Mitchell broke barriers to live out his dream
Assistant head coach John Mitchell was a pioneer at the University of Alabama
By Teresa Varley Feb 08, 2023

In celebration of Black History Month, we take the time to recognize and reflect on the thoughts and contributions of members of the Steelers organization. Today we look at the career of Assistant Head Coach John Mitchell, who was the first black player, captain, All-American and assistant coach at the University of Alabama.

Like many young kids growing up in Mobile, Alabama, John Mitchell dreamt about going to the University of Alabama.

But like so many young kids growing up in his Mobile neighborhood, at the time that he did, he knew that it was most likely nothing more than that – a dream.

Mitchell was born in 1951, a time when there was segregation in Alabama and throughout the South. And it wasn't just in the schools where it was felt, it was everyday life where blacks and whites were separated, and he had to deal with every aspect of it.

"It was pretty tough as a kid growing up, especially right there in Mobile and the state of Alabama," said Mitchell. "People talk now about confederate flags, at that time they were everywhere, in the stores, shopping centers. If they had a confederate flag in the window or outside the door, that was a sign that people of color were not welcome. At that time schools were segregated. There were black schools and white schools. Transportation was segregated. Black people would pay the same as white people but had to sit at the back of the bus. If they bus was crowded, they had to get up and give their seat to a white person. They had separate restaurants, shopping. Black people, if you went to the movies, you had to go through the back door to go in and then they couldn't sit in the front of the theater, they had to sit in the balcony."

Mitchell often wondered why. Why was there such a divide, a divide highlighted by those who lived on the other side of the railroad track.

"I asked my parents (John Sr. and Alice Mitchell) questions," said Mitchell. "They told me black people were treated a lot different than white people. You had to be aware of your surroundings and the things you did. Right there in Mobile, where I went to high school, there is a railroad track that goes right through the city. When I went to the other side of that track, if I was there after 6 o'clock, black people were arrested for trespassing because they were in a white neighborhood and most of the time, they said you had no business there.

"My parents were cognizant of me not being where I shouldn't be at certain hours of the night. When I would go out as a young guy, dating in high school, they told me places I could go, places I shouldn't go. They would stay awake until I got home to make sure I was okay, that I came back the same way I left. There were a lot of things back then that were really, really tough for African Americans, especially in the state of Alabama, especially in Mobile where I grew up."

But there was one love Mitchell always had, and race didn't impact it. He loved Alabama football. He would watch games on television with his family, or listen on the radio, and dream about the opportunity to go to Alabama and possibly play football one day for legendary coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant.

Then, he witnessed what so many others did. On June 11, 1963, two black students, Vivian Malone and James A. Hood, showed up at to register at Alabama. Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway and blocked them from entering. Despite federal agents trying to intervene, Wallace didn't budge, and President John F. Kennedy ordered the Alabama National Guard to assist. Eventually Wallace gave in and allowed them to register.

"I can remember as a young kid when Governor Wallace stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama, not going to admit Vivian Malone and James Hood to the University," recalled Mitchell. "Growing up as a young kid in Alabama in the 1950s and 60s, I saw a lot of things."

Despite what he saw, he never gave up. Many would have just accepted what was in front of them. But Mitchell wasn't one to accept anything less than what others had.

"I just knew that if I wanted what they had, I have to do what they are doing, which was get a good education, find a way to have a job that would be in demand whether I was black, brown or whatever," said Mitchell. "There weren't any big houses, or front yards, or nice cars in my neighborhood. I saw that on the other side of the tracks. That is what I wanted when I grew up. My parents told me the way to get it when I grow up is to get a good education because that is the only way you are going to get it.

"There were no doctors, lawyers, bankers, engineers in my neighborhood. They were common people with less than a high school education. I grew up in a blue-collar area. Very modest.

"The school I went to was segregated so I didn't have a white teacher until I went to college. When they came out with new books and materials, those went to the white schools. We would get the old books that were torn up, written in, cut out. I knew the education I got, by the time I got to college was inferior of what the white kids got in the same area I lived that went to all white schools. But I had to find a way."

While at Williamson High School, Mitchell and four of his black classmates won an area science fair, then a state science fair, and then finished third in the country in a nationwide science fair. All five students were offered scholarships to Alabama or Auburn, but there was still a hurdle for Mitchell to overcome.

"All of us were offered scholarships to study engineering at the Southeastern Conference schools and all of the white schools in the South because that had never been done before," said Mitchell. "I could have gone to Alabama or another white school, but I wanted to play football and Alabama wasn't recruiting black players then."

