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College Football 150

John Mitchell fought segregation at Alabama and made football history

He was Bear Bryant’s first black player, captain, All-American and assistant coach

Those who are too young to remember when Paul “Bear” Bryant and Alabama ruled college football are likely also too young to remember when Jim Crow’s grip on the state was even stronger.

John Mitchell and the first generation of African American football players at the University of Alabama remember it well. Mitchell was a child in Mobile when George Wallace made his notorious gubernatorial inauguration speech in January 1963 — he easily quoted the famous “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” line — and when Wallace stood in the door of Foster Auditorium to block the entrance of the first two black students at Alabama, defying the National Guard and the orders of President John F. Kennedy.

“I can remember as a kid watching that on TV, because that was really big,” Mitchell, who turns 68 in October, told ESPN this summer.

Yet, eight years later, in September 1971, Mitchell was running down the field in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on the opening kickoff for Alabama, wearing the crimson and white of the school he admired but had never believed he would ever attend or play for.

Until that moment against the University of Southern California (USC), no African American had ever played for Alabama.

Mitchell made the tackle too. “I won’t ever forget that,” he said. “That started a lot of good things for the University of Alabama and a lot of good things for John Mitchell.”

“Good things” is an understatement.

John Mitchell (center) in action for the University of Alabama.

Courtesy The University of Alabama

One year later, as a senior, teammates chose Mitchell as a team captain. A year after that, Bryant hired him as an assistant coach. Both were positions no black man had ever held at Alabama. And he began helping Bryant recruit more black players who had grown up under the thumb of segregation in his home state.

Those players, like Mitchell, had grown up loving Alabama football and admiring Bryant, addicted to the games on television and radio and glued every Sunday afternoon to Bryant’s weekly TV show.

“For most of us, it was like going to church every Sunday,” recalled Ozzie Newsome, who became a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer and architect of two Super Bowl champions with the Baltimore Ravens. Newsome, too, grew up wanting to play for Bryant and the Crimson Tide … and with few illusions about the possibility of black players suiting up there.

“There was so much negative publicity with the state of Alabama,” said Newsome, who grew up in Muscle Shoals. “We knew exactly what was going on, not just the school but the state.’’

Eventually, when Newsome was in high school, he saw Mitchell’s highlights on Bryant’s show. Later, Mitchell came to recruit Newsome and ended up swaying him toward Alabama and away from his original commitment to archrival Auburn.

By the time Newsome’s career in Tuscaloosa ended in 1977 — six years after Mitchell’s arrival as a transfer from Eastern Arizona Junior College, and 14 years after Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door — Alabama had 15 black players on the roster. Four black Alabama players had become All-Americans, including Newsome.

Mitchell was the first black player to achieve the honor at Alabama.

A football career spanning five decades

The paradox of Mitchell’s legacy is stunning. He hasn’t exactly fallen through the cracks of college football history, but that’s because the Alabama football family and all its descendants know exactly how large he looms. He stands at the center of the biggest integration tale in the sport. Yet the tale told most often about integration unfolded with him as an unknowing spectator and with others in the spotlight, including USC’s Sam “Bam” Cunningham and a freshman who is far better known as the program’s pioneer, Wilbur Jackson.

Mitchell was Bryant’s first black player, black All-American, black captain and black assistant coach, and to the average fan outside of Alabama, this all tends to come as a surprise.

Mitchell attributes the success he has had in football since to Bryant’s personal and direct influence. He has said often over the decades that he has gone as far as he has by applying Bryant’s lessons, even to the smallest detail. That has taken him since his four-year stint on Bryant’s staff ended in 1976 to Arkansas under Lou Holtz; to Birmingham in the old USFL; to Temple under Bruce Arians; to LSU, where he became the first African American coordinator in the history of the Southeastern Conference; to the Cleveland Browns with Bill Belichick; and to the Pittsburgh Steelers, for whom he has worked since 1994 under coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

A coaching career spanning nearly five decades — starting at age 20, when he went to Bryant after graduating to ask for help getting a job to pay for graduate school and was offered a coaching gig instead — doesn’t just reflect on his old coach and his determination to change a culture that desperately needed changing.

