In the news lately, there has been talk about USC and Alabama scheduling a football game together in 2016. With that, the myth machine is again out in full force trumpeting the Trojans revolutionary role in breaking down the racial barrier in college football.
As the story goes, a segregated University of Alabama team under legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant played USC in 1970 at Alabama. In that game, USC with its African-American players, trounced Alabama 41-21. From that single game, USC showed the Alabama coaches, fans, the south, and the entire nation that all-white teams are a thing of the past and these teams must integrate to compete with the likes of progressive schools like USC. Over the years dubious statements and myths started sprouting like African-American Trojan player Sam Cunningham (or USC depending on the source) did more in one game to integrate southern football than Martin Luther King did in 20 years. A popular myth is that Bryant was so impressed with USC’s Cunningham that he took the Trojan running back into the Alabama locker room and told his players that Cunningham is what a real football player looks like.
There is a little bit of truth to some of this. For instance, southern teams did start recruiting African-Americans more heavily after that game. Perhaps the resistance to integration was not as forceful as the need to win. Perhaps it was just time and had nothing to do with the 1970 game. Other SEC teams were already integrating before this game.
However, when the facts are examined, there is also a lot of myth surrounding this game as well.
For instance, the myth that Alabama never played integrated teams before playing USC. That is one of the reasons this game is supposed to be so important.
Actually, the Tide played integrated schools before the Trojans, starting with Penn State in 1959, and later Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Another myth is that Alabama was a segregated program and the USC game changed that. Close but not entirely accurate. Bryant had already started recruiting African-Americans before that game and the Alabama program was in the process of being an integrated team. During the USC-Alabama game, Wilbur Jackson was a scholarship freshman wide receiver sitting on the Alabama team sidelines. He was also African-American. He didn’t play in the game because at the time, the NCAA did not allow freshman to play. Bryant had been offering scholarships to African-Americans and Jackson was the first to accept and enroll.
While to their credit, USC did have African-Americans on their team in 1970, it was not always that way. We were unable to find any evidence that USC recruited African-American players as trailblazers in integrating college football. In fact, it seems the opposite and they were late to the party. Just like Alabama.
In our research, we could find very little information regarding USC and African-American football players before the mid-1950’s. There was a Trojan African-American offensive lineman in the 1920’s named Brice Taylor. Taylor was a starter and USC’s VERY FIRST All-American. You would think USC would trumpet a man like Brice Taylor from here to eternity, wouldn’t you? But they don’t. In fact, they didn’t even mention him in their football media guide until the 1950’s and he didn’t get inducted into the USC football hall of fame until 1995. 70 years after he played!
After Mr. Taylor, there appeared to be quite a drought of African-American players on USC’s roster. The next African-American player we could find was a whopping 30 years later in the 1950’s with C.R. Roberts. Roberts was an African-American Trojan fullback who had to visit UCLA in order to join certain clubs. He had no choice since USC allowed all-white clubs. Subjected to racial discrimination and bigotry at USC, Roberts to his credit stuck it out. Interestingly enough, The USC website didn’t mention this. Instead they honor Roberts for making “social history” by being on the first integrated team to play in Texas. We guess that kind of spin is called making lemonade out of lemons.
Perhaps most ironic, today’s USC Trojan African-American football players practice on Howard Jones Field. Our research could not find any evidence of Jones recruiting or offering a scholarship to a single African-American before the early 1950’s. Jones inherited Brice Taylor, as mentioned above, from the prior coaching staff.
While a football game that changed history makes a great USC public relations story, we believe the men and women who gave their hearts and lives to effect change in racial equality is the real story. Their work was not a game, but a brave, powerful, profound statement made after decades of struggle.
For a deeper look into USC’s history of integration, or lack thereof, read our opinion piece called “How to Out-Recruit USC Part III.”