Andrew Zow: The Highs and Lows of Life as a Black QB at Alabama

Tim SmithSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 14, 2014

Hal Yeager

At the onset of the season, there was a battle between Blake Sims and Jacob Coker to see just who would succeed AJ McCarron as Alabama’s starting quarterback. In a state where college football is a religion, this was a heavily scrutinized tug of war.

While this played out, there was a not-so-subtle element of race bubbling beneath the surface. Sims is black, Coker’s white—there were questions if more than merit was at play. ‘Bama blogs and Facebook comment threads wondered aloud if race would be a factor.

Columnists suggested that SEC Network analyst Andre Ware favored Sims for the job primarily to champion a fellow black QB. In a region of the country with a complex history of race relations and at a school once on the wrong side of civil rights when Gov. George Wallace infamously stood in a doorway to block two black students from enrolling, it was no surprise that the quarterback battle would be framed this way.

Before Blake Sims this year, Andrew Zow was the last African-American quarterback to start at Alabama, playing from 1998 to 2002. Zow had an up-and-down career, playing through the turmoil of coach Mike DuBose’s final year and the uncertainty of Dennis Franchione’s two seasons as coach.

He was still able to guide Alabama to an SEC championship in 1999 and finished his career with 5,983 passing yards and 35 touchdowns. However, he was benched his senior season with some Alabama passing records within reach in favor of Tyler Watts.

Watts was white. People talked.

Today, Zow, 36, is married to his high school sweetheart and is the father of three sons and the head coach at Montevallo High School, about 30 miles outside of Birmingham. On a recent afternoon, Zow sat in his football office and reflected on his roller-coaster career at Alabama and what impact, if any, his race had on that experience.

Bleacher Report: Did your race matter at Alabama?

Andrew Zow: A lot of people want to make it racial a lot of time. I’m not going to say it’s not. Sometimes you may get the feeling that, "Hey, look this could be racially motivated." But with some of the things you put up with as quarterback, Bama fans could care less about your race. There’s the side of the fans who want their guy in there, regardless of what [racial] side you’re on. I put up with it.

There were times when I could have blown the top off it and said this is what it is. Sometimes I felt like that. But I had to think about the bigger picture for me and my family.

You run into some people who always had something to say, depending on whether you won or lost. We had a bad loss. I don’t know why, but I went to the mall. A guy stopped me and was trying to tell me how to play. I was pretty upset with him. As a quarterback, it’s hard to go anywhere. And that was when social media wasn’t that big. These guys now are like rock stars. 

AP Photo

B/R: Did the African-American community celebrate your accomplishments?

AZ: I was considered one of the most influential African-American athletes at the University of Alabama at the time. Back home in my community [Lake Butler, Fla.], I was more being celebrated as a kid playing quarterback in college than being a black quarterback at Alabama.

I don’t think they ever had anything specific where they held something for me. Within the black community, everyone was proud of me. You could sense the support, and they would say how many prayers they were sending up for me in being there and succeeding.

Sylvester Croom and his brother, Calvin Croom, they both played at Alabama. Calvin had a church in Tuscaloosa, the College Hill Baptist Church. The people at the church made a big deal of me playing quarterback. Calvin was one of those guys who celebrated and supported me. And Coach [Terry] Jones, the strength and conditioning coach at Alabama when I was there, he also went to the same church. He and his wife were very supportive of me. They had me come into the church and speak to the kids all the time.

B/R: What was it like being the QB at Alabama?

AZ: I came to Alabama not knowing what I was getting into. I was eight hours from home, and I didn’t know anybody here. I get here, and Bruce Arians, who’s now the coach for the Arizona Cardinals, is the offensive coordinator. I get into camp, receivers and upperclassmen love me because I have a live arm. Bruce Arians says, "You’re a quarterback."

There were rumors going around the locker room that they were going to move me to defensive back. I packed my bags that night to go back home the next day. I called my mom and, of course, she said pray about it and talked with her in the morning. I did, and I changed my mind.

I found out later the rumors were from another quarterback. He did it to get in my head. I was already on edge about it.

When Tyler Watts got there, there was more competition for me. I wasn’t a running quarterback. I wasn’t the stereotypical black quarterback. Supposedly the black kid can’t throw but can run, and the white kid can’t run but can throw. Those roles were reversed. Tyler ran a lot. It’s not that I couldn’t run. But in the SEC, if you can’t run faster than 4.5 [seconds in the 40-yard dash], you better be throwing the ball. And I had a strong arm.

Photo by Hal Yeager

B/R: Were you ever secure about your starting position?

