The results for the 30th Annual FWAA Best Writing Contest presented by collegepressbox include one writer who claimed a first place for a second straight year, one writer who had three awards and two first-time winners.
Dave Wilson of ESPN.com won first place in Column after winning in Feature last year. Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com took first in Game Story and added two honorable mentions. Rich Scarcella of the Reading Eagle (Features) and Tom Shanahan of the TomShanahan Report (Enterprise) were first-time first-place winners.
Three other writers — Drew Davison, formerly of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ryan McGee of ESPN.com and Chris Vannini of The Athletic — each claimed two awards.
First-place winners will receive game balls from Big Game and collegepressbox. Finishers 1-3 receive cash prizes and certificates. Honorable mentions receive certificates. The first-place entries are displayed in The Fifth Down. Follow the links below to read those stories.
To read the first-place stories, click on the links below.
Comment by the judge: Superb story about something that happened many years ago that even the most ardent college football fans probably don’t know about. Researching something as far back as the early 1960s is never easy and the writer does a fine job presenting it from all angles.
By Tom Shanahan
The 1962 Rose Bowl established a college football Civil Rights milestone, but the 60th anniversary of the New Year’s Day game came and went without attention or even a fractional accounting. What should be remembered as a tipping point quickly turned into an oxymoron – a “forgotten milestone.”
The culprit was a 1960s media custom of avoiding race in sports stories. In this case, failing to fully report on the maneuvering of a segregationist coach, Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Events began with a small group of UCLA Black students and the Bruins’ eight Black players angered upon learning Bryant attempted to gain a backdoor invitation to Pasadena in place of the traditional Big Ten entry. The Black students discussed a gameday protest at the stadium. The Black players, led by Kermit Alexander, a future NFL Pro Bowler with the San Francisco 49ers, threatened to not take the field.
The UCLA reaction was largely word-of-mouth — until Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray got wind of it. Murray understood its significance, unlike his peers – including those on his own paper — who followed media customs. Some looked the other way. Other writers lobbied for Alabama oblivious of social issues.
Despite the Times’ influential stature in Southern California, the 1961 UCLA protestations weren’t reported in the newspaper outside of Murray’s two Pulitzer Prize-worthy columns. They were published Nov. 19 and Nov. 20, with Birmingham, Alabama, datelines.
Murray’s biting words – his career later included a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for commentary – derailed Bryant’s backdoor maneuvering. A week after Murray’s stories appeared, Alabama president Frank Rose announced his school was instead attending the Sugar Bowl in segregated New Orleans.
Not a word was mentioned on the ESPN broadcast of the 2022 Rose Bowl, Ohio State’s 48-45 victory.
American sports can provide a stage for social change but telling the stories about race in American sports afterward are often complicated. Major media platforms avoid complicated stories that implicate a legend such as Bryant.
Alabama’s response, though, demonstrates Bryant clearly got the message when his team wasn’t invited. Taking his team outside the Mason-Dixon Line attracted unwanted attention. Bryant retreated into the segregated cocoon for the remainder of the decade. In the South, his antebellum attitudes versus the U.S. Constitution weren’t questioned by a fawning media.
For example, Bryant avoided criticism when Alabama’s campus desegregated in 1963. He blithely maintained an all-white program another seven years until recruiting his first Black player in 1970, Wilbur Jackson.
He didn’t schedule Alabama to play outside the Mason-Dixon until, oddly enough, a 1971 game against USC at the Coliseum. It was likely no coincidence that the 1971 season also was the first year Alabama dressed a Black player in a varsity game.
In 1961, news cycles moved to the day-to-day beat of newspaper reporting. Today’s frenetic minute-to-minute pace fueled by social media, sports cable TV and ubiquitous sports talk radio was decades into the future. Black Historiography – how history was written or ignored – explains how an Ohio State volcanic eruption quickly buried the UCLA/Alabama backstory beneath the lava.
First, Ohio State defeated Michigan 50-20 on Nov. 25 to clinch the Big Ten title. The volcano erupted two days later when the Ohio State Senate Faculty voted to decline a Rose Bowl bid if offered. Ohio State’s Senate Faculty had explained it feared coach Woody Hayes, who was in his 11th year with national titles in 1954 and 1957, had turned their school’s reputation into a football factory.
Ohio State professor Anthony Menitz of the Philosophy Department was quoted in an AP story published in the Nov. 28 Times: “The issue simply is this, we have the opportunity to destroy the image of this being the football capital of the world.”
The end result was the Ohio State tale – sanitized of race – quickly took over the news cycle. The narrative for posterity formed without UCLA/Alabama in historical memory.
Avoiding race in sports stories traced to the 1930s and the “Conspiracy of Silence,” a term that Black sportswriters used. They claimed the mainstream media was complicit maintaining Major League’s Baseball’s color line by failing to write about segregation in the national pastime.
Chris Lamb, who is the Chair of Journalism and Public Relations at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has written six books about race and sports. In Lamb’s 2004 book, “Blackout,” he explains the “Conspiracy of Silence” through the story of Jackie Robinson’s first spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1946.
Miami University’s Donald Spivey, a Distinguished Professor of History and Special Advisor to the President (Julio Frenk) on Racial Justice, began researching and writing about Black Historiography in the 1980s.
In today’s media world, UCLA’s 1961 players would have gained a place alongside their school’s long history of pioneers. The figures include the 1939 UCLA football team with Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. The trio’s story was recently retold in the 2021 book “The Forgotten First” by Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber.
All three players, who were from L.A.-area high schools, attended UCLA because USC shunned Black athletes in the 1930s. They later wrote more history in pro sports. Robinson, of course, broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Washington and Strode broke the same barriers in the NFL in 1946 with the Los Angeles Rams.
Basketball Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton, a socially conscious athlete throughout his UCLA and NBA careers, only recently learned about UCLA’s 1961 Black players standing up to Alabama.
“UCLA is full of stories like that,” Walton said. “I love that about UCLA. I’m so proud of and grateful for UCLA.”
The maneuvering behind the scenes of the 1962 Rose Bowl centers on Bryant and a key ally, Admiral Tom Hamilton. They were old Navy World War II friends.
Hamilton was the commissioner of the Athletics Association of Western Universities (a Pac-12 forerunner), but what stood out in his job title was the unique authority granted him to name the AAWU champion’s Rose Bowl opponent. Bryant counted on his old friend for a friendly invite.
The circumstances resulted from controversies seeded in the late 1950s with a West Coast pay-for-play scandal. It broke up the eight-team Pacific Coast Conference, creating a lapse in the exclusive Big Ten/PCC Rose Bowl contract that dated to 1947.
The five-team AAWU was formed: UCLA, USC, Cal, Stanford and Washington. The AAWU retained an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl but not the Big Ten. The first two years Hamilton stuck to the New Year’s Day traditional matchup. The 1959 season/1960 Rose Bowl paired Washington and Wisconsin and the 1960 season/1961 Rose Bowl pitted Washington and Minnesota.
What changed in the 1961 season was Alabama’s return to national prominence.
Alabama, Bryant’s alma mater, brought him back to the Tuscaloosa campus in 1958 to rebuild the program after successful stints at Maryland (1946), Kentucky (1947-53) and Texas A&M (1954-57). His 1960 Crimson Tide finished ranked No. 9 with an 8-2-1 record.
As the 1961 season unfolded and Alabama climbed toward No. 1, Bryant envisioned an undefeated season and his first national title on the Pasadena stage of the Granddaddy of Them All. Bryant knew firsthand the prestige of playing in the Rose Bowl – not to mention the financial rewards.
He played 57 minutes for Alabama in the 1935 Rose Bowl when the Crimson Tide beat Stanford. Alabama’s fanbase took great pride in participating in six Rose Bowls with a 4-1-1 record. In an era when poll voting declared the national champion at the end of the regular season, the Rose Bowl was the denouement to the college football season.
