Bear Bryant, John McKay & The Wishbone Big Parts Of Series History
Two of the most storied programs in college football meet again, with Alabama and USC playing in Cowboys Stadium – Jerry’s World – to kick off the 2016 season.
It’s a renewal of a brief, but eventful rivalry that has history and once featured two of the game’s all-time greatest coaches.
Most of the talk leading into the 2016 game will involve a USC player named Sam “Bam” Cunningham. Who’s Sam “Bam” Cunningham? Let Alabama’s legendary coach at the time, Paul “Bear” Bryant, explain:
“Running back for USC. Came down here and ran all over my skinny little white boys.”
Yes he did, and USC routed Alabama – and Bryant – 42-21 in 1970. Many point to that moment as the game that broke the racial barrier at Bama. And while it was certainly significant, there are other key moments and players that proved to be significant for both schools. There were even things that did NOT happen that were landmark moments for both Alabama and USC.
The year after the 1970 game, Alabama went to USC. The Tide was coming off the worse tenure of Bryant’s career. Bama was 6-5 in 1969 and 6-5-1 in 1970 and there was little to believe it would be any better anytime soon. It had been running a drop-back passing attack and there was no quarterback on the roster who could consistently throw the ball.
The Debut Of The Wishbone
So Bryant gambled.
In complete secrecy he switched to a run-oriented wishbone offense. So secret was the change that during media viewing period, he had the team running the old offense. When the media left, the team went back to practicing the wishbone.
And it set the tone for the greatest decade by a team in college football history. Alabama debuted the wishbone in the LA Coliseum, the Tide stunned the Trojans 17-10 and Bama rode the momentum wave all the way to an undefeated regular season. (The Tide lost to a super-talented Nebraska team in the Orange Bowl for the National Championship.)
The teams met twice more in that decade, making for an interesting scenario, USC winning in Birmingham and Alabama in L.A. In 1977, Alabama played a killer schedule – at Nebraska, at Missouri (a Top 5 team at the time) and at USC. The Tide beat Missouri but lost by a touchdown to Nebraska and went into the Coliseum a big underdog and its National Championship hopes as thin as the hair on Bryant’s head.
But Alabama charged to a 21-0 lead and hung on for a 21-20 win when a defensive end named Wayne Hamilton yanked down the USC quarterback on a 2-point conversion. Alabama fans were so thrilled the team was back in the national picture that they jumped into the fountain at the Rose Administration building. (Bama did not lose again, routed Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl but was robbed of a National Championship when Notre Dame leaped from fifth to first after beating #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.)
In 1978, Alabama fielded one of its best teams under Bryant, but an uncharastic six turnovers and another USC running back (this time Charles White) ran all over Bryant’s not-so-skinny and not-all-white boys. The final was 24-14. Ironically, USC did what it does so often – still to this day and even under Pete Carroll – it stumbled against a terrible team later in the season. It lost to a pathetic Arizona State team.
And so, by the end of the season, it was #2 Alabama beating #1 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl, winning the National Championship over USC, which beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl despite White seemingly scoring a touchdown without the football. USC did win the coaches poll, but only because the Purdue coach voted Bama so low it dropped the Tide to second.
But there’s more involving moments between the Tide and Trojans when the teams did not even play. Bryant loved L.A. – he was a player on Alabama’s Rose Bowl teams in the 1930’s – and always dreamed of coaching at USC. He had a chance, too, but turned it down to stay at Kentucky.
Likewise,, his pal USC legend John McKay almost wound up coaching at Alabama. In 1971, Bryant had accepted the job to be the first head coach of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Bryant called McKay to be his replacement and McKay asked for some time to think about it. But Bryant wanted an immediate answer and McKay – understandably – did not want to make such a quick decision.
Bryant wound up staying at Alabama, of course, and McKay at USC, until he went on to coach the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
So there’s a lot more to Alabama-USC than Sam “Bam” Cunningham, and the 2016 game renews this brief but historic college football rivalry.