PHOTO: Michigan State interim coach Harlon Barnett leads the Spartans onto the field.
By TOM SHANAHAN
The nuclear bomb representing the Mel Tucker/Brenda Tracy sexual harassment charge has torn Michigan State’s football season asunder, and it is sure to take more twists and turns. Only Shakespear could put it into words.
But one constant remains: The Spartans are fortunate to have Harlon Barnett filling the interim head coach role. The man bleeds green and white since his playing days recruited out of Cincinnati.
He’s the only Spartan to play and coach on a winning Rose Bowl team. In 1987, he was a senior captain and defensive back on the Big Ten title team that defeated USC in the 1988 Rose Bowl. In 2013, he was the defensive backs coach for the Big Ten champions that defeated Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl.
The 2023 season opened as his 15th year as an MSU assistant coach – 11 under Mark Dantonio and his fourth under Tucker. Someone with his passion for the school was imperative to navigate the uncharted waters ahead.
After all, Barnett’s task — with seven games remaining — may be the most challenging puzzle to solve an interim head coach has faced in college football history. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit called it “tragic” on Saturday’s College Gameday show. A coach lacking Barnett’s ties to the school might soon throw in the towel and go through the motions. Barnett’s tank won’t run empty no matter the season’s final result.
It remains to be seen if the Spartans can finish strong enough for his name to remain in consideration. The Spartans need four wins in their final seven for bowl eligibility at 6-6. The preseason projections for the Spartans settled on 5-7.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll repeat myself:
What if the coach named to lead Michigan State into 2024 has no ties to the school and interest in understanding its great history under the football triumvirate of President John Hannah and College Football Hall of Fame coaches Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty? Hannah, while building a world-class university, picked Munn to build a national football power as a front porch and promoted Daugherty to continue the ascent.
But those historical chapters have been lost through every subsequent coach with the exception of Dantonio.
— Denny Stolz (1973-75) wanted his own identity. That was fine with administration that had feuded with Daugherty over budget cuts after Hannah left in 1969. Duffy wanted Barry Switzer, who was then Oklahoma offensive coordinator under Chuck Fairbanks, an MSU player when Duffy was a Biggie assistant, to succeed him.
— Darryl Rogers (1976-79) was brought in from California explicitly as an outsider when the school cleaned house from the Stolz’ NCAA probation.
— Muddy Waters (1980-82) understood Michigan State’s history – he played for Munn when Daugherty was an assistant – but he was an aging small-college coach. The program plummeted under him.
— George Perles (1938-94) inflated his relationship with Duffy, portraying himself as a favored son. That side of his true personality played out after the 1987 Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory when he turned into an egomaniac more interested leveraging his position to become athletic director than recruit 1987-like talent.
— Nick Saban (1995-99) understood the history – he explained it to a 1997 and 1998 graduate assistant named Mel Tucker – but he never fostered an awareness outside of the football building. Michigan State students and alumni remain to this day largely unaware. Same with youth of the greater Lansing area with this great university in their backyard.
I know this through readers of my book, “RAYE of LIGHT, Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans and the Integration of College Football,” who offer this common response: “I didn’t know any of this and I went to school there.” One variation was from former MSU basketball player Paul Davis: “I didn’t know any of this, and I’m a Michigan State athlete.” He said that while serving as a guest co-host on The Drive with Jack when Jack Ebling had me on as a guest.
— Bobby Williams was a good man, but he wasn’t head coach material.
— John L. Smith was another outsider so disconnected with Michigan State’s history he feuded with Hawaii coach June Jones – unaware Hawaii fans had adopted Michigan State during the Daugherty years for is Hawaiian Pipeline. He also got into a spat with Michigan State College Football Hall of Famer Bubba Smith during the 2006 weekend Bubba’s number was retired.
Dantonio brought back that appreciation and understanding.
Tucker was expanding on growing the awareness. He was taking what he learned from Saban to the next level, teaching his players. Now, though, his unfulfilled effort amounts to Shakespearean tragic twist to his downfall.
