John Mitchell, the defensive line coach for the
Pittsburgh Steelers.

By Hannah Gordon

Daily Bruin Reporter


Bear Bryant politely excused himself. USC’s head coach had
just mentioned he was recruiting an African-American player from
Mobile, Ala. named John Mitchell. The Bear left to phone his
recruiters at Alabama.

“All I know is his name is John Mitchell and he’s
from Mobile,” Bryant said. “Find him.”

Three days after Bryant’s phone call, coaches arrived at
Mitchell’s home. Growing up in Alabama, Mitchell watched the
Tide win national championships.

But for Mitchell, whose parents never had the opportunity to see
their son play during his two years at at Eastern Arizona Junior
College, there was a stronger deciding factor in choosing Alabama
over USC than boyhood memories.

“It was so special for my mom,” Mitchell said
“And to come out on to the field and see the smile on her
face, it was a Kodak moment The kind you keep with you your whole
life.”

Before Southern football teams integrated, talented
African-American players had to either play at historically black
colleges or migrate to the North and West. Although the University
of Alabama integrated in 1963, the football team’s color
barrier was not broken until 1970 by Wilbur Jackson, and Mitchell
was the first to actually play for the team in 1971.

“I wouldn’t say everyone accepted me, but Coach
Bryant was fair so the players all treated me the same,”
Mitchell said.

While Mitchell seems nonchalant, perhaps it is because he has
grown so used to being the first to do many things. At Alabama, he
was also the first African-American student athlete to room with a
white student. His roommate Robert Stanford and he are still best
friends.

“They could not have picked a better person to be the
first African-American to be on the team because John was there to
play football and get an education,” Stanford said. “He
didn’t expect any special treatment and he didn’t get
any, but he was treated fairly. He was a great person and a heck of
a ballplayer.”

Because Mitchell was outgoing and always went along when other
players went into Tuscaloosa, he unintentionally became the first
African-American in many establishments in town.

“Everybody stopped and looked, then somebody said,
“˜He’s a football player,’ and they all went back
to what they were doing,” Mitchell recalled.

Mitchell even became the first African-American co-captain of
the football team.

“I didn’t go to the meeting,” Mitchell said
because he and the other five African-Americans figured they were
so few, they would never be nominated. Until they added Bryant was
mad that he had not gone to the meeting, Mitchell didn’t even
believe his white teammates who told him he’d been selected
as co-captain.

Although Mitchell was an All-American at Alabama and was drafted
by the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers, he
wanted to attend graduate school rather than enter the pro
ranks.

So Mitchell asked his former coach if he could get him a job in
the athletic department so that he could make some money while he
went to school. Instead, Bryant offered him a full-time position as
an assistant coach.

At 20 years old, Mitchell again stood out, this time as the
youngest coach in college football at the time, as well as
Alabama’s first African-American assistant coach.

Mitchell’s coaching talents led him to Arkansas under Lou
Holtz and later to the USFL, Temple University and Lousiana State
University before moving on to the NFL where he is currently a
defensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“He’s a lot like Coach Bryant,” Stanford said,
“because he knows (players) are not going to play football
forever. He coaches them not only in football, but in more than
that.”

At LSU, Mitchell became the first African-American defensive
coordinator in the SEC when former head coach Mike Archer promoted
him in 1990.

“At that time, living in the South, it was met by some
mixed reviews,” said Archer, who received death threats,
“but when you do the right thing, you don’t doubt
yourself.”

Ironically, Mitchell’s accomplishments expose the dearth
of diversity in professional and collegiate football. Only five of
the 117 Division I-A football programs have African-American head
coaches. Similarly, there are only two African-American head
coaches in the NFL’s 32 franchises.

Mitchell was interested in the Alabama head coaching position
when it became open this past season, but the university was
looking for a “proven head coach.”

“You tell me what coach came out of the womb as a head
coach,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s lifetime of firsts proves the importance of
taking a risk on talent rather than recycling the status quo.

His name is John Mitchell. Find him.