Alabama’s last appearance was in 1946, a year before Big Ten/PCC contract, but times changed by the 1960s. America was coming to terms, slowly, with the Civil Rights movement. Old-world men, Bryant and Hamilton, who failed to understand progress were being left behind.
Bryant, who died in 1983 at age 69, was raised in a world of 19th-century southern attitudes. His career thrived in an antebellum world the Ku Klux Klan violently fought to preserve.
Hamilton was a conservative military officer in addition to old-world man. Decades later, he never forgave Bill Walton for his arrest protesting the Vietnam War as a UCLA student in 1972. When Hamilton, in his retirement years, served on the board of San Diego’s Breitbard Hall of Champions, he told board members that Walton, a San Diego native, would never make the San Diego Breitbard Hall of Fame as long as he chaired the board.
Walton, an all-time talent honored by the NBA as one of its 75 greatest players, wasn’t enshrined in his hometown Hall until 1990 — after Hamilton no longer served. Hamilton died in 1994 at age 88.
The 1962 Rose Bowl, when studied chronologically in the archives of L.A. Times, provided an example of Critical Race Theory through football – without, hopefully, the political football. CRT’s purpose is to teach stories that haven’t been fully told. Sometimes those stories include exposing painful truths – a revered coach who was a segregationist, in this case.
It’s unclear when Alabama was first floated to exploit the Big Ten/PCC contract lapse, but speculation mounted by mid-November. In the Associated Press polls (released on Mondays) Alabama climbed from No. 5 to No. 4 on Oct. 23 at 5-0. The Crimson Tide jumped to No. 2 on Nov. 6 at 7-0.
On the same day the Nov. 6 poll was released, the weekly Southern California Football Writers Luncheon convened at the Sheraton-West on Wilshire Blvd. The luncheons were routine gatherings to hear from UCLA coach Billy Barnes, USC coach John McKay, Los Angeles Rams’ coach Bob Waterfield and other invited speakers.
Ken Hooton, the director of public relations for the Southern California Big Ten club, was invited as a Nov. 6 speaker. He foreshadowed impending events, dropping news hefty enough to top Al Wolf’s Nov. 7 Times story.
The headline: “Ohio State, MinnesotaMay Shun Rose Bowl”
At the time of luncheon, No. 3-ranked Ohio State and No. 5 Minnesota shared the Big Ten lead with unbeaten conference records.
Hooton, addressing the Big Ten race and Rose Bowl bid, said, “The Academic Senate at Ohio State is opposed to the Rose Bowl game and probably would not let the school accept a bid, were one received.”
Although the news was stunning, it wasn’t unusual in the 1960s for a college’s academic side of campus to wield authority over the athletic department. Notre Dame’s administration banned bowl games for academic reasons from 1925 until the 1969 season.
In those days, Notre Dame’s bowl ban had no impact on winning national titles since the final poll votes were tabulated after the regular season. Once the polls shifted the final votes to the conclusion of the bowl season, Notre Dame played Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl.
But Hooton’s time at the microphone didn’t stop with his Ohio State bombshell. He proceeded to inflame the Alabama speculation.
“It is my personal opinion,” Hooton added, “that Minnesota wouldn’t accept, even though it’s an individual matter for the schools now, because of a repeat trip would be contrary to Big Ten thinking.”
When the 1947 contract was signed, the Big Ten insisted on a no-repeat clause, although it only applied to the Big Ten entry. Minnesota had won the 1960 Big Ten title and played in the 1961 Rose Bowl. Although No. 1-ranked Minnesota lost to No. 6 Washington 17-7 in the 1961 Rose Bowl, the Gophers already had been declared national champion at the end of the regular season.
Wolf’s Nov. 7 story, using the Big Five nickname for the AAWU, continued: “So … Alabama may yet be the team which will oppose the Big Five champion next New Year’s Day. The Southeastern Conference does not have a tie-up with the Sugar Bowl, or any other bowl. Alabama has expressed a keen desire to play in the Rose, where it last appeared in 1946.”
In the Nov. 12 edition of the L.A. Mirror, the afternoon paper owned by the morning Times, sports editor Sid Ziff’s column addressed the issue.
The headline:“One Vote for the South.”
Ziff, noting a new Big Ten/AAWU contract was expected to be renewed prior to the 1963 Rose Bowl, suggested taking advantage of the outsider opportunity before the door closed. He nominated Alabama or Georgia Tech, another segregated team from the SEC (Georgia Tech left the SEC after the 1963 season).
On Monday, Nov. 13, Times sports editor Paul Zimmerman wrote in his column similar thoughts favoring the two SEC schools.
In the AP poll released in the same Nov. 13 edition, Alabama (8-0) remained No. 2 with three first-place votes. Texas was No. 1 with 41 first-place votes. Georgia Tech, which was also segregated, was No. 9 on Nov. 6, but its upset loss to Tennessee dropped the Yellow Jackets out of the Nov. 13 rankings (the AP poll was only the Top 10 in those days).
Wolf again covered the coaches’ luncheon on Nov. 13. His story in the Times on Nov. 14 was about an informal poll of writers.
The headline:“’Bama choice of writers for bowl”
On Nov. 15, the Times published an AP story with a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, dateline.
The headline:“Rose Bowl Fever falls on ’Bama”
The story highlighted Alabama’s pride in its Rose Bowl history. Curiously, though, the story also noted Bryant declined to answer questions about his Rose Bowl interest. Apparently, no one pressed him.
Two days later, though, Zimmerman’s Friday, Nov. 17 Times column made it clear Bryant wanted the Rose Bowl bid despite his silence. Zimmerman quoted Birmingham News sports editor Zipp Newman:
“The Crimson Tide would walk there if they had to, and that goes for Alabama’s president, Dr. Frank Rose, on down, although they can’t talk about it yet.”
In another story the Times published on Nov. 17, this one with a Miami dateline, the AP reported Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl scouts were attending the Nov. 18 Georgia Tech-Alabama game at Legion Field in Birmingham. Hamilton was indirectly quoted through the Orange Bowl’s executive director, Van C. Kussrow:
“Hamilton explained to me the Rose Bowl’s interest in Southeastern Conference teams,” Kussrow said. “He said their position had been made more difficult because Minnesota and Ohio State aren’t considered strong possibilities out there.”
That was more than Hamilton ever said directly to the Times or other Southern California media outlets.
By that same day, Friday, Nov. 17, Murray arrived in Birmingham for Alabama’s Saturday, Nov. 18 game. The Crimson Tide (9-0) beat Georgia Tech 10-0 to remain unbeaten.
In the Sunday, Nov. 19 Times, Murray’s column mocked Alabama’s Jim Crow society, fans and media deifying Bryant. They liked to say he could walk on water. Murray’s story led with the first reference to UCLAs protestations found in the Times archives.
The headline: “’Bama and Ol’ Bear”
“BIRMINGHAM — The University of Alabama just about wrapped up the all-white championship of the whole cotton-picking world here this weekend in a game quietly relegated to the 18th century before it began by a band of Negro students at UCLA.”
Murray, based on his column, seemed assured pressure would prevent Alabama from receiving a Rose Bowl invitation, but it wasn’t reflected elsewhere in his own paper. In the same Sunday edition, the Times’ college football roundup of Saturday game results touted Alabama’s hopes.
The headline: “’Bama scores Rosy win”
In the Monday, Nov. 20 poll, Alabama had climbed to No. 1 after former No. 1 Texas was upset by Texas Christian.
Murray saved his best writing – worthy of a 1961 Pulitzer vote recount — for the Monday, Nov. 20 edition.
The headline: “Bedsheets and ’Bama”
Murray labeled Birmingham as the “showplace of the South – gateway to the Ku Klux Klan.” He continued it was the place where, “when they say evening dress, they mean a bedsheet with eyeholes. And bring a match. We’re lighting a cross.”
Ouch! But it was fair.
