Vahe Gregorian

Turning the Tide: Mizzou’s 1968 romp over Alabama helped break football color barrier

Paul “Bear” Bryant, left, led his Alabama Crimson Tide against the Missouri Tigers, coached by Dan Devine, right, for the first time in the 1968 Gator Bowl.
Paul “Bear” Bryant, left, led his Alabama Crimson Tide against the Missouri Tigers, coached by Dan Devine, right, for the first time in the 1968 Gator Bowl. From the book "MizzouRah! Memorable Moments in Missouri Tiger Football History"

Chances are Missouri Tigers fans know what happened the first time MU played Alabama, nearly 50 years ago in the 1968 Gator Bowl: Mizzou vaporized Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide 35-10, rushing for 402 yards and sacking Scott Hunter 12 times to leave ‘Bama with minus-45 yards rushing and 32 yards of total offense.

Afterward, Bryant told reporters that Missouri “ran up and down the field just as though they were playing a barbers’ college” and “toyed with us like children.”

What he didn’t say — out loud, anyway — and has been obscured by popular folklore is that Missouri’s dominance was pivotal in the integration of Alabama football. That’s a point worth contemplating now, in part given the lingering anguish over the 2015 racial protests in Columbia but also because the Tide will play host to MU on Saturday.

I’d heard murmurs of this notion before but never anything tangible beyond what my late friend and eternal St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bob Broeg said in his autobiography (some of this wording makes me grit my teeth, but I try to absorb it in the context of the era):

At a banquet for the two teams after the game, Broeg wrote, Bryant “grilled” MU coach Dan Devine about “his recruiting and handling of black players. Per Broeg, Devine responded that he had “less trouble with black players than white,” and added, “I knew that from then on, the Bear and ‘Bama would be color blind.”

Interesting nugget, but as we like to say in this business, “If your mother says she loves you … check it out.” Plus, the prevailing lore is that Bryant was most compelled to change after USC and Sam Cunningham blasted the Tide 42-21 in Birmingham in 1970.

After that game, for instance, former Bryant assistant Jerry Claiborne was widely quoted as saying, “Sam Cunningham did more for integration in sixty minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

Cover of the program from the 1968 Gator Bowl.

While there is something cringe-worthy in that way of putting it, it’s also just not true in any way — particularly as it pertains to Alabama football.

All this crystalized with a call Thursday to the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, where curator Taylor Watson laughed as I sheepishly wondered if he could clarify whether the MU game helped bring about the transformation that now seems inevitable but then was painstaking.

As it happens, Watson is working on a book about the greatest myths in Alabama football.

“Guess what’s No. 1?” he said, adding that it was the impact of the 1970 USC-Alabama game. “There’s more truth to the Missouri portion of that than there is to the Southern Cal.”

While adding that he had only met Bryant once “so I can’t get in his head,” Watson said he had no doubt about the impact of the game considering 12 of 55 players on that MU Gator Bowl roster were African-American. And he’s not alone among experts on Alabama football.

“It’s funny, I was just reviewing that game today. What a domination by Missouri,” Tuscaloosa News writer Cecil Hurt, whose father played at Alabama and who has covered the Crimson Tide since 1982, wrote me via Twitter. “I think Coach Bryant knew which way the wind was blowing, and the Missouri game accelerated it.

“In the spring of 1969, Pat Dye (then an assistant at Alabama) went to Ozark (Ala.) to begin the recruitment of Wilbur Jackson, who eventually became Alabama’s first black signee in early 1970. … So that timetable suggests Missouri might have had some influence before the 1970 USC game was ever played.

“In either case, the USC thing is definitely a myth although Coach Bryant never minded a good tale if he came out looking good. ;-)“

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Giant that he was, Bryant arguably could have come out looking better if he’d been a trend-setter instead of a temperature-taker whose first African-American players were John Mitchell and Jackson in 1971 — after at least five then-Southeastern Conference schools and 14 years after Norris Stevenson became the first African-American to accept a football scholarship at MU.

(With freshmen not eligible for varsity at the time, Jackson played in 1970 for the freshman team.)

There are a million ways to express Bryant’s stature, but let’s leave it to Devine himself at a pre-Gator Bowl banquet — as told in a blog by longtime Newsday writer John Jeansonne, who covered the 1968 game for the Columbia Missourian.

“One night in the winter, Bear had just gotten into bed and Mary Harmon” — Bryant always called his wife by her full maiden name — “said to him, ‘God, your feet are cold.’ And Bear said to her, ‘You can call me Paul.’ ”

Turns out, though, Bryant was flesh and blood up against the classic historian’s question of whether the times make the people or the people make the times.

“He didn’t really lead the vanguard; I wish he did, I wish I could say that,” Watson said.

As I suggested to him, he believes Bryant could have created change “because it was the right thing to do” a few years earlier.

But he also understands the cross-currents of the times and Bryant as a Navy man adhering to chain of command — which in this case included until 1967 having avowed segregationist governor George Wallace as president ex-officio of the university’s board of trustees.

Moreover, Watson said Bryant had taken some subtle, incremental steps forward in 1967, when five African-American players participated as walk-ons at spring practice.

If that was the beginning of the end of segregation in Alabama football, the next key step was administered by Mizzou in what was then one of just 11 bowl games overall, and nationally televised — something Watson also suspects was a factor in changing the climate.

“A lot of Alabama fans were watching that game,” Watson said. “And they may have crossed a little over the color line on that day, too — and thank God for that.”

What they saw was the Tigers dissecting a ‘Bama team that had given up 104 points all season … without MU so much as completing a pass. And they did it most visibly with Greg Cook rushing for 179 yards and three touchdown runs by quarterback Terry McMillan and a pick-6 by Dennis Poppe and another key INT by Roger Wehrli -- but most notably in this case with a supporting cast that was nearly 25 percent African-American and included stars such as Joe Moore and Mel Gray.

What they saw was the times starting to change — with a shove from MU. Whatever steps Bryant already was tentatively taking, Watson said, “I think it was a big influence.”

And a little-known part of Mizzou history.

Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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