Spartans blended race in 1960s
By Adam Rittenberg [ARCHIVE]
February 22, 2013
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As old men, they've come to appreciate how their Michigan State teams, which blended white, black, North and South, reflected a changing America during a defining decade.

But as young men, they anchored themselves in the moment. While racial and civil unrest raged around them, they lived in a green zone of sorts -- an "atmosphere of acceptance," as former quarterback Jimmy Raye put it -- a world apart from their homes in more ways than one.

They came to Michigan State's lush campus in the early 1960s from places like Beaumont, Texas; Fayetteville, N.C.; Anderson, S.C.; and Roanoke, Va. Michigan State provided an opportunity -- to play college football at the highest level -- not afforded to them in their home states because of their skin color.

"All the Southern players, we were outcasts from our own states," said former Michigan State wide receiver Gene Washington, a native of La Porte, Texas. "All of the states where we were from, they would not take black athletes. We bonded at Michigan State because we all had similar stories. We could make a contribution. That was very important to us. We didn't talk about that all the time, but we knew we had something to prove, and this is our opportunity.

"We wanted to be the best in the country."

And they were. Led by coach Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State won national championships in 1965 (UPI) and 1966 (National Football Foundation) with some of the most racially and geographically integrated teams in all of college football. The 1965 roster included 18 black players, nine from Southern states (Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina). The 1966 roster featured 17 black players, 10 from the South.

In contrast, the team that earned national championship honors in 1964 -- Alabama -- came from the Southeastern Conference, which didn't integrate until 1966.

"Duffy used to always tell us that if you play with enthusiasm and you play as a team, our names would be printed in indelible ink and would last for a lifetime," Raye said. "But at the time, when you're 18 or 19 years old, you're just playing. We didn't think about the history that was being made. We were just winning."

Michigan State had a long history of accepting black athletes before those seasons. In 1913, Spartans tackle Gideon Smith became one of the first black men to play college football. Willie Thrower was the first black quarterback to play in the Big Ten in 1950. He led Michigan State to a national title in 1952 and became the first black quarterback in the NFL with the Chicago Bears in 1953. Future College Football Hall of Famer Don Coleman played tackle at MSU from 1949 to 1951.

But in the early 1960s, Daugherty made a recruiting push to the segregated South and brought in players who helped put Michigan State back on top of the college football ladder.

"If they could have played down South, they would have probably stayed down there," said Hank Bullough, an assistant under Daugherty from 1959 to 1969. "But they couldn't. So we hit the South. It was a new place to go."

Daugherty formed connections with many of the top black high school coaches by holding separate clinics for them at coaching events where they were otherwise barred. He also welcomed them to East Lansing in the spring and fall to watch drills.

Among those Daugherty befriended was Willie Ray Smith, a thriving high school coach in Beaumont, Texas. Smith's son Charles, a massive lineman nicknamed "Bubba," wanted to play for the University of Texas but couldn't because of his skin color. Several Big Ten programs and other Northern schools pursued Bubba, who ended up picking Michigan State.

If they could have played down South, they would have probably stayed down there. But they couldn't. So we hit the South. It was a new place to go.

 -- Former Michigan State assistant Hank Bullough

The Smith-Daugherty connection also led Washington to East Lansing. Washington had played high school football and basketball against Bubba Smith, who told Washington he'd put in a good word with Daugherty. Michigan State ended up bringing in Washington on a track scholarship because no football scholarships were available.

"Duffy didn't know anything about my football background," Washington recalled. "In those days when you recruited black athletes, we didn't have any film. They had never seen me run track, didn't even know I ran track. I got to Michigan State solely on Bubba's and his father's recommendation."

Washington ended up as a two-time first-team All-America receiver. He also won an NCAA championship and six Big Ten titles in hurdles.

Daugherty's connections to white college coaches who couldn't take black players also paid off for MSU. NC State coach Earle Edwards, a former Spartans assistant, helped get Raye to Michigan State. Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant encouraged Charles "Mad Dog" Thornhill, a fullback whom he had met at a touchdown club event, to be a Spartan. Clemson coach Frank Howard steered Webster to East Lansing.

"Any time those coaches knew a black player in high school that they heard about, they would immediately call Duffy," Washington said. "He had all these coaches calling him."

That top coaches steered elite players toward another school seems unfathomable in today's cutthroat recruiting environment. But the circumstances were different then.

Daugherty was different, too, spreading the recruiting net as far as he could, even to Hawaii, where he brought in players like fullback Bob Apisa.

"Duffy has always been a diverse person," former halfback Clinton Jones said. "He had the ability to fuse with the black community as well as the Polynesian community and everybody. The coaches in the South, Bear Bryant, Johnny Majors, Darrell Royal and Bud Wilkinson, all those guys were his buddies. They loved Duffy. Had he not been a coach, he could have been a stand-up comedian.

"He had a way of pulling people together."

At the time, the Big Ten was the league of opportunity for black players from the South. Raye, who faced two obstacles of being black and playing quarterback, drew inspiration from watching Sandy Stephens lead Minnesota to back-to-back Rose Bowls as the Gophers' signal-caller.

The willingness of Big Ten programs like Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan State to accept black players resonated with those simply looking for a chance.

"There's always been great players down [South]," said former Spartans halfback Sherman Lewis, a Louisville, Ky., native. "They were all going to Grambling, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern. But when the Big Ten started recruiting them, instead of Florida A&M, they were going to Michigan State, or instead of Texas Southern or Grambling, they were going to...
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