Alabama head coach Bear Bryant (left) and assistant coach John Mitchell (right).

Courtesy The University of Alabama

As the player Bryant brought in to change that culture, Mitchell was up for the challenge.

“They were looking for someone like John,” said Alabama alumnus and recently retired Albany State University president Arthur Dunning. “Branch Rickey did the same thing with Jackie Robinson. They weren’t looking for just an outstanding player, they were looking for an outstanding human being. I think they chose well.

“I knew people who knew him as a high school player. One heck of a football player, but someone who could enter that pressure cooker and do well.’’

Dunning was also from Mobile, and in a way he preceded Mitchell as a pioneer of Alabama football. He was one of the five black students Bryant brought in as walk-ons in the spring of 1967. Bryant was trying to nudge the door to integration open, and so were Dunning and fellow walk-ons Dock Rone, Andrew Pernell, Jerome Tucker and Melvin Leverett. Rone had approached Bryant about walking on, and Bryant accommodated them. Rone and Pernell even played in the spring game that year.

“Some of us thought, in the spirit of the 1960s, that we were redefining what life was in the South,” said Dunning, who went on to earn his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Alabama. “And one place where you can redefine geographic place and racial place was the Alabama football program. … If we had to choose one thing that would get the attention of the whole world, it would be through football.”

Pernell was later part of the discrimination lawsuit filed by the campus Afro-American Student Association against the university and Bryant in 1969 for not integrating the football team. The basketball team had finally brought in a black player, and Kentucky and Tennessee had signed players to break the SEC’s football color line the previous two years. Auburn and Florida signed their first that year. The state of Alabama, the school and their tainted histories were on the spot.

“We realized that for any of this to work, the John Mitchells and Wilbur Jacksons would have to be recruited to go to play,” Dunning said. “Let’s open up the system for the folks coming behind us. And those guys were the John Mitchells and the Wilbur Jacksons.”

Bryant recruited and signed Jackson that fall to play in 1970 (but not on the varsity, as freshmen were still ineligible under NCAA rules). Jackson was in the stands with his freshman teammates at Birmingham’s Legion Field for the opening game of the 1970 season against USC, the one that broke segregation’s back at Alabama, because of the way the Trojans’ Cunningham and several of his black teammates overpowered the Tide 42-21.

Which brings the story back to Mitchell, who was also in the stands, as a USC recruit, back home on break from junior college. How he ended up playing for Alabama a year later is part of the Bryant lore. Bryant and USC coach John McKay were close friends, and on a golf trip in California in early 1971, McKay mentioned that he’d just locked down a Mobile kid. Bryant immediately excused himself and called his contacts back home, including an influential judge and alumnus named Ferrill McRae, to go find this Mitchell’s family.

John Mitchell in uniform for Alabama.

Courtesy The University of Alabama

It had been the Bryant-McKay friendship that set the stage for the 1970 game, the first time the Alabama program had hosted an integrated team. Books and at least one documentary (2013’s Against the Tide on Showtime) have been devoted to that game and have speculated whether Bryant had planned the game to lose it and move the Alabama public closer to integration. McKay had been far ahead of the curve with a program built around black players throughout the ’60s, including black quarterback Jimmy Jones in that game at Alabama.

“I don’t think it was that clear,” said J.K. McKay, the coach’s son, a former USC player and former executive in the original XFL and the recently defunct Alliance of American Football. “But to know it had a positive impact on [integrating Alabama’s team], that’s pretty important.”

Of his father’s role in changing the narrative about black and white players teaming up in major college football nationwide, McKay said: “I speak, I think, for my entire family when I say we’re extremely proud of that, maybe more than anything he did, although it’s hard to think now of how extraordinarily difficult that was for him.”

