When Alabama and Notre Dame meet on January 7 for college football’s BCS championship, they will not be subjected to questions about race, religion, and region, like they were for much of the last century.
And today, any discussion about race, religion, and region concerning Alabama and Notre Dame is more positive in nature. Black football players are largely responsible for the SEC’s dominance. Notre Dame does not face the anti-Catholic bigotry it did the last century, and the face of the program, linebacker Manti Te’o, is a Mormon.
The country is more racially and religiously integrated, and the South is far less marginalized. And this is in part because of the influence Alabama and Notre Dame football has had on the nation’s culture.
Consider how legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant and his Crimson Tide may have done as much to integrate the South as any civil rights leader by playing — and losing — a football game against USC in 1970 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Before the 1970 season, Bryant, coming off his worst season as a head coach, invited USC, led by its esteemed head coach John McKay, to come to Alabama to open the season at Legion Field in Birmingham.
USC had black players and an all-black backfield (quarterback Jimmy Jones, running back Clarence Davis, and fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham) known as the “Soul Patrol.”
Alabama’s team was composed of all white players.
Though Bryant had already recruited a black player, Wilbur Jackson, who could not play because NCAA rules then prohibited freshman from participating, he could not integrate his team as quickly as he wanted because of the school’s alumni and administration (and Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace) would not have allowed it.
Some believe Bryant may have purposely invited USC to play at Alabama, knowing only a defeat at the hands of the “Soul Patrol” at home would enable him to recruit more black football players, nearly all of whom ahd to leave the South to play collegiate football.
“I thought it would be a bad idea because I thought we would beat them,” McKay told the Los Angeles Times. “He talked me into it.”
Whether the 1970 invite was a part of Bryant’s greater plan, the game had the effect of persuading Alabama’s leadership to let Bryant accelerate his integration efforts.
USC hammered Alabama 42-21 in that game, as Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns. The legendary sports columnist Jim Murray wrote Cunningham “scattered tacklers around like confetti.”
Davis, a native son whose family had been from Birmingham, also had a great game and made fans and Alabama administrators realize they were missing out on Southern talent they needed to win football games.
The Monday after USC drubbed Alabama, Bryant told Alabama officials that, “It’s over. A boy is a boy and he should be able to play where he wishes to play.” And the “formerly silent alumni base as well as the administration saw the writing on the wall.”
Speaking of the 1970 battle between Alabama and USC, an Alabama assistant coach allegedly said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
Alabama integrated its team and became the winningest college program in 1970s (though they would not beat Notre Dame), with 16 black players starting on the 1979 championship team at decade’s end, cementing Alabama’s dynasty. Southern schools quickly followed suit, and Alabama’s efforts at integration most likely ensured that SEC legends like Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson stayed in the region to attend Georgia and Auburn, respectively, in the early 1980s.
Many of the conference’s top players are now black and race is becoming even less of an issue even at the head coaching level after Sylvester Croom became the conference’s first black head coach when Mississippi State hired him in 2004. Since then, three other SEC schools have had black coaches, and the conference had 3 of the nation’s 15 black coaches at the start of the 2012 football season.
Nearly a century ago, Alabama also put Southern football on the map.
As Sports Illustrated noted, the 1926 Rose Bowl game between Alabama and the mighty University of Washington was “considered by many to be the worse mismatch in the history of the game” because “football experts in the ’20s all knew that Southern football was barely on a level with junior varsity play in the rest of the country.” But it turned out to be the most important game in the history of Southern football.
Alabama, led by coach Wallace Wade, took a five-day train trip to Pasadena, defeated Washington 20-19 in one of the most thrilling Rose Bowl games ever played, and “no one ever again sneered at southern football” after Alabama was awarded its first national championship.
Today, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) reigns over the college football landscape and is essentially a league of its own. It has won college football’s last six titles, becoming college football’s preeminent conference, as SEC teams routinely dominate its opponents on the grandest of stages with a combination of speed and strength no region has been able to match.
Just as Alabama football gave Southerners pride at the start of the last century, Notre Dame football similarly inspired America’s growing Catholic population.