Alabama in 1961 was known for the KKK bombing Black homes and churches. Birmingham, where Alabama played games at Legion Field, was known as “Bombingham.” Legion Field was located only blocks from the 16th Street Baptist Church that KKK members bombed two years later, killing “Four Little Girls.” The bombing was the KKK’s response to Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech” on Sept. 15, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial.
“The bombed-out houses aren’t the work of the enemy,” Murray continued in his column. “White male Americans are the enemies of America here. The Constitution is being torn in half by people whose ancestors helped write it. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s worse than un-American. It’s un-human.”
Then Murray got down to Rose Bowl business, explaining he joined Alabama writers on Friday to interview Bryant on the upcoming game at his Bankhead Hotel suite. But Murray’s questions weren’t about X’s and O’s.
He wrote, “Coach, Bryant,” I asked. “What do you think of the announcement out of UCLA that the colored players would not take the field against your team if it got to the Rose Bowl?”
Murray described a silence that fell over the room. Alabama’s media wasn’t accustomed to hearing reporters press Bryant – and certainly not about segregation. Then Murray quoted Bryant’s response:
“Oh,” he says. “I would have nothing to say about that. Neither will the university, I am sure.”
That Bryant response, especially in retrospect, added new insight to the old joke Bryant didn’t have a boss.
Murray’s “Bedsheets and Bama” story continued, describing the Alabama’s sycophantic writers looking at the floor until one with a “beet red” face spoke up: “Tell them West Coast N-lovers to go lick your boots, Bear.”
With Murray having brought UCLA’s opposition into the open, two Alabama newspapers attempted to discredit the UCLA Black students.
Author Kurt Edward Kemper documents this in his 2009 book “College Football and American Culture in the Cold War.” The Montgomery Advertiser reported UCLA’s administration was unaware of a Black student organization planning a protest. The Birmingham News wrote the protest plans were “greatly exaggerated.”
Some context is needed here. The claims were specious with the perspective of time. Black student groups mobilizing and gaining recognition from campus administrators was a product of the late 1960s. African-Americans didn’t have a voice on campus until examples of the UCLA’s 1961 students spoke up as activists.
Bryant’s lack of comment to Murray suggested he still expected Admiral Hamilton to bring the USS Alabama to the Rose Bowl port.
On the West Coast, Hamilton matched Bryant’s silence. He had little to say about the Rose Bowl pairing, even though there was heightened interest over the upcoming Nov. 25 USC-UCLA game at the Coliseum to decide the AAWU title.
It’s interesting to note Murray broke a sports media custom in only his first year with the L.A. Times (he wrote from 1961 until his death in 1998 at age 78). He had previously worked for Time magazine as an entertainment writer and the founding of Sports Illustrated in 1954.
A search of the LA Times archives reveals Murray’s Nov. 20 column was only the second and last reference to the UCLA protestations prior to the Rose Bowl. His colleagues failed to pick up on the significance of winning a standoff with a segregationist coach.
“Jim always believed that calling out injustice in the sports world was more important than reporting the results of games,” said Linda Murray Hofmans, Murray’s wife at the time of is death who directs the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation. “He wasn’t intimidated by other sportswriters, angry readers who demanded he ‘stick to sports,’ or even legends like Bear Bryant. He was a trailblazer in that regard.
“Most sportswriters of ‘60s and ‘70s defended the status quo or looked the other way, but Jim used his column as a bullhorn to fight for civil rights whenever he deemed it necessary.”
The Black weekly L.A. Sentinel and the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, were two Southern California newspapers not as likely to follow a 1960s media custom avoiding race, yet they also lacked UCLA protest references.
The Sentinel published a story criticizing Alabama as a potential choice but without mentioning a threatened UCLA protest. Brad Pye Jr. wrote the Rose Bowl Committee would avoid “adverse publicity” if it picked Ohio State over Alabama.
The headline: “Forget Alabama–Bring on Buckeyes”
Pye wrote, “Alabama hasn’t seen fit to put integration in action before now, so there is no reason why it should get an invitation to the Rose Bowl until such a time when it decides to put the American way into action on its own soil.”
Melvin Durslag of the Los Angeles Examiner also wrote a column criticizing segregated Alabama as a Rose Bowl choice.
The headline: “Alabama—An Insult to the Bowl.”
But only Murray confronted Bryant about the reaction of UCLA Black students and Black players. Kermit Alexander, a junior halfback in 1961, explained the players’ stance in my 2015 interview with him for FanRagSports.com (now out of business).
“If we can’t play on their field in Alabama, why should they be able to play on our field in Pasadena?” Alexander said.
Alexander added no one in the 1960s media questioned him or his teammates about Alabama. Alexander’s recent health has prevented a follow-up interview.
The Alexander interview was framed around the 2015 Missouri protest. By then, an enlightened media thoroughly reported such news and hailed Missouri’s football team for threatening a boycott if racial issues on campus weren’t addressed. The players were successful, forcing the school’s president to resign.
UCLA’s 1961 response was fueled by the progress of the Civil Rights movement. Only six months earlier, May 14, 1961, a white mob in Anniston, Alabama, ambushed and firebombed a busload of 1961 Freedom Riders — including Civil Rights icon John Lewis — protesting segregation on busses and at terminals.
In the Nov. 2 edition of the Times, an AP story with an Atlanta dateline reported a federal judge ordered police in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi – states where African Americans at bus terminals continued to be arrested — to uphold federal laws outlawing segregated busses.
But there were no follow-up sports stories hailing UCLA like there was for Missouri. Only a new narrative that Ohio State turned down the bowl bid. The Ohio State story remained entrenched in time.
The first Rose Bowl bid was decided on the field when UCLA-USC met Nov. 25 in a winner-take-all game marred by a rain-soaked Coliseum field. The unranked Bruins won the mud bath 10-7 to improve to 7-3.
UCLA’s students continued celebrating the Rose Bowl berth at a Monday, Nov. 27 campus rally. The Tuesday, Nov. 28 Times story covering the rally noted Hamilton “would not elaborate” on UCLA’s opponent.
Hamilton limited his comments to a list of five schools, two unnamed teams and three Big Ten schools, No. 2 Ohio State (8-0-1), No. 7 Minnesota (7-2) and No. 8 Michigan State (7-2).
Later in the day, Nov. 27, the Ohio State bombshell exploded. Ohio State’s Faculty Senate voted 28-25 in a secret ballot to reject the Rose Bowl.
Two days before the vote, the temperamental Hayes added to the professors’ perception of him in Ohio State’s 50-20 victory over Michigan to clinch the Big Ten title. Ohio State scored its final touchdown with five seconds to play, and Hayes ordered a successful two-point conversion. He repeated the rub-it-in tactic in 1968, scoring a two-point conversion to cap a 50-14 win. In the 1968 rout, Hayes explained to the media he went for two because he couldn’t go for three.
Hayes heard news of the faculty Rose Bowl vote upon arriving to speak at Cleveland hotel. He was reported to drop his bags and roam Cleveland’s streets without speaking. On the Columbus campus, police estimated students protest crowds of 5,000 on Nov. 27 and 4,000 on Nov. 28. Windows were broken and professors hung in effigy. The Columbus Dispatch printed a list of professors that voted.
On the second night of demonstrations, Ohio State team captain Mike Ingram told the students through a loudspeaker the players had accepted the vote and to go home before someone was hurt.
In retrospect, the student protests were another reason for the professors to believe their conclusions football was running amok weren’t unreasonable. The examples continued through the march of time. At the 1978 Gator Bowl, Hayes punched a Clemson player on the sideline and was fired, ending his career in disgrace.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the Daily Bruin reported on Nov. 28 Hamilton had watched the USC-UCLA game and returned to his San Francisco office, commenting only that the selection “might be withheld until after the games of Dec. 2.” UCLA athletic director Wilbur Johns said in the Nov. 28 Times he deferred all comments to Hamilton.
With Ohio State out, runner-up Minnesota, third-place Michigan State and fourth-place Purdue began lobbying for the Rose Bowl bid. Michigan State and Purdue hoped Minnesota would be skipped over in deference to the no-repeat Big Ten philosophy.
