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Letter to Mel Tucker on Michigan State history

Photo: Duffy Daugherty’s Time magazine cover, Oct. 8, 1956.

To Coach Mel Tucker:

Welcome back to Michigan State.

Welcome back to college football, 2020. You’ve got plenty on your mind now that the Big Ten has re-launched its season, so here s a refresher course on what Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad players and the southern Black high school coaches that laid the tracks meant to changing the face of college football.

Your two seasons as a graduate assistant in the 1997 and 1998 seasons on Nick Saban’s football staff provided time to learn more about the school than we know about you. So I’m wondering how much you learned about Michigan State’s pioneering Underground Railroad teams in the Civil Rights era. The school has a deep history leading college football integration.

You are now the head coach at a school that opened more doors for Black athletes and later Black coaches than any school in the Big Ten — which I like to call the Conference of Pioneers — as well as coast to coast. You are the steward to historic footsteps. You are standing upon the shoulders of giants.

Men such as John Hannah, Michigan State’s president (1941-69) and the first Chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission (1957-69); Biggie Munn, Michigan State’s coach (1947-53) and later the athletic director; Duffy Daugherty, a Spartans assistant coach promoted to succeed Munn (1954-72); Jimmy Raye and Sherman Lewis, two of Daugherty’s Underground Railroad recruits from the segregated South groomed as players and coaches; and Tyrone Willingham, a Black athlete Raye recruited from Jacksonville, N.C., that Raye and Lewis mentored as a player and coach.

The only colors Duffy saw — and taught his players to see — were green and white.

Daugherty, with the full support of Hannah and Munn, drove Michigan State’s Underground Railroad teams of the 1960s while recruiting the segregated South. But to fully appreciate the Underground Railroad story, understand the men who laid the tracks were the southern Black high school coaches. This was about more than Duffy winning games.

Now that you’ve brought Harlon Barnett back to campus on your coaching staff, he can tell you more. He has a “Raye of Light” copy that Jimmy Raye and I signed for him when he spoke a few years ago at the Downtown Coaches luncheon.

So can Tony Dungy, who recognized Raye as a mentor at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. He wrote the Foreword to Raye and Light. People ask me how I got Dungy to write the Foreword. I tell them, “Simple. Jimmy asked him.”

Dungy also honored Raye upon his 2018 Michigan State Hall of Fame induction, narrating a video. Herman Edwards, who brought is Arizona State team to Spartan Stadium last season, learned about Duffy Daugherty’s teams when he and Raye coached together with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Both Munn and Daugherty had an established history for playing Black athletes, but Daugherty’s back-to-back national championship teams in 1965 (United Press International coaches poll that is now USA Today) and 1966 (National Football Foundation co-championship with Notre Dame) were college football’s first fully integrated teams. In 1962, The Associated Press reported the Spartans’ 17 black players represented the “largest delegation of Negro athletes in major college football history.” 

The Spartans’ 1965 and 1966 teams featured 20 Black players and 11 black starters. Prior to the Spartans setting new standards schools, even those with a long history of integration, had a limited number of Black players on their rosters, a total that can be counted on one or two hands.

In 1960, Minnesota won the national title with five Black players.

In the 1966 Game of the Century, Michigan State’s 20 Black athletes faced Notre Dame with one Black player, Alan Page.

In 1967, USC won the national championship with seven black players. By 1972, USC’s next national title, the Trojans had 23 black players. Daugherty had shown the nation’s coaches the future.

But it’s not just the numbers.

Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C., was the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title as the starter in 1966 and backup in 1965.

Also in 1966, George Webster and Clinton Jones were the nation’s first pair of Black team captains as voted upon by the players. Previous Black captains shared the role with another white player.

When Clinton Jones was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2015, he joined teammates George Webster (1987), Bubba Smith (1988) and Gene Washington (2011) as the first four black players from the same class in the College Hall. Michigan State is only the fourth school with four Hall of Famers from the same class and was the first since 1940. In the 1967 NFL draft, Smith (first), Jones (second), Webster (fifth) and Washington (eighth) were among the first eight picks.

In 1964, Daugherty took his team to the South to play at segregated North Carolina in Chapel Hill. There were no incidents on the field or in the stadium, according to players from both teams. The significance centers on apologists for Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who dragged his feet on integration, defending Bryant’s soft schedules. They’ve propagated a false explanation northern schools refused to play at Alabama in the 1960s.

In your time coaching at Alabama (2015) under Saban, you no doubt heard propaganda designed to blur Bryant’s shabby history on segregation. Much of it is centered on myths and fiction from the 1970 USC-Alabama game. Even USC’s Sam Cunningham, the pivotal figure, admitted 33 years later Bryant never paraded him around the locker room. It’s a fictional story crafted to portray Bryant as shaming his fans and players into allowing him to recruit Black athletes.

The widespread myth, though, has been at the expense of Daugherty’s true legacy.

But back to a point I made earlier: Daugherty’s influence is beyond numbers. He opened doors to Black coaches before other schools.

Daugherty brought Sherman Lewis back to campus as an assistant coach in 1969. Lewis had been an All-American halfback from Louisville Ky., that finished third in the 1963 Heisman Trophy voting. After he played for the New York Jets, he returned home to Louisville to coach high school football.