AZ: I never liked splitting time at quarterback. They would switch me in and out [with Watts]. I remember going to Coach DuBose and saying, "I don’t want to share time anymore." He said we’re not. This was going into his last year, and he was having his issues off the field [a sexual harassment lawsuit].

We get out to UCLA at the start of the season, and we don’t know who the starter is. I was the starter coming out of the spring, but we don’t know who the starter is. I’m completely nervous because of it.

You know you’re going to get pulled at some time or another. But you don’t know when. As a coach now, I wouldn’t put that kind of pressure on a kid. You can’t play like that.

It’s the same thing with Blake Sims. You can’t play with the pressure of knowing that your coaches aren’t behind you. But in his case, I believe Coach [Nick] Saban and those guys are behind Blake. Regardless of what we think or the media thinks, I believe Coach Saban is behind him.

Going through that year was just hard. If the coaches aren’t on the same page, the kids aren't going to be on the same page. You’d see coaches arguing on the sidelines and coaches always at each other. It was a tough year.

Things didn’t get any better for me when Coach Franchione came in 2001. Our first conversation was him saying I couldn’t play for him if I turned the ball over. He was trying to get the point across on protecting the ball. But how can you play thinking if you make a mistake, you’re coming out? I had a rough third year, which is all on me. I take full blame.

B/R: Were there any specific decisions in which you wondered if race played a factor?

AZ: That third year, the only way I could play freely is if I knew I was going to play the whole game. I get into my senior year, and I come out of spring camp [the starter]. In fall camp, Tyler passes me up. How he did it, I don’t know.

Was it political? Part of me says yes, and part of me says he just beat me out. The competitive side of me says I did what I needed to do to get the job. We start that season 3-5. My senior year was starting like my junior year ended when we went 3-8.

We go into the Mississippi State game, and I look up at the sky, and I get this feeling that I’m going to play. Not wishing anything bad to happen to Tyler, but he gets hurt and I get in the game. I drive us down the field, and we win the game. I’m the Player of the Game.

Tyler is hurt pretty bad, and no one knows when he’s coming back. Even though I’m taking most of the reps in practice, practicing like the starter, they still don’t name me the starter. We played Auburn, and we beat them 31-7, and we had an unbelievable game. I’m Player of the Game.

We played Southern Miss the following Thursday night—to make up for the game we missed on 9/11. It was raining like crazy. We win, and I’m the Player of the Game again.

We go from 3-5 to 6-5. We make a bowl game, the Independence Bowl. It’s still up in the air going into the bowl game as to whether I’m going to be the starter. I’m thinking to myself, "So be it. The Lord has blessed me to have these last three games."

AP Photo

B/R: Looking back, do you have any clearer view about the reasons behind a few of those decisions?

AZ: There were some strange things that happened during my senior year. The four games I played, I was Player of the Game. I was also close to breaking some [team passing] records. In the UCLA game, Tyler goes down with cramps, I come in, and I’m 3-for-3, 95 yards with a touchdown. I get pulled because they said I had a concussion.

In the Mississippi State game, I drive us down to the goal line, and the third-string quarterback comes in the game, taps me on the shoulder and says, "Drew, I got you." I was like, "What?" I remember running to the sidelines, and I’m hot. Antonio Carter, who played wide receiver for us, said, "Drew, you haven’t said anything all year. Just keep it cool."

I was cool. Jonathan Richey was the third-string quarterback. He runs on the first play. On the second play, he fumbles, and Mississippi State gets the ball. We lose. No one ever explained why the third-string quarterback comes in the game.

B/R: What kind of relationship do you have with Blake Sims?

AZ: Going into AJ McCarron’s senior year, I spoke with Blake Sims the spring before last on the sidelines. I just told him to be ready. I’ve sent messages to guys who are down there for him. But he hasn’t reached out to me. You want the kid to succeed. This year is going to be tough.

The stuff on the field is hard enough. But the expectations are unbelievable. There are people out there that expect you to win a national championship and a Heisman.

I probably could have gone further in my career as a defensive guy, but I wanted to play quarterback. I wouldn’t trade it for the world because of what I experienced at quarterback at the University of Alabama—the good and bad. It takes a lot to play quarterback there.

Photo by Hal Yeager

B/R: How would you describe your relationship with the Alabama football program today?

AZ: My relationship with Alabama is good. Tuscaloosa is about an hour from here. I go down for A-Day. We have the Alabama connection [with former players]. I try to get involved if I can. My kids [three sons] and I try to go down for a bowl practice.

Coach Saban has been good to me. He’s very good with former players. He wants guys to be there for the other guys. If I was living in Tuscaloosa, I’d be going back there all the time. You talk about what he’s built there, it’s great. He’s very open.

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