John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


4 Lessons From an Epic Iron Bowl

Posted on December 2, 2013
Alabama ran the wishbone offense in the 1971 season, but that innovation didn’t help them slow down the Nebraska Cornhuskers, led by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers.

Rodgers happened to be an African American, which was probably the third reminder in three years that Alabama had to change its views of black football players.

It was the Liberty Bowl game against the Colorado Buffaloes in 1969 that was the first indication that Bear Bryant had a problem on his hands.  Alabama got crushed by Colorado in the game held in Memphis, Tennessee.   Several of the Buffaloes, who happened to be black, faced harassment and worse from the Crimson Tide fans, who weren’t used to facing integrated teams.  In fact, in the previous decade, Alabama rarely faced any team outside the Old Confederacy.

In 1970, Bear Bryant arranged a home and home series with his friend John McKay, who coached the University of Southern California.  McKay didn’t have the same recruiting restrictions that Bryant faced as far as who he could put on his team.  In other words, he had plenty of black athletes on his team, and when the fully integrated Trojans came down to Tuscaloosa and blew out the beloved Crimson Tide, it served as more than a wake-up call to assembled masses at Denny Stadium.

Bear Bryant wasn’t exactly a crusader when it came to civil rights, but he also didn’t want to lose football games.  And he saw the writing on the wall well before most other folks in his home state, including his Governor.  Those black kids could sure play football, and when Sam “Bam” Cunningham rolled into what would later become Denny-Bryant Stadium, became exhibit number one for the legendary coach.  He reportedly asked the future Patriots Hall of Famer to come to his team’s locker room after the game to let his squad see what a real football player looks like.

Bryant wanted to integrate his team far before he actually did, but he was held back by a Governor who made a living spewing racial hatred.  Despite being a legendary coach and the most respected figure in the state, Bear Bryant was a state employee and his boss was George Wallace.    Hard to call for integration of your football team when your State’s Governor is the loudest advocate for segregation.

I thought about this little bit of history as I watched the riveting Alabama-Auburn game over the weekend.  50 years ago, black kids wouldn’t have even bothered to watch that game, so disenfranchised they were from the college game.   50 years later, the African American kids are the stars.

I write this blog not to revisit painful history but instead to draw some important lessons about the future.

  1. First, beware of politicians who promise to hold back progress.  All too often, the political class exploits fear of the future to serve their own needs, stopping innovation to advance their careers, finding opportunity in resentment and prejudice.

  2. Second, the most important asset of any enterprise is people, and when you try to stop people from doing what they are good at, you end up hurting yourself.  The people of Alabama thought that they could continue to win despite keeping out the best players out of their program, just because they were black.  That turned out to be a losing strategy.

  3. Third, living in a bubble is very dangerous.  Alabama thought it had a great football program throughout the 60’s because they didn’t play anybody outside their region.  But to compete, you have to compete with everybody.  And the Crimson Tide fans learned that the hard way, first with Colorado, then with USC and finally with Nebraska.

  4. Fourth, innovation at the state level lifts all boats.  The irony is that the fiercest protector of State’s rights, the state of Alabama, learned a valuable lesson from the experience of other states.  California didn’t have racist policies and were able to innovate well-beyond where Alabama evolved.   I keep thinking that this marketplace phenomena will exert itself in other, more modern contexts, like with immigration and gay rights.  Immigrants and homosexuals help drive economic innovation, and if you are state that is hostile to both, you will fall behind economically.

All of these thoughts came to mind as I watched Auburn beat Alabama last Saturday night.    What a great game.