Duffy steered Jimmy Raye into coaching in 1972. Raye, after a NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams (he was switched to defensive back), returned to campus to finish his degree. His sights were set on a law career, but Daugherty convinced him he had a future as a coach.

When the San Francisco 49ers hired Raye in 1977, there were only seven other Black assistant coaches in a 28-team league. He was one of the first Black coordinators as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator in 1983.

Lewis coached at Michigan State from 1969 to 1982 before he moved on to the NFL, including rising to offensive coordinator with three teams.

Willingham is connected to Daugherty through Raye and Lewis.

Raye and Lewis were mentors to Willingham in both his playing days and upon starting his coaching career. He was a graduate assistant at Michigan State (1977), returned to campus as an full assistant (1980-82) and then moved on to other college stops, including as a head coach at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.

Willingham was a pioneer at Stanford, the first Black head coach in the Rose Bowl. At Notre Dame he was the first Black head coach in any sport. Willingham says in “Raye of Light” both Raye and Lewis were better coaches than him, and he’s embarrassed he had an opportunity and not them.

Both Raye and Lewis were bypassed for an opportunity as a head coach at their alma mater as well as in the NFL. MSU pursued Willingham, but only after he had established himself as a head coach.

Willingham turned down MSU in 2000 while he was the head coach at Stanford. Michigan State did the right thing, naming Bobby Williams MSU’s first Black football head coach. Williams had served as the interim head coach in the 1999 Citrus Bowl win after Saban had left for LSU. Williams was the players’ choice and had earned the opportunity, although it didn’t work out as a head coach.

Otherwise, for some reason Michigan State administrations turned shortsighted over offering a promising Black candidate an opportunity.

Munn hired Jim Bibbs as Michigan State’s first black coach in any sport in 1969. He led the track and field program until 1995.

Burt Smith, Munn’s successor as AD, hired Dr. Nell Jackson, an African-American, as the school’s first women’s assistant athletic director and women’s track coach. She served the school from 1973-81.

Bibbs and Jackson were both involved in their sport at the national and Olympic levels and are in Michigan State’s Hall of Fame.

Another unique identity for Michigan State football was Duffy’s Hawaiian Pipeline. He recruited 10 from 1955 to 1972, including Bob Apisa, the first Samoan All-American pick. Apisa’s fame is credited with launching the Polynesian wave of talent that permeates football at every level.

Duffy’s contact on the Islands was Thomas Kaulukukui Sr., a former player and coach at the University of Hawaii before it was a Division I program. Duffy had one scholarship available for any player Kaulukukui thought could play in the Big Ten. Thanks to Kaulukukui, Apisa picked the Spartans over USC.

Unfortunately – especially with the talent coming out of Hawaii these days – Denny Stolz, Daugherty’s successor, severed the pipeline. Muddy Waters re-tapped it with Carter Kamana in 1981, but he was fired by 1982.

Now, there is Heisman Trophy talent in Hawaii such as Manti Te’o (2012 runner-up), Marcus Mariota (2014 winner ) and Tua Tagovailoa (2018 runner-up) that view Michigan State as just another school on the mainland. The Spartans used to be a fan favorite in paradise.

However, former Duffy players living in the Hawaii such as Kale Ane, who played in the NFL, say they are ready to help if the Spartans want to return to Hawaii. Ane is the head coach at Punahou School, where he coached Te’o and against Mariota and Tagovailoa as stars at crosstown St. Louis School.

Something else I want you to know about the Underground Railroad is a lack of recognition on campus.

There is a plaque at Jenison Fieldhouse that honors a 1963 NCAA Tournament basketball game matching Loyola-Chicago’s four Black starters against all-white Mississippi State, but there is no marker honoring the Underground Railroad. The basketball game’s only connection to Michigan State was merely a coincidence; the school hosted the 1963 NCAA Mideast Regional. This is sadly ironic.

Michigan State’s campus and Spartan Stadium are “hallowed” ground – that’s the word Willie Taggart used when he brought his 2013 South Florida team to Spartan Stadium. There are only 13 Black head coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and you lead a school that was key to creating a pipeline of opportunity for Black players evolving into black coaches.

Share this history with your players, campus and beyond. Duffy and his players deserve a brighter light shined on them for their place in history.


Tom Shanahan, Michigan State Class of 1978

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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Mark Webster

    MSU, and those with the means and connections, need to do a better job at telling this story. Frankly, I feel this story could potentially have the same power and impact as “Remember the Titans”, “We are Marshall,” and other sports/civil rights focused Hollywood productions. While attending the commemorative game at Jenison Field house a few years ago, my cousin and I tried to understand why MSU had never really celebrated the university’s historical role (MAC/MSC/MSU) played in changing not only sports in America, but the conversation in general. Why isn’t there a “Game of Change” bronze marker, or statue? Why not a statue of Bubba Smith, Jimmy Raye, Herb Adderly, or Gideon Smith? A Coach Bibbs statue at the track? Not only would it be a great marketing angle for MSU, but also an inspirational story for others to learn. This is a bonafide point of pride. For decades, Spartans scratched their heads while wondering why MSU hadn’t celebrated its FB National Championships. Finally the admins erected some flags. Come on, MSU. Wake up. The timing is now. Go State!
    -Mark Webster, MSU 1991

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