“If we get the bid, we’ll call the fastest meeting of our athletic council on record to accept it,” said Michigan State athletic director Biggie Munn.
Hamilton’s Dec. 2 games comment referred to Alabama playing its annual Iron Bowl against Auburn and Georgia Tech facing Georgia in their traditional rivalry game.
But Alabama president Frank Rose on Nov. 29 suddenly ended the speculation. Rose said if the Crimson Tide defeated Auburn, the school planned to accept a Sugar Bowl bid. Rose added the Sugar Bowl was the game the players preferred.
Alabama routed Auburn 34-0 and officially accepted the Sugar Bowl bid against Arkansas in New Orleans, but it’s difficult to accept Bryant, who coveted a Rose Bowl berth, left the bowl decision in the hands of a players vote.
Either way, unanswered questions remain.
When did Bryant and Hamilton back down? Did President Rose convince Bryant and Hamilton winning a national title in the Rose Bowl wasn’t worth the tradeoff. TV scenes would show UCLA’s Black students protesting outside the stadium and the Bruins’ Black players boycotting out of uniform. A largely world-of-mouth story would result in images leaping onto TV screens.
Alabama would be further portrayed nationally as a backwards state. And this time Bryant’s apologists couldn’t blame the KKK.
As the Rose Bowl announcement suspense mounted, Murray’s Dec. 1 column provided comic relief. He showed he was an equal-opportunity critic of Southern segregationists and Midwestern bullies.
The headline: “Love That Woody”
“So Woody Hayes is not coming to the Rose Bowl,” he wrote. “Dad rat it! Somebody’s always spoiling the fun.”
Murray added, “I have seen guys who were ungracious losers. But Woody was the most ungracious winner I have ever seen. He always broke me up. A loud, loveable character who went through life the way his fullbacks go through a line – knocking people down who get in his way. Once it was a couple of sportswriters.”
The Rose Bowl selection suspense ended on Dec. 2 with news topping the Sunday, Dec. 3 Times sports section.
The headline:“Minnesota to play UCLA in Rose Bowl”
In the story, UCLA captain Ron Hull said, “Most of the boys, after Ohio State and Alabama were ruled out, wanted to meet Minnesota. I’m sure we’ll give them a game.”
There remained no reference to a role played by UCLA’s Black students and Black players. Murray deserved a victory lap, but he didn’t write about the subject again. If the Alabama story wasn’t properly covered in Los Angeles, the deeper story also certainly was brushed aside in the Minneapolis media.
Minnesota All-American pick Bobby Bell, who played in the 1961 and 1962 Rose Bowl games, said in my recent interview with him he was unaware of the Alabama backstory.
“We never heard anything about the Alabama and a UCLA protest,” said Bell, a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer. “We only knew about Ohio State turning down the bid.”
The focus on the Ohio State narrative continued in a Dec. 4 Times column written by Braven Dyer. He noted comedian Bob Hope, with his Ohio ties, considered inviting Ohio State’s team to attend the Rose Bowl as his guests. Dyer’s column included a few jokes from Hope mocking Ohio State’s professors.
On New Year’s Day, 1962, No. 6-ranked Minnesota dominated the Bruins, 21-3. In the Sugar Bowl, No. 1 Alabama defeated No. 9 Arkansas, 10-3.
Arkansas’ players told reporters Alabama wasn’t worthy of its No. 1 ranking. At the time the Razorbacks were a Southwest Conference member, but their opinion didn’t matter. Alabama already had been named national champion in the final poll votes released on Dec. 4 at the end of the regular season, although it was a split title.
Among the four organizations the NCAA sanctions as designating a national champion in the poll era, Alabama (11-0-0) was voted No. 1 by the AP (writers), United Press International (coaches, now USA Today) and National Football Foundation. However, Ohio State (8-0-1) was named national champion by the Football Writers Association of America.
The Bear finally came clean 13 years later he had sought a 1962 Rose Bowl bid. He said so the release of his 1974 biography, “Bear,” written by John Underwood, an acclaimed Sports Illustrated writer.
Bryant not only admitted he both coveted the Rose Bowl berth and blamed Murray for costing him the invitation he went one step further. He claimed Murray’s two biting columns were motivated by revenge dating to 1955.
Bryant referenced his 1955 Texas A&M team losing to UCLA 21-0 at the L.A. Coliseum.
On Page 174, Underwood wrote Bryant stating: “… I snapped at a writer on the Los Angeles paper after the game. He asked if I had thought we could win, and I said, ‘You silly so-and-so, what do you think we came out here for?’
“Those things turn on you. Jim Murray came over and saw us play and made a fuss over our being considered for the Rose Bowl when we won the national championship in 1961. He wrote about segregation and the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and every unrelated scandalous thing he could think of, and we didn’t get the invitation.”
Murray didn’t work for the L.A. Times or any L.A. newspaper in 1955. In the early 1950s, he was with Time magazine and then began working for Sports Illustrated in 1953 as it prepared to launch in 1954. Murray’s 1961 motives were to offer a civics lesson to Bryant and a Jim Crow state.
Yet, Bryant wanted his readers to believe Murray’s motive was petty revenge. Bryant’s 1974 criticism of Murray also revealed how detached he was from the real world in 1974, not to mention 1961.
Alabama’s campus town of Tuscaloosa was the Alabama KKK headquarters. Joe Namath, Alabama’s legendary quarterback (1962-64), spoken in the 2013 Showtime film of his shock at spotting KKK billboards on his initial bus ride to campus from his home in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.
“The first bus ride I took going back into Tuscaloosa, Alabama, scared me a bit,” Namath said, “Against the Tide. “You know how they have the signs at the side of he road, Lions Club Kiwanis Club. Uh, huh. … Ku Klux Klan, home of the Grand Imperial wizard. What? Because all I ever saw of guys in white capes and burning crosses was in the movies.”
By 1974, Bryant had plenty of time to reflect on dragging out his resistance to integration, but he never apologized. He never explained why he was apparently oblivious to President Lyndon B. Johnson having signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
From 1962 through 1967, Alabama played only all-white southern teams. The exception was facing integrated Nebraska in the 1966 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The 1966 team played eight of its 10 regular-season games at one of three Alabama stadiums, Denny Stadium (now Bryant-Denny) on campus, Legion Field in Birmingham and Ladd-Pebbles Stadium in Mobile. The only road trips were to neighboring states, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Alabama’s first integrated regular-season opponent was SEC-rival Tennessee in 1968 in Knoxville. In 1969, Tennessee routed Alabama 41-14 at Legion Field. Kentucky led the SEC in desegregation a year ahead of Tennessee, but the Wildcats weren’t on Alabama’s schedule.
History showed Bryant was a follower, not a leader, in his own conference. Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and in-state rival Auburn all recruited Black athletes by 1969, prior to Bryant. That was 60 percent of what was then a 10-team league.
Hall-of-Fame sportswriter Frank Deford noted Bryant’s reluctance to take a stance in a 1981 Sports Illustrated story:
“Given the Bear’s surpassing popularity, he had it within his power to assume a burden of leadership. Yet he held back on race and let other–and less entrenched–Southern coaches stick their necks out first. ”
The world passed by Bryant while he remained in the cocoon of the segregated South. Alabama’s 1970 schedule, which was planned years in advance, turned out to have seven integrated opponents by the turn of the decade. Oklahoma made it eight for the season in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl.
SEC schools also were ahead of Bryant scheduling teams outside the Mason-Dixon Line. Kentucky played at Indiana in 1967; Tennessee traveled to UCLA in 1967; and Vanderbilt played at Army West Point in 1968 and Michigan in 1969.
Florida didn’t travel above the Mason-Dixon Line prior to Alabama in 1971, but the Gators faced integrated opponents in three home games in the 1960s: Northwestern, 1966; Illinois, 1967; and Air Force, 1968. Tennessee played host to two integrated teams in 1965, Houston and UCLA, and one in 1966, Army.
