How Michigan State changed the landscape of college football
By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer
Editor's Note: As part of FOX Sports' series of Black History Month Stories, writer RJ Young is examining the players, teams and moments that changed college and professional football.
Read the rest of the series:
- Eldridge Dickey was the greatest HBCU quarterback of his time
- How a judge helped Earl Campbell become Texas' first Heisman winner
- Chuck Ealey deserves to be in the College Football Hall of Fame
- When the Kansas City Chiefs were pro football's champions of change
- How Florida A&M coach Jake Gaither helped save Bob Hayes' NFL career
- The all-Black Texas high school football league that sent six Hall of Famers to Canton
- Paul Robeson overcame obstacles to become an All-American at Rutgers
A year before the University of Texas made Julius Whittier its first Black varsity football player in 1970, Michigan State named Clifton R. Wharton its first Black president.
That’s how much more progressive — no, aggressive — the folks in East Lansing were when it came to integrating their campus. MSU was the first major university in the country to boast a Black president.
That ethos wasn’t apparent just in the school’s administration. It also shined through on Duffy Daugherty’s Spartan football teams.
Duffy Daugherty built Michigan State into a football powerhouse in the late 1960s by recruiting Black players from the South.
In 1965 and 1966, Daugherty led Michigan State to back-to-back national titles. The ‘66 squad was the first majority-Black team to win a title at a predominantly white institution.
Daugherty built his roster not by roping off the state of Michigan in recruiting or even mining Ohio’s talent-rich soil. The coach traveled as far south as Texas to recruit the best Black players of a generation right out of the Longhorns' backyard.
Daugherty spent so much time recruiting in the Lone Star State that one time, while scouting a Black high school game in Beaumont, the MSU coach was shocked to bump into Texas coach Darrell K. Royal.
"Darrell," Daugherty said, according to author Denne H. Freeman's "Hook 'em Horns," "what are you doing in my neck of the woods?"
Royal was trying to change UT’s reputation as a school at which Black athletes weren’t welcome. Given that university regents outright banned Black athletes until 1963, the Longhorns' coach had a tall task in front of him.
"This has hurt me in recruiting and has hurt me with just straight friendship with Blacks," Royal said. "It has made them very leery to be around me.
"They might like what they see and might like what they are experiencing when they are with me in person, but they still have it in their head that this a devious, slick SOB we’re dealing with."
When a writer from Harper's magazine asked Royal if it was important to him to have Black players on the team, he answered bluntly: "No.
"Listen, I know a lot of Black people think I’m racist," the coach went on. "But what am I supposed to do, run around denying it? That’s incriminating in itself."
Quarterback Jimmy Raye led the Spartans to a 9-0-1 record in 1966, winning a share of the national title.
While progress came ever so slowly to Royal and the Longhorns, MSU’s Daugherty was recruiting his tail off in Texas’s Golden Triangle — a talent-rich wedge of land between Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, right next to the Louisiana border.
Future No. 1 NFL Draft pick Bubba Smith. Future All-Pro wide receiver Gene Washington. Future NFL running back Jess Phillips. Daugherty signed them all out of high schools in Southeastern Texas.
There was no special sauce to Daugherty’s recruiting style. The coach was just willing to provide opportunities that were limited for Black players in the old Southwestern Conference.
Daugherty didn’t stop with Texas. He went down to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to land Jimmy Raye, who would become the first Black quarterback from the South to win a national title in 1966.
Wide receiver Gene Washington, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011, says the integrated environment of Michigan State "was a whole new world."
Up in East Lansing, Washington said he and his teammates were free to be themselves.
"It was an integrated situation, and everybody was so much nicer," Washington said. "It was refreshing to feel that people respect you regardless of your background and the color of your skin.
"Michigan State was a whole new world, and I wanted to prove to the Texas segregation supporters, and especially to myself, that I would be successful."
Washington went on to a decorated pro career with the Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos, but of the 12 Black starters on the 1966 Spartans, nobody had a bigger impact — or was just plain bigger — than Bubba Smith.
At 6-foot-8 and 285 pounds, Smith wore size-52 suits. However, this mountain of a man was so fast that he ran sprints with the skill-position players.
Smith was the face of the Blackest college football team on TV back then — when many other top Black players were competing at historically Black colleges and universities, away from the mainstream spotlight.
Bubba Smith (95) and Michigan State split the national title with Notre Dame and Terry Hanratty (5) following their famous 10-10 tie in 1966.
Bubba had a quote I will never forget during 1966’s "Game of the Century," when the undefeated Spartans played undefeated Notre Dame with the national title on the line.
Heading into the game, most folks thought Notre Dame needed only a tie to clinch the championship. The Fighting Irish were whiter, a bigger brand name and more likely than the Spartans to be favored by Associated Press poll voters.
That’s almost exactly how it played out. With just over a minute left in the fourth quarter and the score knotted at 10-10, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian had his team run out the clock rather than attempt to move the ball downfield and win the game.
"Do you think we’re going to win the national championship even if they run the clock out?" Smith told teammates, according to author Michael Weinreb's "Season of Saturdays." "We got too many n-----s on this team to win the national championship. We have to find a way."
I still laugh every time I see that quote. Bubba saw it coming.
Michigan State's football practice facility is named in honor of Duffy Daugherty, who coached the Spartans from 1954 to 1972.
But it didn’t turn out quite that badly. Michigan State and Notre Dame each got a share of the national title in 1966.
Those back-to-back titles in ‘65 and ‘66 are still the most recent in Spartans football history — and there's no way they would have won them if Daugherty hadn’t recruited Black players such as Smith, Washington and Raye.
It wasn’t just about doing the right thing for Michigan State — it was about winning.
And then as now, Black players help you win.