A century ago, in the midst of considerable prejudice against Catholics, Notre Dame defeated Army 35-13 and revolutionized college football with the forward pass. The New York Times, in 1913, described Notre Dame’s performance as the “most sensational football that has been seen in the East this year, baffling the Cadets with a style of open play and a perfectly developed forward pass which carried the victors down the field 30 yards at a clip.”
One newspaper’s headline read: “Catholics Down Army Squad.”
Notre Dame’s subsequent success — and dominance — in football would make the university a household name. It also “was a microcosm of the rising status” of Irish Catholics, which was symbolized when Notre Dame defeated teams like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Army that represented the “Protestant power structure in America” at the time.
Fifteen years after Notre Dame shocked Army, Al Smith would be the first Catholic nominated by a major political party for president in 1928. Smith, a Democrat, was greeted by flyers that read “If You Elect Al Smith, A Cardinal Will Be Running The Country.” He would lose to Republican Herbert Hoover.
In 1924, four years before Smith’s presidential nomination, Notre Dame students stood up against the KKK when thousands of students greeted the klan at a train station. Klansmen, motivated by anti-Catholic and immigrant bigotry, were descending upon South Bend, Indiana to hold a rally.
According to reports, “audacious acts against the KKK were rare” at the time because there were a reported 500,000 Klansman in Indiana, a state that had just elected Grand Dragon David Stephenson, who “boasted of being ‘the law’ in Indiana,” as governor.
But Notre Dame students “were not intimidated,” attacking the Klansman and tearing their robes to shreds and forcing some klansmen to get back on the train.
In Notre Dame Vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, Todd Tucker writes that after a weekend of clashes between Notre Dame students and the klan, Father Matthew Walsh, Notre Dame’s president, asked esteemed football coach Knute Rockne to help bring calm even though he “had his difficulties with Rockne.” Walsh realized “that the students worshipped the coach and would listen to his every word.”
After Rockne told the crowd of students to “follow the signals” of “your quarterback” Father Walsh, Walsh said he could not believe these Notre Dame students, who took Rockne’s words to heart, “were the same battered, angry soldiers he had confronted at the courthouse the night before.”
Before Notre Dame and Alabama finally battled in 1973, their paths crossed in 1966, when national sportswriters punished Alabama for the region’s segregation and racism by awarding Notre Dame and Michigan State the national championship even though they tied in the season’s last game when Notre Dame refused to go for the game-winning touchdown on the final drive. Alabama was denied its third-straight national championship despite going undefeated.
Keith Dunnanvant, the author of The Missing Ring: How Bear Bryant and the 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide were Denied College Football’s Most Elusive Prize, noted Bryant believed “the racial situation” cost his Crimson Tide the title.
“The two institutions occupied starkly different positions in American society in 1966, symbolizing the cavernous divide between North and South, between integration and segregation, between the scorn of the dominant media culture and the embrace of the dominant media culture,” Dunnavant wrote.
Dunnavant believes the 1966 vote occupies a “dubious distinction” because “in the history of college football, no other team has ever won back-to-back national championships, finished undefeated and untied in the third year and been denied the title” and “no other team has ever been ranked No.1 in the preseason AP poll, finished perfect, and then been denied the title.”
“The 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide was not just outvoted, it was robbed, the victim of the greatest injustice in the history of the national championship selection process,” Dunnavant wrote, noting pollsters “appeared to be saying that winning was irrelevant, or at least not the decisive factor in the national championship process, effectively moving the goalposts as Alabama chased history.”
With all this history between the two storied programs, Notre Dame and Alabama titanically clashed for the first time — and for the national championship, no less — in the “Game of the Century” at the 1973 Sugar Bowl. Ara Parseghian’s Irish defeated Bear Bryant’s Tide 24-23 in a game that lived up to the hype and the billing.
The game drew a Nielsen TV rating of 25.3 and remains the highest-rated college football game, beating out the 1987 Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami (24.9) and the 2005 BCS title game at the Rose Bowl between USC and Texas (21.7).
Bryant’s Alabama squad met Notre Dame again in 1974, 1976, and 1980, and his Crimson Tide lost those four games to Notre Dame by a combined 13 points.
Notre Dame leads the series against Alabama with five wins and just one loss.
When Notre Dame and Alabama meet for the first time in 25 years next Monday (and for the first time in nearly forty years for a national championship), they will do so in a country and culture both football programs helped change for the better.