC.

USC’s freshman fullback, Sam Cunningham, rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, more than 10 yards per carry. Five is considered exceptional.

USC Fullback Sam Cunningham

White Alabama fans started saying out loud that they wished their team had some “nigra” players.

After watching his team get humiliated, Bear Bryant thanked USC Coach John McKay for helping pave the way for integrating Alabama’s team.

“I’m sure Coach Bryant had a desire to recruit black athletes, but the powers to be that he worked for were not allowing that,” Cunningham said.

“That game demonstrated how much better as a team they could be if they were allowed to integrate. Over the course of time, I realized how historic it was and what we had done that evening,” Cunningham said.

Many people have said – only half joking – that Cunningham did more that night to integrate Alabama than Martin Luther King.

With integrated teams, Alabama won three national championships in the 1970’s.  Bryant told reporters he had “no black or white players, only players.”

Darryl Hill, the University of Maryland’s “Only”

Maryland's Darryl Hill

In 1961, Darryl Hill, a high school football star from Washington, DC, entered the U.S. Naval Academy, as the first African American football player on that team. Roger Staubach was his quarterback.

In 1962, Hill left the Naval Academy for the University of Maryland in College Park.  He became the first African American to play football in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  In 1965, Hill received his B.S. degree in economics from the University of Maryland.

A Sneak Preview of the Movie Brian’s Song

During warm-ups before a game at Wake Forest in South Carolina, Hill was the target of racist taunts.

Wake Forest’s captain Brian Piccolo demonstrated his attitude on race, which later became the subject of the movie classic Brian’s Song, about his profound friendship with Gayle Sayers, the great African-American running back of the Chicago Bears.

Brian Piccolo

In a remarkable gesture for that era, Piccolo walked over to Hill and apologized for the fans’ racist behavior. He put his arm around Hill and led him toward the Wake Forest fans, silencing their taunts.

Hill recognized Piccolo as a hero long before America did.

Hill felt playing football was his contribution to the civil rights movement.  He turned down a request by Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to get involved in protests. Stokely told his deputy H. Rap Brown that Hill was doing enough.

Hill fought a lonely battle. He was the only African American on his team until his senior year. He was known affectionately to his teammates as “The Only.”

Southern Methodist Integrates the Southwest Conference

Jerry LeVias

Southern Methodist University (SMU) integrated the Southwest Conference, and rose to national prominence, when Coach Hayden Frye recruited Jerry LeVias.

Before the team’s first conference championship game in decades, LeVias got a death threat and played anyway.

Late in the tied game, an opponent hit LevVias hard but clean, Coach Frye said. Then, he spit in LeVias’s face and made a racist remark.

LeVias says he snapped, went to the sideline, threw his helmet on the ground, and said ‘I quit!  I don’t have to take this.”

The coach convinced him not to let a guy like that cost SMU the game.  LeVias went back in and ran a punt back 89 yards for the winning touchdown.

“That touchdown broke me,” he said, “I did it out of hate, not love of the game.  That hate changed my whole personality.  It was the first time I ever really hated white people. It crippled me. I’m still healing 40 yrs later.”

Recently, on an HBO documentary, LeVias said, “It’s a great feeling when young people hear my story and say thank you.  I feel I did something great.”

Can you think of any other instances

where big-time sports helped change

society for better or worse?

3 Comments for this entry

  • Marta says:

    In answer to the question at the end, I don’t follow sports so I just don’t know those stories. But I truly liked your article for its human dimension.

    What personal courage here. I’m imagining each person described, the night before or after the turning-point event: alone, wrestling with the situation, then deciding to persevere.

  • David Braiterman says:

    The movie “Remember the Titans” also depicts a coming together or racially charged enemies through football to create understanding and harmony. Denzel Washington stars, and is always a great performer.

  • One of my favorite football movies, sports movies, and Denzel movies. “[Sports] do not build character; they reveal it…” George Will

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