Hyperbole, myths and fiction surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game at Legion Field in Birmingham led to another bewildering revisionist history twist gaining a hold in college football lore.
A false narrative crediting Bryant as a crusader and aggrandizing USC’s role portrayed the game as an integration tipping point. Bryant as a crusader is like crediting Robert E. Lee for ending slavery. Murray as the bad guy is like blaming the Antifa for the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Historical memory also has overlooked 30 of 33 southern major programs had recruited their first Black player by 1970. The 30 included Alabama. Integration in the South was fait accompli. The last three holdouts were Georgia, LSU and Mississippi. However, books and films, most of them in the 21st century, regurgitated a rote storyline.
In “Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Dixie’s Last Quarter,” a 2013 book written by Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski, Murray is taken to task for his Alabama columns.
On Page 135, Murray is described as “a reporter with thick bookish glasses …”
Of the trip to Birmingham, the book states on pages 136 and 137: “Murray’s claims for going to Birmingham were undoubtedly disingenuous. He was a confirmed and accomplished big league pot stirrer, and a minor league social crusader.”
What’s “disingenuous” about pointing out to a segregationist coach it’s 1961, not 1861. What’s “minor league” about confronting Bryant face-to-face on social justice on Bryant’s own turf?
UCLA’s forgotten 1961 role also led decades later to another great irony. The wrong Los Angeles school, USC, was cast as a college football integration leader in the sport’s lore. UCLA, long before USC, truly played a pioneering role in the 1960s. USC, like Alabama in the SEC, led from behind. USC shunned Black athletes in the 1930s. In the 1960s, the program followed an unwritten quota limiting the roster to a half-dozen or so Black athletes through the 1960s.
The oversights from the sports media avoiding race created a 1960s blank canvas. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the blank canvas was painted with a false narrative Bryant secretly scheduled integrated USC in 1970 with the aid of McKay, his old friend, as a game to lose. His grand scheme was to convince his bigoted fans with a loss it was time to let him recruit Black athletes.
However, neither coach mentioned such a grand plan in their books published in 1974. In a 1980 Time cover story fawningly reflecting on Bryant’s career, there was not a single word about the 1970 USC-Alabama game changing history. Bryant apologists consider the 1970 USC-Alabama myth Bryant’s crowning moment and proof he wasn’t a segregationist.
It’s true USC routed all-white Alabama 42-21, but it’s also true a year earlier integrated Tennessee routed Alabama at Legion Field, 41-14.
The linchpin to the 1970 USC-Alabama myths easily spreading was a fictional scene portraying Bryant inviting USC’s Sam Cunningham, a Black fullback, into the Alabama locker room to show his players “what a football player looked like.”
Cunningham admitted in 2003 it didn’t happen. He explained he got caught up in the story. The fictional scene was created by John Papadakis, a 1970 USC linebacker, for a screen play. The movie was never made, but retelling the scene, with its perceived humor, spread the myth into lore.
Those guffaws overlooked the racial overtones of a slave market – white players studying Cunningham’s body as he stood on a bench.
The regurgitated and unvetted stories also overlook USC was among the schools following an unwritten quota of a half-dozen or so Black players. The Trojans’ 1962 national title team had only five Black players and the 1967 national championship roster only seven.
UCLA’s eight Black players in 1961 grew into double figures later in the decade. The Associated Press reported in 1962 Michigan State’s 17 Black players was the most in major college football history. In the 1966 Game of the Century, Michigan State lined up 20 Black players and 11 Black starters against Notre Dame’s one Black athlete, Alan Page.
Schools like USC and Notre Dame were behind the times.
The 1970 Trojans were stilling shedding the residue of the quota years. USC had only five Black starters that night in Birmingham. Most of the 18 Black players on the roster had been recruited in the previous couple of years, including Cunningham, a sophomore playing his first varsity game.
Another fact omitted from the myth was Bryant didn’t need to lose to USC to convince his fans it was time to recruit Black athletes. He had already signed Wilbur Jackson the previous winter. Jackson watched the 1970 USC-Alabama game from the stands with the freshmen team.
Oddly enough, Alabama authors shaped narratives that also blamed Murray’s 1961 stories for costing Bryant a national title five years later when the Crimson Tide finished No. 3 to No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State.
The Irish and Spartans, after a season-long buildup, played to a 10-10 tie in the Game of the Century on Nov. 19, 1966 at Spartan Stadium. Notre Dame and Michigan State retained their 1-2 rankings in the final poll at the end of the regular season.
One of the Alabama authors claiming reverse racism was Keith Dunnavant, who wrote “The Missing Ring: How Bear Bryant and the 1966 Crimson Tide Were Denied College Football’s Most Elusive Prize.”
Bryant author Allen Barra (“The Last Coach,” 2005) reviewed Dunnavant’s book on Sept. 2, 2006 in the L.A. Times. Barra wrote Dunnavant’s bias claim “is based far more on emotion than logic and some of that emotion is borderline irrational.”
Nevertheless, Dunnavant’s stance gained platforms in HBO’s 2008 “Breaking the Huddle,” Showtime’s 2013 “Against the Tide” and ESPN 2019 and 2020 films portraying Bryant as a crusader.
A segment in “Against the Tide” juxtaposes a quote from Murray’s 1961 column as if it was written in the 1966 season. As narrator Tom Selleck read his lines suggesting the 1966 vote was biased, Selleck describes Murray as “the lead voice.” The screen then flashes a quote from Murray’s 1961 story – “An all-white team has no business being No. 1.”
Selleck needed to send the sloppily researched film back to rewrite.
When Murray was awarded the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, he humbly deflected praise with a quip.
He said winning for commentary, “should have to bring down a government or expose major graft or give advice to prime ministers. Correctly quoting Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda shouldn’t merit a Pulitzer Prize.”
Murray didn’t bring down a government with his 1961 Alabama stories, but he set back a segregationist coach. He exposed Bryant’s ’s plot and credited the courage of UCLA students and players to challenge Bryant.
If not for Murray’s stories, Hamilton doesn’t meet resistance and likely extends Bryant’s wish for an Alabama invitation. Another way to put it, though, what if Burt Hooten had not spoken of Ohio State and Minnesota possibly declining a Rose Bowl bid? The prospect spurred the reaction at UCLA and then Murray’s attention. That’s another reason to think Bryant would have gained his desired bid.
And finally, the unanswered question that no doubt would have generated the most humorous response: What would have been Murray’s reaction to Bryant and his apologists years later casting Murray as the bad guy?
We can only imagine his humble quip. There was only one Jim Murray.
He might even have had something to say about the 2022 Rose Bowl broadcast Ohio State won 48-45 over Utah. The ESPN crew failed to mention the 1962 Rose Bowl and its 60th anniversary during the game or pre-game shows.
Chris Fowler, the play-by-play broadcaster, made a historical reference about the 1922 Rose Bowl, although the broadcasters are limited by the topics and research editors and producers present to be aired. Fowler noted in the first half of the game Washington and Jefferson’s Charles Fremont West was the first Black quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl in a 0-0 tie against Cal.
That may be technically correct, but it overlooks Brown’s Fritz Pollard, a quarterback and halfback in his career, played for Brown in the 1916 Rose Bowl.
American sports can provide a stage for social change but telling the stories about race in American sports after often complicated. Major media platforms avoid tangled race stories, especially if one implicates a legend such as Bear Bryant.
The 1962 Rose Bowl remained forgotten on its 60th anniversary.