Mitchell had help on his journey

John David Briley, a political science professor at East Tennessee State University and a former Alabama ball boy, titled his 2006 book about Mitchell’s initial season Career in Crisis: Paul “Bear” Bryant and the 1971 Season of Change. In light of the two straight mediocre seasons, his serious dalliance with the Miami Dolphins and the overdue embrace of black players, Briley called that “the Bear’s most important team.”

Mitchell got the full-court press from Alabama, including a dinner invitation from the Tide quarterback in the USC game, Scott Hunter, another Mobile native who got a call from Bryant after the team returned from their bowl game. Hunter recalls that his stepfather, “who was from Neely, Mississippi,” was all-in on the idea. Then he was told that his guest was black.

“There was about a 10-second pause,” Hunter recalled. “I told him, ‘You saw the Southern California game, you saw what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to go get these players.’ All he said was, ‘Can you ask the judge to bring him over after sundown?’ ”

Mitchell said he was never treated with anything less than respect by the people in and around the school and the program during his recruitment and his academic and playing careers. He is still close friends with teammate Bobby Stanford. They were the first interracial pair of roommates in program history. His teammates stood up for him and defended him in hostile SEC stadiums. “They would call you the N-word; you could hear that as you walked on the field easily, easily,” he said. The tension he encountered was almost always defused once people realized he was on the football team.

John Mitchell on the sidelines with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to Briley’s book, Tide offensive lineman Jimmy Rosser recalled that before Jackson enrolled and Mitchell was recruited, Bryant “told us that he was going to get the best athletes available to play for us and that included black players. He then proceeded to tell us that if any of you didn’t like that, then you could get the hell out of here, because that was the way it was going to be. None of the players left the meeting.”

Still, Mitchell knew what world he was entering because of the world he was raised in. He attended segregated schools in Mobile, and his Williamson High School team was barred from playing at Ladd Stadium, even though it was nearby. He only saw black players there when he sold sodas in the stands at the Senior Bowl, he recalled.

Having lived that life, what greeted him on campus was an adjustment: He had never had white teachers before, nor white classmates, and he was the only black student in each of his classes in Tuscaloosa. The black enrollment at the time — about 3% of 15,000 students — meant this for him: “You wouldn’t see an African American student for three or four days.”

He had been offered an academic scholarship to Alabama and several other Southern colleges as a senior in high school two years earlier, thanks to his winning a statewide science fair with his schoolmates and placing third in a national fair. But he wanted to play football, and Alabama was still far enough away from integrating that he never gave it a thought.

“I felt like maybe I was blessed. I got an opportunity that a lot of people before me, probably better than what I was as a football player, better than what I was as a student, didn’t get.” — John Mitchell

The 1971 season was to change all of that. Jackson and Mitchell were to cross the threshold. Mitchell had earned a starting defensive end job for the opener in Los Angeles, while Jackson was still an unproven sophomore who did not take his first varsity snap until the following week. Mitchell became the one who made history.

History has shown that Mitchell is far from an answer to a trivia question. Alabama went undefeated in the regular season before the Tide’s 38-6 Orange Bowl loss to Nebraska. As a senior, Mitchell was named an All-American by the American Football Coaches Association. He made the All-SEC team each of his two years.

He was just 20 when Bryant put him on the staff. They won the undisputed national title in his first season of 1973. Future legends Newsome, Dwight Stephenson, Tony Nathan and Sylvester Croom joined the program on his watch. “There was just something about him and the way he carried himself,” said Newsome, who changed his mind about Auburn after just one get-together with Mitchell. “He was the clincher in my decision to go to Alabama.”

Those players had the freedom to choose Alabama, something that black players before Mitchell had not had.

“Watching the news and everything that had happened in this state, I had mixed feelings,” he said. “I felt like maybe I was blessed. I got an opportunity that a lot of people before me, probably better than what I was as a football player, better than what I was as a student, didn’t get. … And that’s something that weighed on my heart heavily, because there could’ve been somebody a lot earlier than John Mitchell that could’ve been on that field. That made me think how blessed I am to have this opportunity.”

Nobody is standing in the doorway in Tuscaloosa anymore, least of all at the football stadium.

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.