So instead of taking advantage of the scholarship, and staying home and going to Alabama, Mitchell enrolled at Eastern Arizona Junior College to play football, where he received a scholarship. He earned Junior College All-American honors, and caught the attention of University of Southern California, committing to play for Coach John McKay.

That never happened.

Instead, his childhood dream came true.

"Coach Bryant was visiting Coach McKay at USC, speaking at his clinic, and Coach McKay was bragging that he had a black kid from Mobile who was coming to Southern Cal," explained Mitchell of how it all played out. "Alabama never saw me play. Alabama had recruiters in the state. They called every John Mitchell in the phone book until they got my dad.

"They wanted to know if I was the John Mitchell who accepted the scholarship. Two days later Coach Bryant had a couple of coaches in my mother's home to visit with us to see if I wanted to go to Alabama. Two of his assistants visited, Pat Dye was one of them."

For the Mitchells, or anyone living in that neighborhood, having white visitors wasn't normal.

"A white person wouldn't have any reason to come there unless they were looking for someone to do some work for them, cut the grass, things like that," said Mitchell. "They didn't cross the railroad track either. We didn't have a lot of white visitors for any reason I can think of. That just didn't happen. That track separated the haves from the have nots. That is just the way it was.

"But they came to my house. I visited with them and a week later I took an official visit to Alabama, met Coach Bryant, my mom, my dad and myself.

"I wanted my family to see me play. The biggest thrill I had in high school was walking out of the locker room and seeing the face of my mom, dad and brother and sister. I never had that opportunity in junior college in Arizona. I knew if I went to Southern Cal, they would only have it once or twice. But if I went to Alabama, they could see me play all of the time. It was a 3½ hour drive, and they could drive there and some of the other games in the SEC. When I went and visited, Coach Bryant sold me on going to Alabama. I wanted to go there. They won a lot of National Championships when I was growing up. As a kid you knew Coach Bryant. Everybody knew Alabama football."

With all of the excitement, also came a challenge.

John Mitchell was now the first black player to play for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

How he would be accepted, even if he would be accepted, by his teammates of course was on his mind. As was so much more.

"The thing that eased my mind, and I can remember it like yesterday, is we sat in Coach Bryant's office and he said if your son comes here, he is going to have some problems," said Mitchell. "The only thing I ask of him is if he does have a problem, come see me first before he goes to the press. That is all I want. I want him to see me first. I will handle it. My mom and dad were impressed with that.

"When I was there, I never had a problem. I had a white roommate, Bobby Stanford from Albany, Georgia. He came from an upper middle-class family. He was a real good guy. His family were good people. When they came to visit, whatever they brought for Bobby, they would bring me. They would hug me goodbye. His parents were great. They knew no color. He was in my wedding. We have been friends for 50 years. We talk about twice a week now."

While his teammates were accepting of him, especially it being the first time the majority of them ever had a black teammate, when they went on the road, things were different. Many opposing players didn't hesitate to call Mitchell names, but he was always the bigger man.

"When we played in Mississippi, I was called a lot of 'good names,'" said Mitchell. "When I was at Alabama, schools like Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia didn't have any black athletes. The only people that had black athletes were Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida and Kentucky. When we played at the other schools, I was called some names. But I had a bunch of great teammates.

"There were a lot of white kids who never sat in a classroom or competed with an African American on their team. To see me put on a Crimson Tide uniform, that was the first time they had been that close to a black player. All the players I played with, they were so afraid of Coach Bryant, I didn't have to worry about it."

Putting on the Crimson Tide uniform. As a kid, he envisioned himself doing that. But he also knew what the reality was. He never imagined, a young kid from the other side of the railroad tracks would make history and be the first black player to wear the uniform.

"It brought tears to my eyes," said Mitchell of the first time he put it on. "I watched Alabama play on television or listened to on the radio. Coach Bryant was a household name. He was revered in the state of Alabama. In the back of my mind, I didn't know if I could play for Alabama, if I was good enough. I took a chance. I wanted to go and know if I could compete. I didn't know if I could compete against them."

Oh, he could compete alright. Mitchell became the first black captain and All-American at Alabama, not just breaking the barriers, but shattering them.

"Coach Bryant every week would name a captain for the next game if they played well, and at the end of the season, vote for the permanent captains," recalled Mitchell. "At this time, there were four black players on the team and there was a meeting to vote on captains. I didn't go to the meeting the day they voted, with me thinking I would never get voted.