College: Michigan State
Background: I grew up in Big Rapids, a small Michigan town, captivated by Michigan State’s 1965 and 66 football teams. I knew they were different with the number of Black players on the roster and Jimmy Raye as a Black quarterback long before I understood why. Eventually, my curious, young mind and career came full circle following four fun decades writing for the Oceanside Blade-Tribune, San Diego Tribune and San Diego Union-Tribune. I researched and wrote, “RAYE OF LIGHT, Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans and integration of college football.” I also will have two more books out on the subject. As for my winning FWAA entry, it befits a David Maraniss quote I list in my email signature: “History writes people out of the story. Our job is to write them back in.” Hopefully, I wrote UCLA’s eight Black players back into history. With the support of Jim Murray, they stared down a segregationist coach before the 1962 Rose Bowl. My previous awards include the National Football Foundation San Diego Chapter’s Distinguished American Award; James S. Copley Ring of Truth newspapers first-place award; multiple wins in the San Diego Press Club; the San Diego-Imperial USATF’s President’s Award; and the Southern California Football Coaches Association’s Brevin “Bud” Dyer Award.
Comment by the judge: The biggest story in college football was Oklahoma and Texas moving to the SEC. This is an interesting look at what the schools may endure in the Big 12 before they leave. Good quotes from Jack Crowe.
By Dave Wilson
Big 12 teams have never had to muster enthusiasm to take on Texas or Oklahoma. The Sooners have won 14 Big 12 titles in the league’s 24 years, including the past six. The Longhorns won the first Big 12 title in 1996 before adding two more in 2005 and 2009, and Texas’ self-assuredness (school motto: “What Starts Here Changes The World”) and standing in college football history elicits strong emotions from rivals.
But on Saturday, the Big 12’s departing heavyweights will play their first conference road games since opting for the greener pastures of the SEC, which means the Sooners and Longhorns can expect even more hostility than usual.
“When you go on a trip, you just expect to arrive with the respect of who you are and what you represent,” said Jack Crowe, who coached against the Longhorns as a coordinator and head coach at Arkansas and later as an assistant at Baylor. “Good luck on that one, boys. When they line up to boo you from between the bus and the door, you’ll know things have changed.”
Crowe would know. He was the Arkansas head coach in 1990 and 1991 when the Razorbacks were in the same boat. Crowe didn’t know the Hogs would be leaving the Southwest Conference for the SEC when he took the job. Even further, he said he didn’t know athletic director Frank Broyles would announce on Aug. 1, 1990, that the Razorbacks were departing, just three days before the Southwest Conference’s annual media event.
Arkansas’ experience three decades ago — as well as a handful of others since — could be a preview of what Texas and Oklahoma can expect.
In the recent history of college football realignment, Arkansas’ move is probably the closest comparison to the Big 12’s predicament, leaving a football-driven conference that was already facing questions about its future viability.
Maryland was a founding member of the ACC in 1953 and announced its departure for the Big Ten in 2012, but it had won just one conference title in football since 1985, and basketball coaches in the league were most vocal about the switch. Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East in 2004, but both had been in the league a relatively short time and were the two best football programs in a legendary basketball league. Colorado left the Big 12 for the Pac-12 in 2010 and Nebraska went to the Big Ten in 2011, both dealing blows to the conference, but big-market star power still remained.
But the Razorbacks weren’t just leaving a conference. They were the only Southwest Conference school outside the Texas state lines, and their departure signaled the alarm that the conference could be in trouble.
If that sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because it’s a similar thought that’s been whispered about the fate of the Big 12 after losing its two most prominent members.
So how hostile can Texas and Oklahoma expect it to get?
At that media day in 1990, emotions ran so high that Baylor coach Grant Teaff compared the Hogs’ move to that week’s invasion of Kuwait.
“I’m now thoroughly convinced that the Southeastern Conference is the Iraq of the college football scene in America,” Teaff said.
Then-Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum said that teams would be geared up to “get their last licks on Arkansas,” adding, “The fans will probably be more emotionally involved than the players.”
The players, for their part, were more insulated from it. They were already accustomed to fans taunting them. But the 1990 and 1991 seasons added a new wrinkle on the field.
“Players would hit you and say, ‘Take that to the SEC with you,'” said Quinn Grovey, Crowe’s quarterback in 1990. “There was a lot of trash talk.”
In the Big 12, fans are already looking for their chance to make themselves heard. On Sept. 11, during the only College GameDay appearance at a Big 12 site this year for the Iowa-Iowa State game in Ames, there were several “HORNS DOWN” signs in the crowd and another that said “TRAITORS” with the Texas and Oklahoma logos.
Fans tailgating in the Jack Trice Stadium parking lots took aim at Texas in particular.
“We brought them in [to join the former Big Eight] and they’ve been chaos with other schools,” said Joel Farley of Okoboji, Iowa. “I think we would still probably have an A&M in the conference, we would still have a Missouri, we would have a Colorado and even a Nebraska. We’re like, ‘Man, we just took everybody else’s problem.'”
On a day Cyclones fans were facing their biggest rival, they were already ready for Texas. What happens when the Longhorns actually have to go to Ames on Nov. 6?
“The booing might be deafening,” Crowe said. “The students will get their point across.”
Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian has acknowledged the SEC move could stir up opponents.
“Our bull’s-eye got a little bit bigger,” Sarkisian said in August. “We can’t be naive to that. Whether it’s crowd noise, whether it’s yelling at us on the bench, whether it’s the ‘Horns Down’ signal, all those things are really irrelevant to our ability to execute and succeed at a really high level.”
Former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini wasn’t just worried about the fans heading into the Cornhuskers’ lame-duck season in the Big 12 in 2010. He was already convinced the Cornhuskers were getting a raw deal from the league.
The season before, Nebraska celebrated on the field after Colt McCoy threw an incomplete pass as the final seconds ticked off the clock in the Big 12 championship game. But following a booth review, officials put a second back on the clock, and Texas kicked the game-winning field goal.
Now the Huskers were spurning the league and heading north.
“The league office was not happy and now you’ve got to play a whole year like that,” he said. “I remember telling the team, ‘Don’t expect any help from the referees. We’re changing conferences and that’s just the way it is.’ That’s the way it turned out to be.”
Late in the season, the 9-1 Huskers, ranked No. 8, traveled to Texas A&M for a big game against the No. 19 Aggies. Nebraska was penalized 16 times for 145 yards. Texas A&M had two penalties for 10 yards. The Aggies won 9-6.
Pelini cited several calls he considered puzzling. A pass interference call on A&M was waved off by officials. A player got called for what he considered an errant late hit. Another was flagged for targeting when Pelini said the film showed the player hitting the quarterback in the middle of his back.
“We didn’t get any breaks from the referees, I tell you that,” he said. “In my opinion, we got ripped off. It was a joke.”
And getting to and from the games could be a little less hospitable, Crowe said.
“You depend on a lot of people when you go on the road that aren’t your people, and it’s gonna be different,” he said. “And you’re gonna feel it.”
He recalled walking into Texas’ Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and being left at the entrance by the state troopers who normally escort coaches before and after games.
“The highway patrolmen walked out of the locker room and sort of stopped there for a second. One of them looked at me and said, ‘Well, this is as far as we go, Coach,'” Crowe said. “Literally, they didn’t want to be seen with me.”
Grovey, the quarterback, said fans were even more animated than usual.
“It was already difficult for us when we went to go play in Texas but [the impending move] intensified it a little bit more,” he said.
Both Pelini and Crowe don’t believe it’s sustainable for Texas and Oklahoma to remain in the conference until their grant of rights are up in 2025, as officials at both schools have indicated so far.
Pelini said even a 2023 departure would be tough.
“Two years of it?” he said. “That’s crazy. You’re dealing with bad blood. You have to answer questions all the time about ‘This is gonna be the last time of this and the last time of that.’ It gets old.”
Pelini said it affected his focus in recruiting, too. Some players he was recruiting in Texas or California, two places Nebraska typically had fared well, didn’t want to play in the Big Ten.
That’s not likely a problem for either Texas or Oklahoma since their regional rivalries will remain intact, but there’s still the issue of trying to explain when and if the current players or recruits will play in a different league. Crowe just thinks that two of the sport’s blue bloods won’t want to deal with the tension if they don’t have to.
“I don’t think either one of them’s egos can stand to go down that path,” Crowe said. “It ain’t that much money [relative to the programs’ finances] and when you put it in the hands of people that can make big things happen … they won’t let that go long.”
