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John Mitchell, the first black football player and assistant coach at Alabama in the early 1970s and the first black coordinator in the Southeastern Conference at LSU in 1990, accomplished a myriad of firsts and rare feats in his illustrious career.
As an assistant coach, he won a national championship at Alabama in 1973 under six-time national champion Bear Bryant and won Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005 and 2008. He also coached under six-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick and seven-time national champion Nick Saban before they were rock stars with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s.
As a young coach in the 1970s and early ’80s, Mitchell worked under Lou Holtz at Arkanas before Holtz went on to win a national title at Notre Dame in 1988. And he coached in 1986 under future Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians when Arians was Temple’s head coach.
On Saturday at Alabama’s spring game (3 p.m. eastern, ESPN+, SEC Network+), Mitchell, 70, will see his “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” coaching career come full circle as he will be honored as an Alabama pioneer. Former Alabama running back Wilbur Jackson will also be honored Saturday. He was the first black player to sign for the Crimson Tide in 1970, but he played after Mitchell.
“These guys created so many opportunities and changed lives of so many people and changed the mindset of a lot of other people and were a big step in desegrating the South,” Saban said on Thursday before his 16th spring game with the Crimson Tide.
“And I think Coach Bryant should be commended for what he did to make that happen and for the leadership he showed in trying to help these guys deal with the obstacles they had to overcome,” Saban said. “I don’t even think you can calibrate the importance of what they did.”
Saban was Cleveland’s defensive coordinator from 1991-94 under Belichick with Mitchell as defensive line coach from 1991-93.
“He’s an Alabama guy,” Saban said in a previous interview about Mitchell. “He’s got a lot of history here at this university, and he’s obviously been a great ambassador for us for a long time. And he’s one of the better coaches that I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. He worked hard at Cleveland — did a really good job, paid attention to detail. Had great relationships with his players, but pushed them.”
Mitchell will step on the Bryant-Denny Stadium field amid heavy pathos, however.
A native of Mobile, Alabama, he always wanted to walk across that grass as the Crimson Tide’s head coach like his coach and mentor before him – Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“The one job I always wanted was the Alabama job,” Mitchell said in a recent interview from the Steelers’ offices, where he has worked since 1994. “And I always felt like if I worked hard, kept my head down, tried to be a good football coach that some day I might have a chance.”
There were six head coaches between Bryant and Saban at Alabama, but it never happened for Mitchell, who has been Pittsburgh’s assistant head coach since 2007.
“I never had a chance,” he said. “So you know, you don’t cry over spilled milk. But that was it. There was never a job in college that I wanted other than Alabama. The way Coach Bryant and the people at Alabama treated me, it was just the job.”
Ray Perkins, who played under Bryant at Alabama, replaced him in 1983. Gene Stallings, who played under Bryant at Texas A&M, became Bama’s coach in 1990 and won a national championship in 1992. Mike DuBose, who played under Bryant, replaced Stallings in 1997. And Mike Shula, who played under Perkins, became coach in 2003. DuBose and Shula were fired before reaching a fifth season. The only black coach considered for the head coaching job at Alabama was Sylvester Croom, a former Bama center and assistant coach under Bryant, but Shula got the job.
“I hoped some day that I might get an interview to have a chance to see if I could get the job,” Mitchell said. “But I didn’t.”
Mitchell, who has not coached on the field since 2018 with the Steelers, carried the coaching he learned under Bryant to all of his various stops.
“Coach Bryant would always say, and I’ll never forget this, and I used to tell my players this all the time. ‘You’re Alabama. They have to beat you. You don’t have to beat them, because they don’t think they can beat you,'” he said. “And we won a lot of football games.”
Mitchell was Alabama’s first black All-SEC player in 1971 as a junior transfer from Eastern Arizona Junior College. He became the Tide’s first black All-American and co-captain in 1972. Alabama went 21-3 and won two SEC titles with Mitchell as a player. When Mitchell was defensive ends coach from 1973-76, the Tide was 42-6 with three more SEC titles and the ’73 national title by UPI. (Notre Dame beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 24-23, and won the Associated Press title.)
“When I was at Alabama, people wanted to beat Coach Bryant, and they didn’t realize Coach Bryant didn’t play,” Mitchell said. “They had to beat his teams, and his teams were so well coached. Other coaches would spend all night trying to to outsmart him, but they didn’t have their team ready to play on Saturday.”
One of Bryant’s secrets was delegation.
“He would always tell the assistant coaches, ‘You make sure that they know what to do and when to do it. That’s all I want you to do. I’ll get them to do it,'” Mitchell said. “People don’t realize that Coach Bryant wasn’t a yeller or a screamer. He was a hard-working guy. He felt like techique meant discipline and dedication, and that would win a lot of football games. That’s how I always coached.”
Bryant was also fair to all players.
“He treated everybody the same – bad,” Mitchell said with a large laugh. “No, Coach Bryant was a great guy to play for.”
Saban reminds Mitchell of Bryant.
“Nick was just like he is now when we were in Cleveland,” said Mitchell, who was the Browns’ defensive line coach while Saban was defensive coordinator. “Nick was focused. He expected everybody on the staff to pull their weight and do their job. He was demanding. He would turn over every stone to try to find some edge to win.”
Mitchell never became a head coach, but he is the only assistant to coach under three who are on the profession’s Mount Rushmore – Bryant, Belichick, Saban.
Counting his time under Super Bowl winning coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin at Pittsburgh, he has worked under seven coaches who have won a combined 23 championships – 14 national titles in college and nine Super Bowls before, during, or after his time with them from 1961 through 2022.
“I was blessed,” Mitchell said. “I can’t say anything else. For me to have an opportunity to play and work for Coach Bryant, work for Lou Holtz, work for Belichick, work with Saban, work for Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, I’ve had football heaven right here on earth. So, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”