For those of us who love Southern football and its history, it doesn’t get much better than tonight: Two of the region’s traditional powers meeting for all the marbles. And they’re doing it in New Orleans, not in some outpost outside the region.
Last week, Ted Lewis of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans (which still does as good a job covering sports as any newspaper in America) had a fascinating story on how the state of Alabama’s self-image was closely tied to the Crimson Tide during the civil rights era.
“To the white citizens of the state, Bear Bryant’s undefeated 1961 national champions, his first of six at his alma mater and the school’s first in 20 years, were a source of esteem and self-respect in ways that went far beyond what transpired on the football field,” Lewis wrote.
Of course, the same was true across much of the South in those days.
Consider the 22-game winning streak posted by the Arkansas Razorbacks that included several versions of the national championship in 1964 and an undefeated regular season in 1965. Many of you have seen the film footage that KATV sometimes shows of the end of the Jan. 1, 1965, Cotton Bowl victory over Nebraska.
An Arkansas fan is on the field waving a large flag.
It’s not an Arkansas state flag.
It’s not a flag with a Razorback on it.
It’s a Confederate battle flag.
In his story, Lewis quoted from a letter Congressman Frank Boykin of Mobile wrote to Bryant the day after Alabama concluded its 1961 season with a 10-3 victory over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl: “The Alabama football team showed the world, the whole wide world, what our men could do. There was so much joy, there was so much pleasure that you gave all of the home folks and people all over the South, and people all over the nation that want us to keep some part of our way of life.”
“Our way of life”: We know what that was code for.
U.W. Clemon, a retired federal judge from Birmingham and a civil rights activist, told Lewis: “Black teams didn’t get a chance to play at Legion Field, and it was located right in the middle of the black community. That stadium and the Alabama football team were symbols of segregation, and you would have to say they were very bitterly resented.”
Lewis wrote: “Just in that spring of 1961, the Freedom Riders had been attacked in Anniston, Ala., and Birmingham en route to their planned ultimate destination of New Orleans. State troopers and the National Guard were required to escort the buses to the Mississippi state line where most of the Freedom Riders were arrested, never making it to New Orleans. And fairly or not, events like that, as it turned out, contributed to the reasons why Alabama’s season ended in Louisiana instead of California and the Rose Bowl, where a rare opportunity for the Tide’s participation had occurred. Unfortunately for the Tide, that opportunity coincided with a time when the national perception of the state couldn’t have been much worse.”
Alabama has played six times in the Rose Bowl, more than any school outside of the Big Ten or what’s now the PAC 12. It was, in fact, Alabama’s success in the Rose Bowl that first put the Crimson Tide — and to a certain extent Southern college football — on the national radar screen.
On Jan. 1, 1926, Alabama shocked Washington, 20-19, in the Rose Bowl.
The Crimson Tide returned a year later and tied Stanford, 7-7.
On Jan. 1, 1931, Alabama defeated Washington State, 24-0, in the Rose Bowl.
The Crimson Tide was back on Jan. 1, 1935, to defeat Stanford, 29-13.
Alabama fell to California, 13-0, in the 1938 Rose Bowl.
The Tide won the 1946 Rose Bowl, 34-14, over USC, making them 4-1-1 in the game.
In 1961, the faculty council at Ohio State voted 28-25 against allowing the Big Ten champion Buckeyes to play in the Rose Bowl. Sports Illustrated headlined the story in its Dec. 11, 1961, issue this way: “Agony Instead of Roses in Columbus.”
Here’s how the story began: “Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes did not hear the news until he arrived at the Hollenden Hotel in Cleveland to make a speech. When reporters told him, he dropped his bag and walked out. For an hour and a half, he roamed the Cleveland streets, trying to compose himself. But back on the campus, the Ohio State students were making no such effort to count to 10. They burned members of the faculty in effigy, snake-danced down the main street, surrounded the Capitol building, broke windows, besieged and insulted their professors and generally raised the most hell that has been raised in Columbus since V-J day. Over what? Over a faculty decision not to permit the football team to go to the Rose Bowl.
