Sunday, September 22, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Michigan State's Great Legacy In 100 Years Of Football May Be How It Integrated Game

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

IT WAS A BOLD social experiment in the 1950s when Michigan State Coach Biggie Munn and Minnesota's Murray Warmath became the first to develop a strong recruiting base among black athletes in the south. "We changed the rules, changed the game and changed some attitudes," says Don Coleman, All-America offensive tackle. Coleman became the Spartans' first black football All-American in 1951. But the school's first step in integration came in 1913, when Coach John Macklin relented and let Gideon Smith become the school's first black football player. Smith is thought to be the second black to play major-college football. Minnesota's Bobby Marshall was the first, in 1904. No other Big Ten school is thought to have greater black representation than the eight players MSU fielded before 1940. But if Biggie opened the door, it was Duffy Daugherty who blew it wide open, according to Larry Bielat, former player and assistant coach. . . .

EAST LANSING, Mich. - As a 19-year-old Army private, Clarence Underwood assumed he could pursue a college degree only in his native South.

After all, that's where the black schools were in the illusory separate-but-equal America of 1954.

Little did Underwood know that the window to a new world would be a football game.

During a break from guard duty at Fort Bragg, N.C., Underwood watched the Rose Bowl on television. The Alabamian's jaw dropped as he watched Michigan State play UCLA. Blacks and whites were playing on the same team, hugging each other and working together.

"As soon as I saw that, I knew that Michigan State was the place for me," said Underwood, now the university's senior associate athletic director. "Knowing that such a seemingly amiable climate existed was foreign to most blacks at that time, especially from the South. You have to wonder how many other black athletes and students were positively influenced about Michigan State by watching that game."

Perhaps Michigan State's greatest legacy in its 100-year football history is the school's role in the racial integration of the sport.

The Spartans are celebrating 100 seasons of football - they first played in 1896, but didn't in 1943 during World War II - and they have reason to celebrate.

They developed the first black professional football player and were the first major team to have at least three black players (1934), when the vast majority of schools had none. And the first black NFL quarterback (Willie Thrower with the Chicago Bears in 1953) played for Michigan State during its first national championship season, in 1952.

Wanted to provide opportunity

"No school was more receptive to black players at that time than Michigan State," said former player Henry Bullough (1952-54), who also was an assistant to Duffy Daugherty in 1959-69. "You look at other teams in the Big Ten in the early '50s and they probably averaged four or five blacks on their entire team. We'd have five or six starting alone. We wanted to provide an opportunity to those who were denied one."

The Spartans also wanted to win. That was the primary objective of president John Hannah, who brought Michigan State into the Big Ten. Winning meant putting no boundaries on getting the finest players available. Toward that aim, Hannah insisted that East Lansing embrace athletes unwanted elsewhere.

Spartans Coach Biggie Munn and Minnesota's Murray Warmath were considered the trailblazers in this bold social experiment. Their teams were the first in the '50s to develop a strong recruiting base among blacks in the South.

"We changed the rules, changed the game and changed some attitudes," All-America offensive tackle Don Coleman said in an earlier interview.

Coleman, from Flint (Mich.) Central, became the Spartans' first black football All-American in 1951.

"What we did at Michigan State helped everyone take a step closer to better understanding those who before that had no prior contact with one another," Coleman said.

The first step on that journey came in 1913, when Gideon Smith of Lansing sought a tryout at Michigan Agricultural College, which MSU was then called. Smith couldn't even get a workout uniform, let alone a workout, because of his color. But he never backed down, and coach John Macklin finally relented. It didn't take long for Macklin to see that Smith belonged.

According to university and Big Ten documents, Smith is thought to be the second black to play major-college football. (Minnesota's Bobby Marshall was the first, in 1904.) After graduating from Michigan State in 1915, Smith became the first black to play pro football when he suited up for the Canton Bulldogs that year.

Eight blacks played football at Michigan State before 1940. No other conference school is thought to have had greater minority representation to that point.

