Ozzie Newsome helped change the makeup of college football in the South, starring for four years at the University of Alabama.
This year’s opening weekend showdown between USC and the Crimson Tide brings renewed attention to the historic match of these programs in 1970. Shortly after an integrated Trojans bunch ran roughshod over Alabama, the segregation of the Crimson Tide ended.
Integration of Alabama football wasn’t the result of one game. Bear Bryant coached against an integrated Penn State team in the 1959 Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia, and Pat Dye told AL.com’s Kevin Scarbinsky Bryant recruited black student-athletes unsuccessfully before 1970.
Nevertheless, the 1970 USC game gets credit as the seminal moment in ending Alabama’s gridiron segregation. In the years that followed, the first black stars left their signatures in the annals of the Crimson Tide’s illustrious history.
Among them was Ozzie Newsome.
Opinions on Bryant’s motivation may differ among some, like David Halberstam, whose ESPN.com Scarbinksy links to in the above referenced AL.com feature. But having played for Bryant in those pivotal days, Newsome offers an emphatic assessment.
“Martin Luther King Jr. preached equality. Coach Bryant practiced it,” he said.
Ozzie Newsome’s recognized as one of the greatest tight ends in football history, with spots in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. His statistical output improved each year he was in Tuscaloosa: 20 receptions for 374 yards and a touchdown in 1974; 21 catches, 363 yards and five scores in 1975; 25 receptions, 529 yards ans six touchdowns in 1976; and 36 grabs for 804 yards with four touchdowns in 1977. He doubled as a punt-returner in both 1976 and 1977.
In that 1977 season — a consensus All-America year for Newsome — Alabama and USC again faced. The Crimson Tide came to Los Angeles, where the home-standing Trojans sported an unblemished record and the nation’s No. 1 mark.
The Crimson Tide won 21-20 in an all-time classic, decided with an interception on the Trojans’ attempt for a game-winning, two-point conversion.
The star for Alabama that day wasn’t Newsome, but instead halfback Tony Nathan, whose landmark time at Woodlawn High School was depicted in a 2015 movie. Nathan scored a pair of touchdowns for the Crimson Tide in the win.
Newsome and Nathan provided a potent punch throughout an 11-1 1977 season, both on offense and as a dangerous, punt-returning duo.
College football in the South had changed dramatically in those seven years between the 1970 USC-Alabama game, and the 1977 edition. The state of Alabama itself wasn’t even a generation removed from George Wallace’s schoolhouse door speech.
Now, nearly four decades later, Ozzie Newsome’s continued successes both in the game of football and in life have made him a popular name for the University of Alabama’s athletic director post whenever Bill Battle retires.
The landscape in college sports has indeed changed for the better.