The year was 1969 and the Buffaloes had finished the regular season with a 7-3 record. The losses against Penn State, Oklahoma and Nebraska set up a date with history for head coach Eddie Crowder and the Buffs against Alabama in the Liberty Bowl. Nobody knew what to expect from the Crimson Tide team representing the SEC. Bear Bryant was in the process of establishing Alabama's dominance and already had three national championships. This happened to be down year for Bryant with a 6-4 record on the season.
The black and white members of the Buffs football team knew about Memphis, Tenn from the outside. The Blues capital of the world was home to "The King" and was known as a major cotton distributor. The delta region also carried a deep-rooted history of racial segregation that continued to smolder. Crowder knew the significance the bowl game represented; Alabama had never faced an opposing team with African-American athletes in the 100-year history of their program.
The trip to the south was unexpected and created uneasy feelings among the Buffs. Dec. 13, 1969 marked the Saturday match-up between the two teams at Memphis Memorial Stadium.
"The first thing that happened when we got off the plane in Memphis, was we went to the Holiday Inn-- It was right there on the water and was the nicest hotel at the time." One of CU's team captain's was Bill Collins, a defensive tackle who recalls that week in the south.
"About midweek, there was a big banquet that included both teams. The problem that we faced was that we had seven black guys-- they would match up sorority girls from each team, because it was 1969 and we're in the south, that was a problem with black athletes. We didn't go to the banquet because we were prohibited from going."
Collins was joined by cornerback Eric Harris, defensive back Bryan Foster, linebacker Cliff Dunham, running back Glen Bailey, and defensive tackles Bruce Smith and Derek Fasion as Colorado's seven African-American athletes.
The lines of segregation still ran deep in the south, even five years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. While the players weren't allowed to attend the function for both teams, Crowder made sure his players weren't forgotten about.
"(Coach) He gave me a piece of money, so that we could go entertain ourselves during the banquet." Not knowing what could happen and being in hostile territory, Collins decided the safest safe thing to do was to lay low for the evening. "We went over to Memphis State and found some African-American ladies to have a big time party."
Collins and the rest of the team anxiously awaited for Saturday to quickly approach. The day started by loading up the buses to the stadium. An awful, eerie feeling remained in the area from the year prior. Civil rights leader, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was tragically assassinated at the Lorriane Hotel, less than a mile away from the Buffs' hotel. The team remained aware of their surroundings as the buses pulled away from the Holiday Inn and Crowder advised his team to avoid distractions. The faithful Alabama fans that made the trip across the south weren't pleased about CU being in Memphis and made their presence known. Racial slurs and obscenities hailed down towards the African-American athletes as the Buffs players filed off the bus. The unwelcoming committee, mostly from Tuscaloosa, couldn't bare the thought of a powerful Tide team sharing the field with any black players.
"The crowd was hostile towards us", Collins recollected. "People called us the N-word and spit on us. I always said, they had never seen black people playing football before because that's how they acted."
With tensions running high and the game nearing kickoff, an official from the SEC informed Crowder that only a single player would be allowed to represent CU for the coin toss. Crowder wanted to make a statement knowing his team was upset from their entrance into the stadium. He decided Collins would be the one to stand at midfield and show the Buffs wouldn't be divided. The senior captain was playing in his final college game. After celebrating with his friends earlier in the week, Collins found himself standing alone facing the entire Alabama team for the coin toss. A record crowd of over 50,000 people would watch history happen in front of their eyes.
The winning call by Collins was tails and Colorado took the opening kickoff down the field for a 7-0 lead against Alabama's weakened defense. CU defensive ends Herb Orvis, Bill Brundige and the rest of the Buffs' defense kept the pressure on Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter. The Tide's All-American quarterback remembers the game in detail.
"Colorado was bigger and stronger than we were. Orvis was working over our offensive tackle and every time I went back to throw, I couldn't get the ball off."
Running backs Ward Walsh and Bobby Anderson scored early in the game and the Buffs started setting the tone by pulling away with a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. Bryant made adjustments to counter CU's attack on defense, allowing Hunter and Alabama's offense to start making a comeback with a 31-yard touchdown run. Colorado increased the margin in the last three minutes of the first half and carried a 31-19 lead going into halftime.
Pat Dye was an assistant coach under Bryant at the time, but didn't make the trip to Memphis. He stayed behind in Alabama to recruit for the upcoming season, knowing the game was setup as a mismatch.
"I knew Colorado was the better team and I told Bear Bryant that before the game -- our team was horrible that season. Nothing more about it. The only reason Alabama was even playing against Colorado that season was because Bear had a close relationship with the head of the Liberty Bowl."
The Crimson Tide struggled recruiting players who were bigger and faster in stature and African-American players were highly sought after by rival schools in the south. The general consensus was Alabama refused to recruit black players in the late 1960's because of the racial divide, but Dye explains a different reason.
"It's not that we didn't want black players on our team, it's the fact that we couldn't get any. Other colleges in the south like Tennessee State and Jackson State were pursuing them aggressively and Alabama was left out because of this."
Opposing teams like Colorado had an advantage over the Tide because of athleticism. Jim Mora, was an assistant for Crowder at CU, before moving on later to the NFL. At that time, he noticed a significant difference between the two teams.
"I think we taught Alabama a lesson. That was a time when they refused to recruit any African-American players and it hurt them. CU and other schools were recruiting places like Texas and Louisiana to find elite talent."
The process of recruiting black players in the south for SEC schools was difficult. Bryant knew that meeting in public was not socially acceptable, especially involving members of the Alabama team. A way around this was having his players host African-American recruits at their houses for dinner. Hunter would help accommodate this request from Bryant during a Christmas holiday break in 1970.
