One night two teams
In 1970 the University of Southern California Trojans opened the season on the road against the Alabama Crimson Tide. The game featured two Hall of Fame coaches in John McKay and Paul “Bear” Bryant, star players Sam “Bam” Cunningham, Scott Hunter, Clarence Davis and Jimmy Jones.
The game was a competitive rout as the Trojans won going away 42-21. However, the game is remembered 40 years later as the turning point in Alabama integration.
At the time the University of Alabama was all-white, a holdover vestige of the Jim Crow south in which blacks and whites couldn’t even drink from the same fountain. “Bear” Bryant wanted to recruit African-American players but couldn’t find much support. His best friend, John McKay, agreed to bring his USC Trojans east for a game. The Trojans were one of the most diverse teams in the nation under McKay, starting African-Americans at quarterback and middle linebacker long before it was common.
After the defeat, Alabama boosters realized that they needed to change their racially myopic ways in order compete for national championships. According to legend, an Alabama assistant said that Sam Cunningham and USC did more for integration at Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King, Jr. did in a decade.
One would think a book about a socially significant game with a cast of characters that includes the always quotable John McKay would be a can’t miss proposition. In the hands of Steven Travers however, this book rapidly becomes a tedious bore.
When not forcing his biased political opinions down your throat, Travers spends dozens of pages revising history. If you are even slightly liberal in any way, Travers blames you for all that ails America. Also, if you are not an American citizen, Travers will probably irritate you with his constant drumbeating for American exceptionalism theories.
For example, even though Britain outlawed the slave trade long before America (and without a bloody Civil War to boot), in Travers mind the British were not as enlightened when it came to race relations as Southern plantation owners.
This kind of nonsense gets in the way of what should be a thoroughly refreshing look at John McKay during the height of his success at USC. For all its shortcomings, the book does provide a view on McKay’s racial progressivism, stature among his collegiate peers and strength of character that has been lost to time. Also included are interviews with former Buccaneer players JK McKay, Mike Rae and Manfred Moore.
The book is good reading for those who want to learn more about John McKay’s pre-Buccaneer days. Just be prepared to flip through a lot of political posturing and historical revisionism to get to it.
Denis Crawford, June 2011