What about our next president? I know interim president Teresa Woodruff understands our history.
When the NFL 360 documentary, “The Indelible Legacy of Jimmy Raye,” which won an Emmy Award, debuted during Super Bowl week on the NFL Network, Woodruff reached out to congratulate Raye and me. The film’s Michigan State history was drawn from my book.
When Samuel L. Stanley arrived from New York in 2019 to take over as MSU’s president, I sent him a copy of Raye of Light with a note on our school’s history. I never heard a word from him or an underling. If you think that sounds self-serving, so be it. But there is a point to be taken from the comparison.
From 1952 to 1966, Michigan State won three official national titles sanctioned by the NCAA, 1952, 1965 and 1966, and three unofficial, 1951, 1955 and 1957. The Spartans played in three Rose Bowls, winning in 1954 and 1956 and suffering an upset in 1966.
In that same time span, Michigan State rose above Michigan in Big Ten supremacy. Michigan didn’t win any national titles and advanced to only one Rose Bowl, the January 1, 1965 win over Oregon State.
Then came the 1970s and college football’s growing popularity. Michigan State budget cuts impacted Daugherty’s program, although, truth be told, he also lost his edge as a coach by 1972, his final season upon retirement.
Meanwhile, Michigan re-emphasized football with athletic director Don Canham and head coach Bo Schembechler. Michigan and Ohio State emerged in the 1970s as the Big Two and Michigan State receded among the Little Eight.
When I write about past Michigan State’s failure to understand its history, some readers respond by posting messages on X (formerly Twitter) or the Spartanmag.com message boards. They ask, who cares about 60 years ago?
— Tell that to Alabama, which promotes Bear Bryant’s history, even though he was a segregationist as a head coach from 1945 to 1970 at four schools, Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama.
— Same with Ohio State and Woody Hayes, even though Hayes hit players in team meeting rooms (players took seats on the side of the room opposite his left-handed temper-tantrum swings) and opponents on the sideline.
— Michigan and Bo Schembechler, even though Schembechler looked the other way when former plays said they were sexually abused by a team doctor.
— USC and John McKay, even though McKay followed an unwritten quota limiting his Black players to a half-dozen or so until the late 1960s. There were only five Black players on his 1962 national title team and seven on the 1967 championship roster with junior college transfer O.J. Simpson. When USC numbered 18 Black players in the 1970 USC-Alabama game, 11 were junior college transfers in 1969 and 1970 and one a four-year school transfer in 1969.
And, it should be noted, Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty don’t have such Bryant, Hayes, Schembechler, McKay skeletons in their closets.
Michigan State’s failure to understand and celebrate its history left a void for myths and fiction surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game to usurped Michigan State’s historical place. A false narrative through sloppy sports writing research portray Bryant and McKay as crusaders while unjustly pushing Daugherty into the shadows among the bystanders.
Again, I know from reader responses on Twitter or Spartanmag.com. Too many still think Duffy owed his success recruiting the South to Bear Bryant. It’s been written that way in Sports Illustrated and ESPN and other national publications due to sloppy sports writing regurgitating speculation with no facts behind it.
When I correct the record, some MSU fans, believe it or not, get angry. They think Duffy relied on Bear to find players. The accurate story is southern high school coaches — the ones Bear Bryant ignored — recruited Duffy, hoping he’d take his players. They trusted Michigan State from its 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowl teams with Black stars from Midwest factory towns.
If you know the facts, Bear Bryant as crusader is as preposterous as crediting George Wallace for uniting the country in the 1968 presidential election.
Michigan State’s Harlon Barnett
So, here are. The Spartans are 0-3 since the nuclear bomb detonated. No matter how the Spartans’ final seven games turn out, it could be worse.
Without Barnett managing a fairytale ending to retain the job the next two months or without another coach with an understanding Michigan State’s history, there is the prospect on the horizon of dust obscuring the school’s pioneering past.
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. 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 The Right Thing To Do
THE RIGHT THING TO DO
The True Pioneers of College Football Integration in the 1960s
Foreword by Ruffin McNeill
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