“I wanted to be the Branch Rickey of football.”
That is what legendary Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant told B.J. Phillips of TIME Magazine just three years before he passed away in 1983.
Bryant was the Godfather of football in Alabama. Not only did he captain one of the greatest winning machines in college football history he formed a personal legend worthy of multiple books.
However, his greatest accomplishment may have been finding a way to use his titanic social influence and power within the Yellowhammer state to force segregationist Governor George Wallace to allow the mighty Crimson Tide to desegregate.
One month after his passing in Tuscaloosa, Bryant was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the United States.
While presenting the award, President Ronald Reagan praised Bryant’s winning spirit and his accomplishments as a coach before closing with this: “In making the impossible seem easy, (Bryant) lived what we all strive to be (Via UTexas.edu).”
Rickey did what no other Major League Baseball power player would do when he signed Jackie Robinson in 1947. He did so knowing the social repercussions that would follow his decision.
At the same time, Bryant was the head coach at Kentucky and itching to follow in Rickey’s footsteps.
Desegregation wasn’t a new concept in college football, as programs up North featured African-American athletes even before the turn of the century, but things were different in the South.
Dixie was only one generation removed from the civil war and racial tensions were still high, so when Bryant presented the idea of desegregation to the administration at Kentucky, he, predictably, ran into a roadblock.
“They told me no,” Bryant said to Phillips. “So for years, I used to recommend all these great black players to schools up North."
Eventually, as African-American talent continued to leave the south, the SEC was forced to integrate just to stay competitive on the national stage. This, however, didn’t occur until the late 1960s and early '70s, when Bryant’s Branch Rickey moment had long since passed.
In fact, exactly 11 years after Robinson retired from MLB, it was Bryant’s former school that broke the barrier. In September of 1967, Kentucky’s Nat Northington suited up for the Wildcats in a game against Ole Miss, becoming the first African-American to see action in an SEC game (Via The Courier-Journal). Making him, in essence, the Jackie Robinson of the SEC.
While Northington broke the line for Bryant’s former program, Bryant was still fielding all-white teams at Alabama and had been since 1958.
For a while in Tuscaloosa, Bryant had no competitive reason to integrate his teams, as the Tide won three national titles in the early 1960s without a single black player.
But in the late 1960’s, that all changed. Alabama slid into a streak of mediocrity, as integrated teams such as Ohio State and USC took over the top of the sport. Bryant’s Tide programs regressed until a 6-5 record in 1969 left some fans calling for his head:
"In '69, there were people calling for his resignation. They said 'The game had passed him by. It's time for Coach Bryant to go,'" said Taylor Watson, curator of the Paul W. Bryant museum in a video interview with CBS.
Bryant, however, saw the Tide’s struggles as an opportunity to use Alabamians’ pride in their football team as leverage to convince Governor George Wallace that the Tide needed to desegregate to win.
Of course, Bryant wanted to do so sooner, but Wallace wouldn’t allow it, threatening to cut funds if the Tide integrated, as Allen Barra revealed in American Legacy Magazine:
He was especially watchful of the University of Alabama and let it be known to the school's president, Frank Rose, that funds would be cut if he crossed swords with Wallace on racial policies. The result was that several Southeastern Conference schools, even Alabama's cross-state rival, Auburn University, integrated their football teams before Alabama.
But, Bryant came up with a plan to help Wallace and Alabama fans understand that integration was necessary.
He met with USC head coach John McKay and scheduled a game with the fully integrated Trojans in Birmingham, Alabama—where the Tide played the majority of their home games—for the 1970 season opener.
The Trojans had won the national title in 1967 and had a legendary African-American athlete—O.J. Simpson—win the Heisman the following year.
When the Trojans came to Legion Field in Birmingham in 1970, they brought a backfield that featured three African-American players.
Right from the start, it was clear that the all-white Tide were no match for the integrated Trojans, as USC smashed Alabama 42-21 behind a 135-yard two-touchdown performance from black running back Sam Cunningham.
This game stands out as the moment that led to the full integration of the Alabama football team and, thus, the SEC. Later, Bryant and the Tide coaching staff hinted of their plan, as written by Darren Everson in the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Cunningham is famously said to have done more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in 20 years. Aside from whether he did or not, the quote is alternately attributed to Mr. Bryant and two former assistants. "I've been here 20 years," says Taylor Watson, curator of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, "and I've never been able to figure it out.
Whoever uttered the now-famous dramatization was right. The next season, Alabama had two black players, junior college transfer John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson, who made the jump from Alabama’s freshman team in 1970 to varsity the following season.
By 1973, one-third of Alabama’s starters were black, according to Bryant’s biography on ESPN.com by Mike Puma. And from 1971 to 1979, the Tide claimed three more national titles, losing just 11 games in that nine-year span.
One of Bryant’s first black players was center Sylvester Croom, who would eventually become the SEC’s first black coach at Mississippi State—showing the lasting impact of Bryant’s work in integrating Alabama and the SEC.
Despite Bryant’s successes in providing opportunities for black athletes to play college football in the South, it’s hard to look at his actions in the situation and not believe that he could have done more.
In the end, Bryant did play the role of Rickey in the SEC—but only after taking “no” for an answer for more than two decades.