That's not to say there wasn't the appearance of conflict. Two photos were taken of the 1934 Spartans - one with the three black players and one without. Some endured vicious verbal assaults from their home fans. The abuse got so bad that one white player reportedly told a fan that if he didn't shut his mouth, he would shut it for him. Some schools refused to play the Spartans because of the black players.

"Biggie was really the first coach to get Michigan State actively involved in bringing in black players," said former player Larry Bielat (1957-59), later an MSU assistant coach and now a radio color analyst. "Biggie opened the door, but it was Duffy who blew it wide open."

Daugherty, ever the smooth-talking, sweet-smiling politician, cultivated alliances with many black high school coaches in the South. When Daugherty replaced Munn for the 1954 season, blacks were excluded from national coaching conventions and seminars. Daugherty saw an opening.

Five years later, he began his own seminars for black coaches and dispatched Bullough and fellow assistants Dan Boisture and Cal Stoll to Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina to share their expertise with black high school and small-college coaches.

The move was unprecedented and probably wouldn't have succeeded if not for Daugherty's natural ease and likability. The coaches developed a trust in him, passing that along to their players.

Free of today's restrictive NCAA recruiting rules, Michigan State even paid to bring some coaches to East Lansing to learn in surroundings more elaborate than they had at home.

Willie Ray Smith, coach at Pollard High in Beaumont, Texas, visited East Lansing and left richer, not only in coaching knowledge but in boxes of basic classroom supplies such as notebooks and pencils for his school. So impressed with his treatment, Smith convinced his son, Charles, to play football for the Spartans in 1964.

You may know Charles Smith by his more menacing moniker - Bubba.

The head coach from Westside High in Anderson, S.C., also was impressed with the Michigan State coaches and campus climate. The best player to come from Westside had wanted to go to Clemson, only 15 miles away, but couldn't because of his skin color.

Instead, George Webster went to Michigan State, where he became the greatest player ever to wear the green and white. As a freshman, Webster wrote on his student questionnaire how he was "amazed" that the races could attend classes together without the slightest provocation.

He wrote that he wanted to remain in the North after his college days because he "felt safer here as a Negro." (After his NFL career, though, Webster settled in Houston.)

Trading recruits?

Daugherty even courted assistance from such legendary coaches as Alabama's Bear Bryant and Texas' Darrell Royal, who were unable to admit blacks to their schools in the early '60s.

And Daugherty and Bryant supposedly orchestrated a trade of recruits.

This is how the story goes: A promising quarterback from the western hills of Pennsylvania piqued Daugherty's interest in 1961. The kid wanted to go to Michigan State, but the Big Ten's stringent admission codes made it impossible. So Daugherty called Bryant and offered to sell the player on the virtues of the land of Dixie. The Bear had barely heard of the passer, but trusted Duffy's assessment of talent.

The quarterback? Joe Namath.

Daugherty didn't accommodate Alabama solely from the goodness of his heart. It was quid pro quo. At some point, Bryant had to convince a black player to go to Michigan State. That player was star linebacker Charles Thornhill of Roanoke, Va., a key member of the Spartans' 1966 Rose Bowl team.

"Some will argue that Duffy's sole motivation in courting the black coaches was only to win games, and that wasn't true," Bullough said. "This was also a very compassionate man who saw something that was wrong. A door was closed to many people, and he helped open it."

Daugherty forbade his top graduating white players from participating in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., until it integrated its rosters. He also refused overtures from segregated schools to schedule games.

Helps spur integration

Michigan State's success in the '60s, grown from Southern roots, helped spur integration on Southern teams. Those coaches needed talented blacks to win games.

Legend has it that Bryant's acquiescence to integration was born not of conscience, but rather consequence. He was starting to lose to opponents with black players.

The Spartans won the moral battle but lost their Southern recruiting base as a result, and subsequent poor records reflected that geographical shift. Their pipeline dried up as the '60s drew to a close, for players from Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina could stay home if they chose.

"You better believe we had a lot to do with that," Underwood said. "Alabama and those other schools down there got to the point where if it didn't accept blacks, they would get beaten by them on the field. I guess the threat of losing makes you swallow your prejudices."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


Get home delivery today!