Still, Crowe said it might be worth hastening the exit strategy for competitive reasons. Crowe was fired just one game into his third season after Arkansas joined the SEC. He took a job at Baylor and said it didn’t just feel like all of Texas was plotting against him at Arkansas, but it could have actually been a coordinated effort.
“I was told by a Southwest Conference coach, ‘Jack, it was sort of an unwritten rule that whenever you played Arkansas, every other school would help you with their information to put their game plan together,'” he said. “Normally, conference people don’t do that. But you’re not in the conference. They wanted to make sure every week you played every school.”
Texas will head to Fort Worth on Saturday to face TCU, which is 7-2 against the Longhorns since joining the Big 12. The Horned Frogs already had a chip on their shoulder after being left behind when the Southwest Conference dissolved and had to claw to get back to equal standing, working their way through Conference USA, the WAC and the Mountain West to earn a Big 12 invite.
Oklahoma has its own challenges, facing Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, where the Wildcats stunned the Sooners two years ago 48-41 before beating OU again last year in Norman 38-35.
While both Texas and OU are favored this weekend, Crowe preached caution.
“You’ve drawn a line with every other state [in the Big 12] that you’re about to throw ’em out,” he said. “You can be their undoing. You’re taking some of their pride with you, because it won’t be the same. Those other teams know it’s never gonna be any better than it was.
“Good luck, Texas and Oklahoma.”
COLLEGE: Kilgore College, UT-Arlington
BACKGROUND: Wilson won for a column about what Texas and Oklahoma could come to expect as Big 12 lame ducks on road trips to schools they were leaving behind, looking back at the hostile atmospheres that faced Arkansas after its split from the dearly departed Southwest Conference and Nebraska during its tumultuous Big 12 exit.
Wilson became a reporter at ESPN in 2020, after working as an editor for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine since 2010. A native of Kilgore in East Texas, he worked at five Texas newspapers, including nearly 15 years as a designer and art director before becoming an editor. This is his fifth FWAA honor, including a first-place for Best Feature in the Best Writing Contest a year ago.
After eight years in Bristol, Connecticut, Wilson returned to the Austin area in 2018 with his wife, Alicia and sons Parks and Coen and daughter Rosemary.
Comment by the judge: Good use of drawing on all the elements of the game, including the pre-game speech.
By Dennis Dodd
INDIANAPOLIS — Jack Harbaugh dug deep Friday night. The task for the patriarchal soul of Michigan football was to convey the gravity of the moment. Coming into the 2021 Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night, the first question to be answered was whether the No. 2 Wolverines would be hungover.
There was no way, popular thought went, that Michigan could rise as high mentally and physically as it had the previous week against Ohio State. The argument could be made, after all the previous frustration against the Buckeyes, that the 42-27 decision was the Wolverines’ national championship.
That’s why the 82-year-old father of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh spoke to the team Friday about finishing. He chose a forgettable fight by a forgettable former middleweight champion, Vito Antuofermo, to make his point.
In 1977, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart beat up on Antuofermo so bad, he broke his ribs. The The New York Times that night described Antuofermo as having “no physical attributes to brag about except he bled well.” But the then-24-year-old Italian immigrant pushed on through the pain.
Afterward, Antuofermo said, if he’d been hit in those ribs one more time, he would have quit. But he never did. In the fifth round that night, Antuofermo staggered Hart with a shot and eventually won by knockout.
“One more round. One more round!” said Jack Harbaugh, recounting his message to the Wolverines.
The 44-year-old message from another century was received in the moment. It took Saturday night for it to hit home. Michigan beat No. 13 Iowa 42-3 to ensure it one more round, that being in the College Football Playoff.
Coming into Saturday night’s raucous atmosphere at Lucas Oil Stadium, it could be argued the team with the most wins in college football history was still short one.
Michigan entered the game with 975 all-time wins, but it had never advanced to the College Football Playoff. Sure, the CFP has only eight of Michigan football’s 142 years of existence, but the point stands.
The result proved the Wolverines did not peak in the snow last week in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They did not leave years of longing back home. They opened a can of whoop ass on the Hawkeyes before opening up more possibilities.
Michigan: 2021 national champion? After what happened across the country Saturday, why not? It could be time to party like it’s 1997, the last time Michigan won it all.
“Everything’s in front of us,” linebacker Josh Ross said.
On the surface, this Big Ten Championship Game was “easier” than slaying the Ohio State giant. Michigan came in as a prohibitive 11-point favorite. Iowa had slogged its way to a 10-win season the way it usually slogs. The Hawkeyes didn’t do anything particularly well except create turnovers. Their 24 interceptions were the most by a Power Five team since 2014.
“The leading cause of interceptions in the United States is tipped balls and overthrows,” said Jim Harbaugh this week on the Big Ten Network.
Harbaugh sounded like a medical professional warning against the vagaries of dental plaque.
Michigan proved in the first half it hadn’t used its entire playbook against Ohio State. Running back Blake Corum ran 67 yards on UM’s seventh snap of the game. Fellow RB Donovan Edwards threw an option pass to a wide-open Roman Wilson for the second score. Those two plays accounted for 142 of Michigan’s 253 first-half yards.
Getting to this point means the season won’t be known only for beating the Buckeyes. There is further definition. There is a Big Ten title, the Wolverines’ first outright since 2003 in their first Big Ten Championship Game. There is a national playoff semifinal against a still unknown opponent. But at least Michigan will be there.
Who would have guessed all of this 11 months ago, the day Michigan had announced Harbaugh’s restructured contract extension that put the coach on notice after six seasons? Maybe only that patriarch and his fiercely loyal family.
We get to watch Big Ten defensive player of the year Aidan Hutchinson one more time. We get to watch RB Hassan Haskins, who ran for almost half his yards this campaign in the final four games of the regular season. We get to watch a Maize and Blue blue blood injected with a bit of Cinderella.
Now, one of the most tradition-rich programs in sports is suddenly a newbie. In the previous seven years, only 12 teams have taken the 28 available spots in the playoff. A “new” team hasn’t appeared in the CFP at all since 2019. The bracket is now assured of at least some fresh faces with Clemson and Ohio State out of it.
And Michigan in it.
One more round.
How’d the Fightin’ Antuofermos get here? Quarterback Cade McNamara became something more than a game manager. Harbaugh rededicated himself and reassembled his coaching staff. Brother John, the Baltimore Ravens coach, recommended his linebackers coach become the Wolverines defensive coordinator.
Mike Macdonald, 34, quickly became a star putting together a top 10 scoring defense.
One brother diminished his staff to enrich his sibling’s chances of success.
“I really love Michigan football, and I really love you,” Jim said John told him, “so I want to see you both be successful.”
Told you the family was fiercely loyal.
Jack Harbaugh still tells stories about Bo Schembechler, the legend he worked under across seven seasons as defensive backs coach.
John Harbaugh has Bo’s famous quote — “The team, the team, the team” — plastered in the Ravens’ facility.
These Wolverines have a bit of Bo in this them.
Jim Harbaugh still runs a lot of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), preferring to grind it out instead of using eye candy. The offense bludgeons you, then lulls you asleep. Wide receiver A.J. Henning helped break open the Ohio State game with an end-around touchdown.
Who knew part of Michigan lore would now be a decades-old story about a middleweight palooka connected to a football-factory heavyweight.
“It was somewhat embellished,” Jack Harbaugh said impishly.
Check that, Jack. Nothing is embellished about Michigan at the moment.
“We’ve got to finish the mission,” Macdonald said this week.
At least one more round is assured.
Background: Dennis Dodd is back in the winner’s circle. He has placed first in an FWAA writing category multiple times during his career, as well as collected other awards in the FWAA contest. He was the Bert McGrane Award winner announced last January for 2022. He was the FWAA’s Steve Ellis Co-Beat Writer of the year in 2018 and President of the FWAA in 2006. Still living in the Kansas City area with wife, Janet, and approaching 25 years with CBS Sports, Dodd remains one of the top writers in college football. The couple can be seen often in Arizona when Dennis is not criss-crossing the country on the college beat.
