Sam “Bam” Cunningham Remembers Nights in Birmingham, L.A., Competing Against Alabama, Meeting Coach Bryant, Friendship with John Hannah

LOS ANGELES -- Part one of BamaMag.com's look back at the history between Alabama and Southern California.

Respect for the opponent was a tenet preached by Paul W. Bryant.  Sam “Bam” Cunningham and USC earned a beaucoup amount from all the Alabama Crimson Tide faithful as no. 3 rated USC dismantled No. 16th-ranked Alabama 42-21 on a 1970 September Saturday night at famed Legion Field. 

The rumbling fullback rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Ironically, one of the most famous players to compete against Alabama had the nickname “Bam."  One more vowel would have made him “Bama”.  

USC was the first fully integrated football team to play against Alabama in Birmingham.  Tennessee, with three African-American players on the roster, had clashed with the Tide in 1969.  Chapter one in the early 1970’s two-game series went decidedly in favor of the Trojans.    

Bryant and the Tide players were extremely motivated to write a different outcome for Chapter two.  Resurgence of Alabama as a powerful football program resumed Friday, September 10, 1971.  A paradigm shift from a pro-style passing offense to a triple option attack occurred in August.  Rated 16th again in the preseason poll, Alabama shielded the secret from those not associated with the team before unveiling the wishbone, and upsetting the fifth-rated Trojans 17-10 in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that evening. 

The seminal win launched a decade of dominance for the program.  Posting an impressive 103-16-1 record, Alabama won three National Championships (1973, 1978 & 1979) and eight SEC titles (1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978 & 1979).

BamaMag.com met with four players involved in the back-to-back games – two from each school.  They expressed their version of events and the reason the game was scheduled.  The debate is part of the folklore inspiring books and documentaries the last four-plus decades.    

Sam Cunningham was a sophomore fullback from Santa Barbara, CA anxious to see action in his first varsity game in 1970.  John Papadakis, a junior, was a bruising linebacker from Rolling Hills, CA. 

Jerry Cash was a flanker from Bogart, GA with a penchant for scoring almost every time he touched the football.  Steve Root was an instinctive undersized linebacker from College of the Desert (CA) via Coachella Valley HS (CA).

Cunningham gave an extended interview separated into three parts:

Part I - Perspective on playing in Birmingham’s Legion Field against Alabama

Part II - Meeting Coach Bryant years later at George Lindsey golf tournament

Part III – friendship with NFL teammate John Hannah

Stay tuned for more on this story from BamaMag in Los Angeles


BamaMag Top Stories