"Coach Bryant called me while on break for the Bluebonnet Bowl against Oklahoma-- he says Scott, there's this player named John Mitchell from Mobile and he's playing out at a junior college in Arizona. John McCain is trying to tell me they're trying to sign him and I want you to get some steaks and seafood and the judge is going to bring him over for dinner."
Bryant was relentless and Hunter's hardest sell was not Mitchell, but rather his stepfather Bill. "I called my stepfather and was going over what Coach Bryant wanted to do. I finally told him, Bill, this was a black player. I got about a 20 second pause and I said now Bill, Coach Bryant really wants him bad. The next night, the judge brings over John Mitchell and he has to dip under the door frame when coming in the door. I saw Bill's eyes and he went, alright! Before the night was over, he was dumping shrimp on his plate and pouring beer in his glass."
Mitchell ended up committing to Alabama with Hunter's influence on his decision. He was the first African-American recruit for Bryant in 1971, along with running back Wilbur Jackson. It took Alabama a couple years to compete in recruiting against rival southern schools. Once players saw fellow African-Americans committing, the Tide started to turn. Mitchell would make history once again after his playing career. He became the first black assistant coach at his alma mater in 1973.
Bo Matthews, a star running back from S.R. Butler HS in Huntsville, Ala., originally committed to Alabama in 1969 and would've been a pioneer for the Tide. The highly recruited prospect was courted by Bryant's staff starting during his sophomore season in 1967. It was thought that Matthews was invited by Bryant to the 1969 Liberty Bowl during his senior season in high school. Denver Post Columnist Woody Paige referenced this in a 2007 article saying, "Bryant had persuaded a black high school fullback, Bo Matthews, to commit to Alabama-- and invited him to Memphis. The Kid from Huntsville, Ala., hung out that week with the black players from Colorado."
Matthews tells a different account of that December week in 1969. "I never got to go the Liberty Bowl. That's completely untrue."
At that point, Matthews was a senior in high school and being in Memphis with either team would've been a clear violation of NCAA rules. He would've been Alabama's first African-American recruit and being a part of the Liberty Bowl week would've been a noteworthy story. Paige was contacted for comment and didn't respond.
Staying in Alabama and being coached by Bear Bryant was the ideal situation for Matthews, but he decommitted due to his grades. Bryant wanted him to attend a junior college to improve his academics. Ultimately, he made the decision to attend CU, who allowed him to play starting his sophomore year. Dye still to this day would've liked the opportunity to coach Matthews. "He was one hell of a ball player and I wish Alabama could have got him. He would have been a thrill to coach."
He had an outstanding college career with the Buffs, rushing for 1,339 yards and 11 touchdowns in three season (1971-73). Matthews was selected No. 2 overall in the 1974 NFL Draft, by the San Diego Chargers and is still the highest overall pick in CU school history.
The 12 point lead for CU coming out of halftime didn't seem like an overwhelming deficit, especially when the third quarter was a shutout by the Tide. Colorado would find themselves trailing by two points 33-31, going into the fourth quarter. The Buffs defense pulled together to stop Alabama in the final stages of the game. Anderson scored the go-ahead touchdown with 10:57 remaining and the defense would later add a safety. Alabama had the opportunity to even the score again, but running back Johnny Musso mishandled a shovel pass. He was stopped by Orvis and Brundige, forcing a fumble. The referee ruled Colorado's ball on the field. Bryant wasn't happy and walked to the middle of the field to confront the ref. He argued his point until his assistants came out to get him off the field. Bryant still not being satisfied, went back on the field again to argue. He later called the play a "whoopee pass".
Colorado would score 16 unanswered points against the Tide, sealing the 47-33 victory. Anderson scored the last two touchdowns and received MVP honors for the game. He finished his college career with 4,732 total yards, a Big 8 conference record. The All-American offensive specialist had 35 carries for 254 yards along with three touchdowns in his final game. Anderson attended the Liberty Bowl legends dinner in 2008 and reminisced about the events in Memphis.
"It was a fun day, a real tribute to our coach, Eddie Crowder, a feather in his cap beating Bear Bryant."
CU still holds the record for the most points by a team in Liberty Bowl history, due mostly to Anderson's performance.
After the contest, Bryant and Crowder met at midfield to exchange words and shook hands. It was surreal for Crowder to be on the shoulders of his players celebrating a win for Buffs. Alabama's legendary coach had an obvious sign of defeat written on his face. The 6-5 record posted that season was Bryant's worst of his 38-year coaching career. He knew at that point, Alabama would have to a better job integrating their football program with players of all races, otherwise the losing seasons would continue. Colorado was the first team to prove to Bryant wrong, but it wasn't until the following season that he would make a stronger push toward ending segregation.
The Sept. 12, 1970 game against the USC Trojans changed the landscape for Alabama and college football in the south forever. Sam Cunningham, a black running back for the Trojans ran over the Tide in a 42-21 rout. He rushed for 135 of USC's 559 total yards, leaving a lasting impression on Bryant, who personally congratulated Cunningham after the game. The well-detailed events were later made into a Showtime documentary 'Against the Tide' in 2013.
Bryant would coach the Tide until 1982, when he retired with six national championships and the most wins by a coach in college football history with 323. He died 28 days after retiring at the age of 69.
Crowder coached the Buffs until 1973, before staying on and becoming the athletic director for the university. He made many improvements for CU during his 20 years (1965-84), including expansions to Folsom Field, integration of men's and women's programs, and hiring CU legends Bill McCartney and Ceal Berry. Crowder would lose his battle with leukemia on Sept. 9, 2008 at the age of 77.
His presence is still felt in Boulder and can be summed up in his own words, "Life is boring for someone trying to achieve greatness."