PHOTO (Courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame): Sherman Lewis with his NFL Awards of Excellence trophy presented on June 29 at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio).
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By TOM SHANAHAN
Sherman Lewis established himself as a true 1960s pioneer of college football integration at Michigan State, but a step toward writing his name back into history takes place this week thanks to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Hall’s selection committee honors Lewis at the second annual NFL Awards of Excellence on June 29 at the Hall in Canton, Ohio. Lewis is recognized as an assistant coach along with Tom Moore and Dante Scarnecchia. They are among 17 recipients in five fields chosen for their work behind the scenes propelling the league’s success.
Although Lewis is honored for his NFL days, his career impact spans the college and pro games. The ceremony falls on Lewis’ 81st birthday – a sweet convergence but also a reminder of the long wait for proper credit endured by overlooked pioneers.
Video of Sherman Lewis at the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s NFL Awards of Excellence. Dan Fouts, the master of ceremonies, recognized Duffy Daugherty’s role recruiting Lewis and Jimmy Raye from the segregated South and hiring them as pioneer Black coaches. Video has a glitch from :45 thru 1:30. Lewis on stage with Dan Fouts, 2:52 to 4:52.
Lewis’ trailblazing as a Black assistant coach and offensive coordinator was launched in by riding Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad. He was a 1963 All-American halfback recruited out of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1960, and joined Daugherty’s staff in 1969 as one of the original Black college assistants.
In the first two years of the NFL Awards of Excellence, Daugherty’s racial equality leadership is two for two for breaking ground grooming pioneer Black athletes from the segregated South who turned to pioneer coaches. Jimmy Raye, who was honored in last year’s inaugural class, was recruited from Fayetteville, N.C., in 1964 and joined Daugherty’s staff in 1972.
Click here to listen to my appearance on The Drive with Jack discussing Sherman Lewis and more about Michigan State’s leading role in college football integration history.
“Sherman was a mentor of mine,” Raye said. “He was a college football integration forerunner as a player and as a Division I coach. I’m very happy he’s receiving recognition. He was a tremendous football coach and excellent teacher. It’s a great honor to be on that stage recognized by the true football minds who have followed the game.”
Tony Dungy, the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach, considers Raye a mentor. So, enough said about Lewis’ qualifications if Raye says Lewis helped to shape his career.
Their Michigan State coaching days were springboards to their NFL careers as offensive coordinators. Lewis coached 14 seasons at Michigan State and 22 in the NFL, including 13 as an offensive coordinator. He and Raye were among the few Black OCs in the league.
Lewis coached four seasons coach with Daugherty until the College Football Hall of Fame coach’s retirement following the 1972 season. Lewis was retained by Daugherty’s successors, Denny Stolz (1973-75), Darryl Rogers (1976-79) and Muddy Waters (1980-82). But even when MSU passed over Lewis for then-57-year-old Waters, a small college coach, Lewis remained loyal to his alma mater. He held together the recruiting class and then served under Waters.
Click here for story on Jimmy Raye’s 2022 NFL Awards of Excellence
After Waters was fired at the end of the 1982 season, Lewis moved onto the NFL under San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who, like Daugherty, was a leader of racial equality. Just six years earlier when Raye joined the 49ers under then-coach Ken Meyer, there were only seven other Black assistants in a 28-team league.
Lewis began filling his jewelry box with Super Bowl rings in the 1984, 1988 and 1989 seasons. He coached the 49ers’ running backs (1983-90) and wide receivers (1991). When 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren landed the Green Bay Packers job in 1992, he brought Lewis with him as Green Bay’s OC (1992-99). Lewis earned a fourth Super Bowl ring in the 1996 season when the Packers defeated the New England Patriots, 35-21.
“He didn’t achieve the ultimate goal as a head coach, but that doesn’t negate he was a great teacher and great coach in the business of pro football,” Raye said. “His selection for this award proves it.”
Both Lewis and Raye endured sham interviews that teams conducted to comply with the punchless Rooney Rule requiring franchise to interview a Black candidate.
PHOTO (courtesy 49ers): Sherman Lewis with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.
Offensive coordinators of Super Bowl teams are typically the hot candidates for open head coach jobs, but Lewis didn’t land one of the 11 vacant positions in 1997 after the Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI title from the 1996 season. The Packers won the 1997 NFC title to return to the Super Bowl XXXII against Denver on January 25, 1998, but Lewis again wasn’t a hot name.
Holmgren endorsed Lewis as a head coach candidate and noted he often turned play calling over to Lewis for a change of pace. But as Lewis met with the media during the week leading up to the Denver game in San Diego, he was told one knock against him was Holmgren called the plays.
“That’s just another excuse,” Lewis said during the Super Bowl media session. “When Bill Walsh was the coach, Sam Wyche didn’t call plays, Paul Hackett didn’t call plays and Denny Green didn’t call players. What’s more important in the game is the game plan.”
Wyche and Green became NFL head coaches and Hackett was USC’s head coach. Green was Black, but he had gained a reputation as a head coach for his success reviving Northwestern’s moribund program.
