The Yaeger Interview
Wilbur Jackson was first black football signee
Wilbur Jackson was first black football signee

Posted Jun 20, 2005


Imagine my surprise to find I had a book by Don Yaeger on my office bookshelf. And it was even more surprising that Don Yaeger found it and pointed it out to me. I also learned to spell his name, “a before e,” when he came to interview me Monday.

Don Yaeger and Tiffany Brooks of Sports Illustrated magazine had made an appointment a week or so ago to talk to me about the 1970 Alabama-Southern Cal football game. That was the game in which Southern Cal’s Sam Cunningham ran roughshod over the Crimson Tide in a 42-21 romp that led to a 6-5-1 season. The reason I am among dozens of those they are interviewing is (1.) I am still alive and (2.) I was at the game, working as the assistant sports information director for Alabama.

Sports Illustrated is looking for the social implications of the game. Southern Cal had what we then referred to as black players, including Cunningham. Alabama did not. Wilbur Jackson was a scholarshipped player, but the young black man from Ozark was a freshman in 1970, and in those years freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition.

Yaeger, best known in this area for his Mike Price exposé that resulted in Price’s dismissal as Alabama’s head football coach before he had coached a game, did most of the interview and was quite pleasant. We did not discuss Price or Yaeger’s most recent brush with the news, his reported courtroom argument with a Memphis sports reporter over a Lynn Lang story.

I could neither confirm nor deny the contention that the 1970 Southern Cal game hastened desegregation of the Alabama football program. It is my belief that recruitment of black players was going as fast as it could. I pointed out that it was not easy to attract black players to the state university where the governor of the state had “stood in the schoolhouse door” in an attempt to prevent intergration only a few years earlier. I noted that Alabama’s efforts to recruit black players often pitted Tide Coach Paul Bryant against Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson, and that Robinson was as big in the black community as Bryant was in what might be called the traditional college football fan base.

I talked to Coach Bryant almost every day there was football practice or a football game from 1970 through 1978 and a lot of days before and after that, because it was my job. Yaeger asked if Coach Bryant had ever talked to me about the difficulty of recruiting black players. I told him I worked for Coach Bryant and that he was not likely to have discussed anything like that with me...and Yaeger certainly understood that I could not speculate on what Coach Bryant might have thought about recruiting black athletes.

But I told him that I firmly believed that Alabama was doing all it could, and that we all recognized that Alabama high schools produced dozens and dozens of excellent black athletes who would finally get a chance to play for their state university and for Coach Bryant.

I also told him that I thought Wilbur was a curious choice to be the first black football player on scholarship at Alabama. Certainly not because Wilbur Jackson didn't have great athletic ability. And not because he wasn't a very, very good person. It was because Wilbur was so shy. The first black scholarshipped athlete at Bama, on the other hand, basketball player Wendell Hudson had great confidence (though not cockiness) and an out-going personality.

I could not reinforce, or even accept, that the 1970 Southern Cal game in Birmingham had monumental social implications. As I explained to him, Alabama was in the football business. We looked at the 1970 game as a disastrous butt-whipping. We looked at the 1971 game against Southern Cal -- the 17-10 upset of the No. 1-ranked Trojans in Los Angeles -- as monumental, because it signified the return to the Crimson Tide to football greatness.

I expected him to be in full agreement with the Steve Travers book out of California that includes the myth of Cunningham being taken to the Alabama lockerroom and the wild notion that area blacks gathered in the Legion Field parking lot outside the Southern Cal dressing room at the end of the game to sing happy spirituals or something. Yaeger recognizes there is no foundation for those claims.

Yaeger had read our story with Ed Hines' recollections of that game on this site earlier this week.

Yaeger certainly impressed me by taking a couple of proof pages of the upcoming book, “What It Means To Be Crimson Tide,” $27.95 plus tax (if applicable) and shipping and handling, no additional charge for autograph by the author, 1-205-345-5074, the segments with Wilbur Jackson and John Mitchell.

And about that book in my office? It’s “Under The Tarnished Dome,” with the subtitle “How Notre Dame Betrayed Its Ideals For Football Glory.” To be honest, I had never realized that Don Yaeger was the co-author. A friend of mine, former Sports Illustrated writer Doug Looney, was the other author and he had sent an autographed copy of the book to...well, as the autograph proves, to my wife, Lynne.


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