By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist
Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, Jan. 2, 1967. The winter of 1966 was droning past, blustery mean and chill, though dry. Not dry this day in Tulane’s Yulman Stadium. Early morning rain slanted in from the north, dampening turf but not spirits.
By 1pm, the rain goes thin and cold, and a screaming tears across the gunmetal sky. Onto the slick green grass there suddenly runs the 9-1, #6 Nebraska Cornhuskers, champions of the Big 8 Conference, and the undefeated #3 Crimson Tide, co-champions (Georgia) of the SEC.
Behind the Tide, with that insouciant Big Cat walk (‘ware the metaphor), strides Paul Bear Bryant.
A choice memorabilia of the weekend was a postcard bearing a grainy pic of Bryant supposedly walking upon Lake Pontchartrain, out for his morning stroll. Bryant was offended, found it sacrilegious, and refused to autograph it.
Paul Bryant was, and is, a hero of mine. Most of my family attended the University of Alabama, though I try not to be one of those meager people who want to see everyone else lose. I am not a tree poisoner. Maybe my favorite motto is, “God bless peaches and the SEC.”
My earliest memories, however, include my uncle taking me to Bama games. I was one of the ten million people in the stadium the first day Bryant walked on the field as the Tide’s head coach. (If half of those who claimed they were there had in fact been there, the Grand Canyon wouldn’t have held them.) I was 9.
My uncle pointed to Bryant and said, “That’s the man that’s going to take Alabama football back where it should be.” Good call, Uncle Harry.
So, later, I was a college freshman visiting The Big Easy, mouth watering for another Natty.
Alabama had won Natties the previous two seasons and owned a 17-game win streak that wouldn’t be stopped this day, though the three Husker fans sitting in the South end zone behind my two friends and I bet us five bucks each that Nebraska would win.
About that time, the starting line-ups were introduced on the field, player by player, starting with Nebraska.
As Alabama players were introduced the rain, which had intensified, slackened. Halfway through the introductions, it stopped. When Bryant was introduced, I kid you not, the sun broke through.
The guy behind us sort of laughed, a bit uneasily, and said, “Uh oh. I heard about it, but I never believed it.”
The first play of the game, Kenny Stabler hit Ray Perkins for 45 yards and the guy behind us said, “Uh oh,” again. A few plays later, Steve Davis plunged in from the one. At the end of the first quarter, it was 17-0 and the Nebraska guy stood up and reached for his wallet.
My buddy said, “What? The game’s not over.”
“It is for us,” said the guy, heading for the exit.
And so it was, 34-7. Bryant said it was his best team, but neither the AP nor the UPI named it National Champion. It was the only undefeated, untied (ties were allowed) college team in the nation. Notre Dame and Michigan State played to a drab 10-10 tie, but the news polls selected them 1 and 2, respectively. Few agreed.
The Green Bay Packers won the National Football Championship that year. When someone asked Coach Vince Lombardi how it felt to have the best football team in the world, he replied, “I don’t know. We haven’t played Alabama.”
Valuable lessons were learned, though. Alabama was refused the title because it was segregated, something Bryant had argued against, but in George Wallace’s Alabama….well, you know.
I also was at the 1970 USC-Alabama game when the Trojans with Afro-American and All-America running back Sam Bam Cunningham thumped the Tide 42-21. Bryant supposedly went to the Trojan locker room, got Cunningham and took him to Alabama’s and said, “Gentlemen, let me introduce you to a football player.” That didn’t happen, but he might’ve been the one who said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in an hour than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
Bryant was already recruiting black players and the following year started John Mitchell at defensive end against Mississippi State. The man was difficult to block. After him a host of black athletes came to play in the SEC.
The best anecdote might be the one in which a sportswriter asked Bryant how many black football players he had. Bryant said he didn’t have any black football players. The perplexed writer asked how many white football players he had.
Bryant said, “I don’t have black football players. I don’t have white football players. I have football players.”
The excellent Todd Stacy, my publisher, didn’t care for the first column I wrote for today. Orange and Blue to his core, Todd said, “I’d rather you wrote about Bear Bryant walking on water than about this.” And so:
Here you go, partner.
(Next week: The Snake and I.)
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com.