PHOTO (Courtesy Green Bay Packers): The Green Bay Packers’ 1994 coaching staff. Lewis is third from the left next to head coach Mike Holmgren in the center.
Of the four head coaching vacancies for the upcoming 1998 season, Lewis was interviewed for the Dallas Cowboys job. But Lewis described being set up by the Cowboys on Page 272 of “Raye of Light, Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans.”
“I was coming in for an interview that I thought was under cover and all of the sudden these television camera lights flashed on me.” Lewis said. “There were TV cameras everywhere. Everyone knew I was coming. I think that interview was just for show.”
The Cowboys hired Pittsburgh Steelers OC Chan Gailey. And fired him after two seasons.
Lewis continued as Green Bay’s OC in 1998 and 1999. He finished his career as an OC with the Minnesota Vikings (2000-01) under Dennis Green and the Detroit Lions (2003-04) under Steve Mariucci. He retired from coaching until Washington needed an OC at midseason in 2009 and general manager Vinny Cerrato appointed Lewis.
The pattern of a Black OC passed over for not calling plays has continued into the 2020s. The knock against Kansas City Chiefs OC Eric Bienemy was head coach Andy Reid called plays for the Super Bowl champions. But that didn’t stop two white KC offensive coordinators, Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy, from landing head coach positions, prior to Bienemy’s promotion to OC. NFL owners dismiss the lack of Black head coaches as an issue.
Lewis’ story should be better known, but his career and the legacies of other true 1960s college football integration pioneers have been overshadowed by myths and fiction surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game. College football integration was fait accompli by 1970, thanks to the many Black milestones throughout the 1960s that went largely unrecognized. Into the void stepped myths and fiction obfuscating Bear Bryant dragging his feet on integration and USC limiting Black scholarship players until the late 1960s.
At Michigan State, Lewis was a small-but-quick halfback and Big Ten track and field champion in the long jump and sprints. In football, he was Daugherty’s first Underground Railroad All-Big Ten player in 1962 and the UR’s first All-American pick in 1963. He finished third in the 1963 Heisman Trophy voting just two years after Syracuse’s Ernie Davis was the first Black Heisman winner.
But Lewis played another role as a leader off the field for future Underground Railroad passengers. Southern Black athletes faced a different challenge adapting from the Jim Crow South than the Spartans’ long history of Black athletes from the north.
“He was a great influence on all of us on and off the field with the way he carried himself,” Raye said. “He shared with us advice about academics, making sure we got our degrees and the pitfalls to avoid getting caught up the social climate.”
Although Daugherty’s teams had a national reputation for Black stars from winning the 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowls on national TV, the Spartans’ African Americans were largely from Michigan factory towns. Daugherty’s famed Underground Railroad recruiting talent from the segregated South wasn’t yet firmly established until his 1963 class with future College Football Hall of Famers Bubba Smith (Beaumont, Texas), George Webster (Anderson, S.C.) and Gene Washington (La Porte, Texas).
Clifton Roaf of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, was Daugherty’s first Underground Railroad passenger in 1959. A year later Lewis and Dewey Lincoln of Dallas formed were his second and third passengers.
Daugherty recruited Lewis out of Louisville’s duPont Manuel High based on a tip from a white coach at rival Flaget High, the Catholic school alma mater of 1956 Heisman winner Paul Hornung.
A myth has been spread that Alabama coach Bear Bryant told Daugherty about Lewis when Bryant coached at Kentucky. It’s one of many false myths inflating Bryant’s influence at the expense of Daugherty. Lewis was 11 years old when Bryant left Kentucky after the 1953 season. Daugherty’s legacy leading college football integration has been unfairly diminished by Bryant myths.
PHOTO (courtesy Pro Football Hall of Fame): Sherman Lewis, in his Washington coaching outfit, makes the billboard at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Raye arrived on campus in the fall of 1964 when Lewis was playing with Toronto in the Canadian Football League (1964-65), but Lewis returned to Michigan State in the spring. Lewis put up Raye to join the Black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.
“You wanted to be associated with anything involving Sherman Lewis,” Raye said.
Lewis’ reputation included his hometown. Wilbur Hackett, who played at Louisville’s duPont Manuel, the same school as Lewis, dreamed of following Lewis to Michigan State. But when Kentucky desegregated in 1966, he stayed home to please his parents by signing with the Wildcats in 1967. Hackett was the Southeastern Conference’s first Black football captain as a junior in 1969.
Lewis’ pro career included two seasons with the New York Jets (1965-66) before he returned to his high school alma mater as a coach. Daugherty hired Lewis in 1969 to replace Don Coleman, the Michigan State’s College Football Hall of Famer who was Daugherty’s first Black coach in 1968. But Coleman decided coaching wasn’t in his blood and went into administration on campus after one season.
“Duffy called me, and I was gone,” said Lewis on Page 270 of Raye of Light.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is bringing to light Lewis’ college and NFL careers.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055.
Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America.
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I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read a summary.
Click here to purchase Raye of Light.
RAYE OF LIGHT
Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans
Foreword by Tony Dungy