"I was coming back to the dorm that day and one of the white players said you were elected captain. An hour later my position coach told me I better get over to the Athletic Department because Coach wanted to see me. I went in there, and I can't tell you what he said, but after he chewed me out for not being at the meeting, he told me he was proud of me and I deserved it. He was very pleased and excited I got elected captain.

"Coach Bryant treated me like a son. Besides my father he was a guy I looked up to and respected. He was fair. He loved his players. He didn't care if they were black or white. The only thing he wanted you to do was represent yourself and the university well and have class."

What is amazing in Mitchell's case, is things didn't stop when his playing days at Alabama ended. He continued to break down doors, becoming the first black coach in Alabama history, when he was hired as the team's defensive ends coach right out of college.

"I wanted to go to graduate school, law school, and I called Coach Bryant," said Mitchell. "I graduated six months ahead of my class, taking graduate classes to go to graduate school. I called him and told him I wanted to go to graduate school but I didn't have the money and wanted to talk to him about a job around the Athletic Department, anything I could do to earn money and go to school. I was at home and he told me to come see him when I got back to school.

"I can remember it like it was yesterday. Coach Bryant had a nice big office. He was at this desk with his glasses on his nose, and he never looked at me. He said if I offer you a full-time job on my staff, would you take it? I am 20 years old and I just got through playing for him six months ago and I am standing there, and he is not looking at me. And he says again. If I offer you this job will you take the job? I said yes sir. He then told me get out of here and go to work. I walked out of the office and said he never looked at me and offered me the job.

"He groomed me to be a football coach. Everything I do as a coach came from him. When I was on his staff, I had the chance to ask him a lot of questions that as a player you wouldn't ask. He taught me how to become a coach. Everything I do right now came from Coach Bryant. Everything. My players I coached here know because I talked to them about him."

During his time at Alabama, Mitchell never really thought about breaking the barriers. And honestly, it's not something he thinks about now. He doesn't look at himself as someone special.

"I tell people this, being first doesn't mean anything unless you do something with it," said Mitchell. "I am happy that people recognize I tried to do what was right and made the path a little easier for them. That is the thing I am happiest about. A lot of times you get to be first, if you don't take advantage of it, not only are you disappointing yourself, you are disappointing people who want to come after you. I have had a lot of guys say you made it easier to come after you.

"That is the thing that I am proudest of. Not that I was the first African American to play, be a captain or coach. Those things are fleeting. But when people say you made it easier for me, that is where my joy comes from.

"When I was at Alabama, we had about 10,500 students and only 50 black students. Only four out of 144 black guys in the athletic dorm were black, two football players and two basketball players. It was tough, but I made friends with a lot of guys who wanted to be friends. Not everybody was happy I was there. But there were some I was close to and still am.

"When I went to class, most of them I was the only black student in them. When I went to class every day, I had to be prepared. I didn't want to sit in the classroom and be the only black person and the professor call on me and I say I am not prepared. I stayed up late at night to make sure I was prepared for class the next day. I would never let the white students say I wasn't smart or not prepared. I never wanted that to happen to me. I burnt a lot of midnight oil to make sure I was prepared. I would never let a professor call on me and say not prepared."

Mitchell still has a home in the Mobile area. He goes back every offseason and spends time there, enjoying the place he will forever call home.

But things are different now. Instead of crossing the railroad track to get to his house, he goes through a gate. Yes, the man who grew up on the other side of the tracks, now lives in a gated community.

"It's much different now," said Mitchell. "Twenty years ago, I couldn't live in that neighborhood. It makes me feel good things have changed, and some things haven't changed. When I have to tell someone where I live, their eyes open up and they know I couldn't have stayed in that neighborhood 20 years ago because black people weren't able to."

While he has changed neighborhoods, he certainly hasn't forgotten where he came from. When he goes home, Mitchell crosses the tracks and goes back to where it all started for him.

"I do, and I do it for a reason," said Mitchell. "My dad had a seventh-grade education coming out. He was the oldest of 12. He had to drop out of school and go to the Army to help his family. My mom had a ninth-grade education. She had to drop out to help. Every time I cross that track, I think about how hard my mom and dad worked to make sure our family, there were five kids, we had a chance to get an education. The others in my family all have advanced degrees. It brings tears to my eyes that my parents didn't live long enough to see the success I had."

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