“Such matters are not taken lightly in the capital city of Ohio and the home of the finest grind-it-out college football team in business. The local TV and radio stations, without exception, joined in denunciation of the anti-Rose Bowl faculty members, some of them in violent terms. The Columbus Dispatch, in an act of dubious public service, printed a list of those professors voting against the joyous trip to California, complete with addresses, salaries and amounts of money spent this year on out-of-state travel at state expense. The result was that the offending professors were jeered, scowled at, browbeaten, telephoned day and night and greeted with messages in Anglo-Saxon monosyllables on blackboards all over the campus.”
The story went on to note that Ohio State was “ripped and torn by an internal battle over football, a battle which has been going on for several years and will most likely continue for many more years. Ultimate control of the athletic program rests, by Big Ten law, with the faculty, and more and more the faculty has become exercised.”
Faculty members felt football had become the tail wagging the dog at Ohio State.
This created a rare opportunity for Alabama to return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1946. Bryant, as a lanky kid out of Fordyce High School, had played on Alabama’s 1935 Rose Bowl team. He always considered it a highlight of his playing career.
He began to lobby hard to secure an invitation for the Crimson Tide.
But lobbying just as hard against him was one of the nation’s top sports columnists, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times.
“The University of Alabama just about wrapped up the all-white championship of the cotton picking world,” Murray wrote after Alabama beat Georgia Tech during the regular season.
He also wrote this: “In Alabama, evening wear is a hood with eyeholes.”
Students at UCLA, which would be the Rose Bowl opponent, planned a massive protest if the all-white Alabama team were invited. Bryant decided not to subject his players to such criticism, choosing to go to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
The Alabama president, Frank Rose, explained that “the boys voted to go to the Sugar Bowl.”
Lewis wrote, “Uncharacteristically, Bryant had no comment, but a half-century later, Paul Bryant Jr., said: ‘I think he kind of told them how to vote.’ So Sugar Bowl president George Schneider, former president Sam Corenswet and his son, Sam Corenswet Jr., who was the bowl treasurer that year, attended the Alabama-Auburn game at Legion Field in Birmingham to make the official invitation after the Tide’s 34-0 Iron Bowl victory.”
Alabama and LSU had not played each other during the regular season that year. Sugar Bowl representatives wanted No. 4 LSU to battle No. 1 Alabama. There was a problem: The LSU coach, Paul Dietzel, was still bitter about being forced into a Sugar Bowl rematch with Ole Miss two years earlier. He decided that the Tigers would instead go to the Orange Bowl to play No. 7 Colorado.
Dietzel told LSU athletic director Jim Corbett: “If you want this team to play in the Sugar Bowl, you’re going to have to take ’em.”
With LSU out, members of the Sugar Bowl committee wanted to invite No. 5 Ole Miss, which had lost to LSU, 10-7. Rebel Coach Johnny Vaught, who had taken teams to the Sugar Bowl the previous two seasons, instead decided to play No. 3 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
“The remaining choices were limited,” Lewis wrote. “In 1956, the Louisiana Legislature, over the opposition of the Sugar Bowl, had banned racially mixed sporting events. That severely limited the Sugar Bowl’s options, and Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl, plus the new Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, with no such restrictions, were challenging the Sugar Bowl’s primacy.
“It was another three years before the Supreme Court, in a case argued by future New Orleans Mayor Dutch Morial, would declare the Louisiana law unconstitutional. In 1973, Morial became one of the Sugar Bowl’s first African-American members. No. 9 Arkansas, the most attractive available team, got the invite.”
Though the Razorbacks lost 10-3, they scored the first points on Alabama in six games. The Tide had given up just 25 points all season.
Jim Murray called the Sugar Bowl “the Syrupy Sweet White Supremacy Bowl.”
He had praised the UCLA students for “announcing that under no circumstances that they were willing to waive the Emancipation Proclamation for a single New Year’s afternoon. … This hit as hard as Fort Sumter as if Sumter had retured fire after all these years.”
Minnesota ended up with the Rose Bowl invitation and defeated UCLA, 21-3.
Meanwhile, Bryant would bring Alabama teams to the Sugar Bowl seven more times, winning six of those games. Among those wins was a game against Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1980, that secured the Tide’s second consecutive national championship.
Tonight, the Tide is back in New Orleans.
Though it’s just an hour from the LSU campus, it’s a city that has played an important role in Alabama’s football history and the football history of the South.