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Sam Cunningham recalls USC's historic 1970 win over Alabama

When Sam Cunningham first heard that USC and Alabama would open the 2016 season against each other on Sept. 3, the former Trojans fullback -- popularly known as Sam "The Bam" Cunningham -- didn't immediately think about the history of the series or how reporters might come calling about his iconic status based on the 1970 matchup.

“My first thought is we need to be really, really good," Cunningham said through a laugh.

That's for sure. Alabama is the defending national champion, and coach Nick Saban is in the midst of doing the previously unthinkable: displacing Paul "Bear" Bryant as the Crimson Tide's greatest coach, though that might sound like sacrilege to some Tide fans and college football observers.

This meeting, while compelling, likely will be no more historic than their last, the 1985 Aloha Bowl won 24-3 by the Tide, which leads the all-time series 5-2. In terms of relevance to today's hot-button college-football issues, the 1978 game packs more of a punch because one could imagine the College Football Playoff selection committee debating it. USC won that one 24-14 in Birmingham and finished 12-1 but only ended up splitting the national championship with the 11-1 Tide, despite a head-to-head road victory.

Oh, if Twitter existed in 1978.

Yet the 1970 game is special, even though the teams would combine for nine losses and two ties, because it served a high purpose of drawing a before/after line in the sport, even if such a take is probably an exaggeration. It represents for many the last gasp of segregation in major college football.

“What they saw was the future," Cunningham said of the hushed, stunned Legion Field crowd. "Their team was eventually going to be integrated.”

As for the many myths surrounding the game, no, USC wasn't the first team with star black players to whip Alabama on its home turf. Rival Tennessee thumped the Tide 41-14 at Legion Field the previous year with receiver Lester McLain and linebacker Jackie Walker.

No, Bryant didn't bring Cunningham into the Alabama locker room to tell his players, "This is what a football player looks like!" Bryant, Cunningham recalled, did graciously congratulate him and other Trojans after the game.

As for integrating the Tide, Bryant was without question slow to do so, but he did have a black player on his team in 1970, freshman Wilbur Jackson, who was in the stands during the game because freshmen were not yet allowed to play. Bryant also ended up pilfering an African-American USC recruit, John Mitchell, in 1971. Mitchell was a co-captain and an All-American in 1972.

USC, by the way, had its own issues, according to Cunningham. While Alabama had cratered the previous year, going 6-5, the Trojans had rolled to a 10-0-1 finish and Rose Bowl victory. The next two seasons, however, they would go 6-4-1 -- losing at home to Alabama in 1971, in fact -- with teams that were not playing up to their talent.

“Our issues probably had more to do with leadership," Cunningham said. "We didn’t play very well together as a team in 1970 and ’71 because of issues that were happening. Some of them were racial.”

Of course, it all came together in 1972, when USC won the national title with one of the great teams in college football history.

As for the 1970 game, Cunningham, born and raised in Santa Barbara, went to Alabama not thinking about civil rights but wondering if he'd get any carries.

“I didn’t even know I was going to get a chance to play," he said. "I was the backup fullback.”

He ended up rushing for 135 yards on just 12 carries and scored two touchdowns in a 42-21 victory. The Trojans dominated in every aspect, their 559 total yards being nearly 300 more than Alabama's output.

“It was loud in the beginning, but it got kind of quiet," Cunningham said. "They were witnessing something they were not used to seeing.”

Jerry Claiborne, a former Bryant assistant and head coach at Virginia Tech, Maryland and Kentucky, famously said of the game, "Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years."

Cunningham is not one for hyperbole or self-aggrandizement. He pointed out that the game wasn't even on television, and the Trojans returned to Los Angeles feeling good but not historically important.

“It marinated over the course of 30 or 40 years," he said.

Still, there was a recognition of what transpired. Cunningham and his teammates saw black Alabamians cheering them before and after the game, and the import didn't escape them.

People still debate whether Bryant got together with close buddy and USC coach John McKay in order to show his fans the self-interested advantages of integration. Though it's difficult to imagine Bryant was eager to schedule a loss to make a point, it's notable that he would go on to win three more national titles with integrated teams.

Jim Murray, the great Los Angeles Times columnist, knew exactly what he was witnessing. His column from the game, “Hatred shut out as Alabama finally joins the Union," was a blistering fit of brilliance.

As for the matchup on Sept. 3, Cunningham, who just turned 66, is hoping his Trojans can hold up at the line of scrimmage and just maybe steal things in the fourth quarter.