Sam the Sham

Matty told Hatty about a thing she saw.
Had two big horns and a wooly jaw.
Wooly Bully … Wooly Bully.

(Wooly Bully – Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, 1966)

Beware of politically correct sportswriting – it’s a sham.

A release from the Associated Press (AP) today gave new (and undeserved) attention to one of the great politically correct – and mostly inaccurate – sports stories in college football history: the sham that Sam “Bam” Cunningham and the USC Trojans played some pivotal role in the racial desegregation of Southeastern Conference football. That is a myth.

First, the AP story.

The wire service reported today that for two years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the FBI kept a modest file (27 pages) on Alabama football coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant. At the time, Bryant was the subject of a lawsuit by a young civil rights activist and lawyer named U.W. Clemon. The purpose of the suit was to force Bryant and the University of Alabama to recruit black football players.

Anyone surprised to learn that the FBI would keep a file on a public figure such as Bryant has never read much about the agency and its controversial long-time director J. Edgar Hoover. From Charlie Chaplin to the Kennedys to MLK, Hoover maintained files on thousands of Americans, including some involved in sports. It would be irrational to think he would not have stayed abreast a legal case involving someone of Bryant’s stature during such a tumultuous time.

Now on to Sam the Sham.

Southern Cal and Cunningham thrashed Alabama 42-21 at Birmingham’s Legion Field on September 12, 1970. Cunningham, an African American playing in his first varsity game, ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns. It was without question a superb performance by a solid running back playing on a mediocre team against another mediocre team (USC and Alabama were both middling in 1970 – the Trojans finishing 6-4-1; the Tide 6-5-1).

The myth is that the game somehow created a great awakening among Bama fans in particular and SEC football fans in general … that the outcome put those old redneck racists from Dixie on a racial road to Damascus.

Nonsense.

Here are three very quick facts to debunk the myth.

1) SEC football teams had already desegregated (a more accurate word than integrated) almost five years earlier.

Southeastern Conference football officially desegregated in December 1965 when Kentucky signed two African American players – Greg Page of Middlesboro and Nat Northington of Louisville – to football scholarships. Freshmen were ineligible, meaning the two could not play varsity football until 1967.

Page, the more heralded of the duo, suffered a tragic preseason injury during practice and died before the 1967 season. Northington played briefly that season but soon quit football and withdrew from school (apparently in large part as a response to the stress of dealing with Page’s tragedy).

2) Because of those circumstances, the first black player in the SEC to earn a varsity football letter was Lester McClain, a wingback from Antioch, Tennessee.  He accomplished the feat during the 1968 season with the Tennessee Volunteers (two full years before that balleyhooed Bama-USC game). McClain would go on to a fine career from 1968-1970 that included three straight wins over Bryant’s Bama teams.

McClain’s path was interesting because the Vols signed him to a great extent simply to be a roommate of the man that was supposed to be the racial barrier breaker in Knoxville.

Albert Davis was the nation’s top football player in 1966, and signed a scholarship offer with the Vols in April 1967. McClain was then signed so Davis would have another black player with whom to room (a common concern for coaches of the era). When a test score controversy kept Davis from enrolling, McClain toughed it out (with very few overt racial problems) and earned the conference pioneer distinction in the fall of 1968.  Davis would end up at Tennessee State and later bounce around professional football for a few years.  By the way, if you listen closely, you can hear Bear Bryant refer to Davis in the HBO documentary “Breaking the Huddle” (explaining there was a  black player in Tennessee he’d wanted to recruit).

3) The Alabama football program had already signed Wilbur Jackson, the school’s first black football signee, to a letter of intent before the Trojans and Cunningham rolled the Tide. Jackson would suit up in 1971 and become one of Bama’s greatest wishbone backs (Junior college transfer John Mitchell would actually be the first black player to play for the Tide varsity in 1971).

So, by the time Sam Cunningham and Southern Cal won that football game in 1970 … SEC football had been desegregated for nearly five seasons, the first African American letterman had earned that distinction two full seasons earlier, and Paul “Bear” Bryant had already decided to open his recruiting up.

Add to those factors other social influences – professional sports teams had come to the South in 1966 when Atlanta welcomed the Braves and Falcons (both fully integrated – the Braves having several well-known players of color); federal investigators had visited southern campuses in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which outlawed racial discrimination by any institution receiving federal funding) causing pressure on schools to adhere to the legislation; high schools across many southern states desegregated during the late 1960s resulting in blacks and whites playing with and against one another (think Remember the Titans) … all these factors played a much more important role than did the over-hyped game at Legion Field.

Now, did the Trojan performance have any impact on attitudes toward SEC teams desegregating? Maybe, but at best it only hastened a process already well-under way.

 Any knowledgeable fan of the sport recognizes that suggesting USC and Sam “Bam” Cunningham played “a game that brought an end to segregation in college football” (as described on USC’s athletic department website) is farcical.

As Taylor Watson, curator of the Paul Bryant Museum at Alabama, states in the AP story … “The idea that the Southern Cal game meant they could integrate at Alabama is the greatest myth in college football.”

Such myth-making and political correctness turns a great performance from Sam “Bam” Cunningham into something that might more accurately be labeled Sam the Sham.

Beware of politically correct sportswriting – it’s a sham.

(Dr. Bob Epling’s doctoral dissertation Seasons of Change: Football Desegregation at the University of Tennessee and the Transformation of the Southeastern Conference 1963-1967, was the first such scholarly work to examine the racial desegregation of big-time football in the South’s most storied athletic conference)

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One thought on “Sam the Sham

  1. While the impact of this game has been overplayed for years, I do think it is still fair to say that this game did open the floodgates for SEC and other southern schools to recruit black players. This also opened things up for some schools outside the south. I have a copy of the Army-Navy game program from 1963 (played after JFK assassination) and neither of the academies had a single black player. It wasn’t all that long before this that the Big 10 and other northern schools had unwritten and unspoken quotas for black players. When Woody Hayes got to Ohio State in 1951 the unwritten rule was that no more than four blacks could be first string a any given time. Being a young and upcoming coach at the time, Woody played along as much as he had to until he won his first national championship in 1954. At that point he was able to recruit and play whoever he saw fit. Other northern schools of course followed suit.

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