Comment by the judge: An emotional then-and-now look at a success story against the odds.
By Rich Scarcella
Wayne Sebastianelli had been with Adam Taliaferro from the moment he fell awkwardly to the field at Ohio Stadium and couldn’t get up.
Sebastianelli, the Penn State football team doctor then and now, stayed with Taliaferro in Columbus, Ohio, until his father arrived the following day. He visited him often at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, first when he couldn’t move his arms and legs and then after he began his miraculous recovery.
So Sebastianelli was a bit apprehensive almost a year later when Taliaferro warned him about what might happen on the night of Sept. 1, 2001.
“I remember him goofing around a couple days before that night and saying he was going to run out of the tunnel and onto the field,” Sebastianelli recalled. “He’d pop in every now and then into the office and tell us that. I’d say, ‘Be careful.’ He was just going to do it.”
Less than 12 months after suffering a severe spinal cord injury at Ohio State, Taliaferro thrilled the record crowd of 109,313 at newly expanded Beaver Stadium and a prime time television audience when he led the Nittany Lions onto the field before their season opener against Miami (Fla.).
On that night 20 years ago, he wore his blue No. 43 jersey, waved to the roaring crowd as he waited to be introduced, walked onto the field and surprised everyone with a hop, skip and jog.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Taliaferro said. “We were in the locker room and I felt like I was a player all over again. I had that nervous feeling I’d get before every game. Doc Sebastianelli came up to me at my locker and asked if I was OK.
“He said, ‘Adam, whatever you do, people are going to appreciate it.’ I went out there and this peace just came over me.”
It was very unlike how Taliaferro had felt a year earlier, Sept. 23, 2000, as a freshman cornerback. He tackled Ohio State running back Jerry Westbrooks late in Penn State’s lopsided loss. He tried to use his arms to pull himself up and couldn’t. Then he tried to stand using his legs and couldn’t. He couldn’t feel his arms or his legs.
“The thought of being paralyzed never went through my head,” he said. “I remember Bhawoh Jue, our other corner, saying, ‘Adam, c’mon, get up!’ I remember him reaching down toward me and I started panicking because I couldn’t move anything.
“I remember looking up and seeing Doc Sebastianelli and Coach (Joe) Paterno. As time went on I started to panic. I remember telling Doc, ‘I can’t move! I can’t move!’ From that point it kind of got blurry.”
Sebastianelli, trainer George Salvaterra and other medical staffers from Penn State and Ohio State carefully placed him on a stretcher. Dr. Chris Kaeding, Ohio State’s orthopedic surgeon, helped stabilize Taliaferro, who received a steroid injection about an hour after the injury to reduce swelling. The following day, neurosurgeon Dr. Gary Rea performed a two-hour spinal fusion surgery on him at the Ohio State Medical Center.
After four days there, Taliaferro was flown to Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, near his home in Voorhees, N.J. He slowly began to progress and was moved in early October to the Magee Rehabilitation Center a few blocks away.
“About four or five days into my stay at Magee, my dad (Andre) rolled me up to the rooftop so I could get some fresh air,” he said. “Two guys were playing basketball and I broke down. That was the first time it hit me that I was disabled. I realized I was broken. My body didn’t work anymore.
“That was the first time I cried. My dad said, ‘Get it all out. We were waiting for you to have this moment.’ That was probably one of my lowest points.”
He was told he had a 3% chance of walking again. About three weeks later, however, the turning point in his recovery happened. After his mother, Addie, and his father had gone home one night, one of his nurses looked at the end of his bed and noticed he was moving his toe.
“She asked me to do it again and I did,” Taliaferro recalled. “It was about 10:30 or 11 at night and she called my dad. He drove back to see it for himself. We had a celebration in the hospital room that night.
“He called Coach Paterno and some of my teammates to finally tell them good news. It was probably one of the best moments of my life.”
Andre Taliaferro also called Sebastianelli well after 1 a.m. and screamed the news to him.
“I still feel chills when I think about that call,” Sebastianelli said. “I knew then that he was going to be able to walk. He was the miracle. He just took off after that. It was meteoric.”
Adam Taliaferro walked out of Magee on crutches in January 2001, underwent therapy there as an outpatient for four hours every weekday until April and returned to Penn State as a student in May. He still expected to play football again and fulfill his childhood dream of playing in the NFL.
That was until preseason camp began in August 2002.
“I was sitting in the locker room and the guys were putting on their shoulder pads and helmets,” he said. “I felt like I was going to cry. It hit me that I wouldn’t be playing anymore. Then I thought back to the patients at Magee who were struggling just to walk and struggling to breathe on their own.
“I thought, ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ I never thought about it again. I always thought how fortunate, blessed and lucky I am.”
Tom Bradley, who became Penn State’s defensive coordinator in 2000, said Taliaferro would have had a great career in college and maybe in the NFL. A three-sport athlete at Eastern High, he was a first-team all-state selection on offense (running back) and defense. He was widely considered one of the best high school football players in South Jersey history.
“He was the best young defensive back I ever coached,” said Bradley, who was on the Penn State staff from 1979-2011. “He had great skills. He could do everything. He was tough. He was smart. He understood the game. He was coachable. He was just an exceptional talent.”
Taliaferro served as a student assistant coach, graduated from Penn State and earned his law degree from Rutgers-Camden. He joined Bristol-Myers Squibb as a health-care advocate and later became a politician. He’s seeking his fourth full term as a New Jersey state Assemblyman.
Now 39, he’s married to Erin, a former Penn State swimmer he met in 2001. They have two children, Cruz, 6, and Chloe, 3.
He said he wouldn’t have met his wife or become an advocate, a lawyer or a politician if not for his injury.
“Of course, I can be bitter about not playing football,” Taliaferro said, “but it really taught me how to discover myself. I truly thought I was just a football player and that’s all I could do. The injury was horrible, but the life lessons I learned going through it were priceless.”
Since his injury, he has put his name on a foundation that provides emotional, financial and educational support to individuals who suffer catastrophic spinal cord injuries and their families in New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Delaware. He often visits patients with spinal cord injuries at Magee.
“The biggest thing is to provide hope,” he said. “When I was at Magee there was a guy who had the same injury and he would walk into my room to visit me. It made it real for me. I remember how that inspired me. If I can serve in that capacity, I’m honored to do it.”
Sebastianelli and Bradley are not surprised by what Taliaferro has accomplished in his life. Sebastianelli said he had nightmares “for a long time” about that afternoon in Columbus in 2000.
Almost a year later and inspired by a prediction Bradley had made at his bedside, Adam Taliaferro made a walk at Beaver Stadium that will be remembered forever at Penn State.
“I was on our sideline and I could see the tunnel,” Sebastianelli recalled. “I saw Adam walk out. As soon as the crowd saw him, it was just over. I had tears streaming down my face. There was a referee standing near me and he asked if I was OK. ‘I’ve never felt better.’
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and you just don’t see that. You don’t get that special gift very often. That was one of them. That was truly special.”
College: Penn State.
Background: This is Scarcella’s fifth FWAA award dating back to 1992, but the first time he’s received a first-place honor. A former FWAA board member, he’s also been recognized many times in the Associated Press Sports Editors, the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors and the Keystone Press writing contests. Born in Dunmore, Pa., and raised in Hazleton, Pa., Scarcella began his career at the Hazleton Standard-Speaker in 1981 and covered high school sports and Penn State football. He moved in 1986 to the Reading Eagle, where he’s covered high school sports, motor sports and professional golf. He started covering Penn State football at the Eagle in 1989 and is in his 34th season on the beat. Scarcella’s work has appeared in Lindy’s for three decades and in The Sporting News.
He and his wife of 38 years, Sandy, live in Leesport, Pa., with their dog, Captain. They have two sons, Eric, 35, and Joshua, 31.