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Ernie Hamilton looks back on Underground Railroad and recruiting for Duffy Daugherty

PHOTO: Ernie Hamilton (61) and Brad Van Pelt (10) rushing Minnesota’s offensive line.

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By TOM SHANAHAN

As Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty worked on his 1972 recruiting class, Ernie Hamilton of Greenville, S.C., was coming off a strong junior season. He was as a 1971 second-team All-Big Ten defensive lineman.

Sometimes players serve as their program’s top recruiters. That’s no secret. And with Daugherty having targeted Bennie Cunningham of from Seneca, S.C., Hamilton was eager to help.

Greenville and Seneca are separated by only 36 miles.

Cunningham was interested in Michigan State and would have been a great get for the Spartans. But he went on to careers as a two-time All-American tight end at Clemson in 1974 and 1975 and played in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a first-round draft pick who played on two of their Super Bowl championship teams.

I recently spoke with Hamilton, 73, as part of my research an upcoming story about Daugherty’s Underground Railroad. Hamilton rode it in 1969 and was as three-year letterman, 1970-72.

He remained on campus as a graduate assistant coach in 1973 and 1974 on new head coach Denny Stolz’s staff before he returned to Greenville. He initially worked in law enforcement before earning his law degree. He opened a private practice 25 years ago and remains active.

The story I’m working on addresses the myth Daugherty relied on Alabama coach Bear Bryant to find the Spartans’ Underground Railroad passengers. The false narrative insults Daugherty’s legacy leading college footfall integration — not to mention the facts.

The Alabama coach was a lot of things, but benevolent segregationist who spent time finding opportunities for Black kids in the 1960s wasn’t one of them. Yet the myth persists despite no evidence Bryant was aware of a player to send Daugherty.

The only name that has been associated with Bryant, Charlie Thornhill of Roanoke, Virginia, has been thoroughly debunked in my two books:

— Chapter 10 in “RAYE OF LIGHT, Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the Integration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans” is “Mad Dog, The Sportswriter and The Myth.”

— Chapter 28 is titled in “THE RIGHT THING TO DO, The True Pioneers of College Football Integration in the 1960s” as “The Time Cover That Launched a Thousand Bear Bryant Myths.”

So how did Daugherty find Hamilton at Beck High in Greenville?

Hamilton’s school annually faced Anderson Westside, and Westside coach William Roberts was the connection. The same William Roberts who coached George Webster, Michigan State’s two-time All-American (1965-66) and College Football Hall of Famer.

A tip from a high school coach was an Underground Railroad trademark. Thanks to the Spartans’ reputation as a place of opportunity for Black athletes dating to Michigan State’s wins in the 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowl games, Daugherty enjoyed a vast network of southern Black high school coaches. They trusted him with players to escape Jim Crow.

Hamilton said he learned about Michigan State’s history from watching the 1966 Game of the Century matching the Spartans against Notre Dame. Daugherty’s roster numbered 20 Black players, 11 Black starters, two Black team captains with Webster and College Football Hall of Famer Clinton Jones and the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title with Jimmy Raye from segregated Fayetteville, N.C.

“You couldn’t help but see it,” Hamilton said. “I knew George Webster was the greatest Spartan, and he had played right down the street from me in Anderson (30 miles). Our high schools always played. I remembered seeing his All-American jersey in their high school gym.”

Hamilton’s respect for Daugherty grew once he was on campus and took advantage of opportunities to speak with him in his office – sometimes at length.

“I remember going back to my dorm room thinking how lucky I was to have a coach like Duffy,” Hamilton said. “I eventually learned everybody thought that. He spent time with everybody.”

But as I spoke with Hamilton, and he told me his Cunningham anecdote, I realized he was presenting me with another side of college football recruiting in 1972 worth explaining.

Ernie Hamilton of Greenville, S.C., was a second-team All-Big Ten defensive lineman.

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Hamilton felt he might have succeeded with Cunningham if not for a paradigm shift in college football in 1972. If you’re thinking desegregation detoured Cunningham to Clemson, an Atlantic Coast Conference school in South Carolina, you’re only partially correct.

The 1972 season also was the first year the NCAA permitted freshmen eligibility on the varsity. Hamilton, for example, played on the freshman team in 1969 before his three-year varsity career.

“Bennie told me with the new rule, he wanted to go to school where he could start as a freshman,” Hamilton said. “I told tell him, ‘That’s great, Bennie. But that’s not going to happen here. Billy Joe DuPree is our tight end. He’s our All-American.”

DuPree, an Underground Railroad passenger from West Monroe, Louisiana, was a first-round NFL draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys, in 1973. He was a three-time Pro Bowler who won one of his three Super Bowl appearances.

In other words, desegregation didn’t cost the Spartans landing Cunningham. DuPree’s simple presence foiled their hope. But there is more to the anecdote than what might have been had Cunningham, who died in 2018 at age 63, donned the green and white.

Cunningham’s opportunity to play in his home state fits a commonly accepted explanation that once the Underground Railroad dried up with desegregation, the result was Daugherty’s program dropped off after the 1965 and 1966 national title seasons.

Yes, Daugherty’s recruits from 1967 through his final class in 1972 upon retirement failed to produce College Football Hall of Famers like the ones who played on the 1965 and 1966 national title teams – Webster, Bubba Smith from Beaumont, Texas, and Gene Washington from LaPorte, Texas.

But he didn’t strike out in the South. Daugherty still landed southerners from 1967 through 1972 on their way to the NFL or college post-season honors. They ranged from All-American to All-Big Ten to honorable mention All-Big Ten.

On the Spartans’ 1971 post-season roll call, Hamilton was joined by two other Underground Railroad passengers – senior running back Eric Allen of Georgetown, S.C., and a junior tight end, DuPree. Allen was an All-American while leading the Big Ten in rushing and DuPree a second-team All-Big Ten pick on his way to All-American honors in 1972.

In all, Michigan State’s 1971 roster numbered 11 players earning post-season recognition. One of them was Brad Van Pelt, the All-American linebacker/safety from Owosso, Michigan. As a senior, Van Pelt repeated as an All-American and won the Maxwell Award — the other Heisman Trophy.

Photo (L-R): Gail Clark, Brad Van Pelt and Ernie Hamilton.

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The Spartans moved Hamilton to defensive end a senior in 1972 and promoted him for All-American honors. They had hoped to take advantage of his quickness on the outside rather than having him get tied up by double-teams in the middle of the line, but knee and ankle injuries sidetracked his season.

Nevertheless, Michigan State’s 1972 freshmen class, even without Cunningham, proved to be productive. It featured Otto Smith, a three-time All-Big Ten honoree from Columbia, S.C.; Tyrone Willingham, a four-year letterman from Jacksonville, N.C.; and Charlie Baggett, a quarterback transfer from the University of North Carolina who won Big Ten honorable mention in 1974 and 1975. One other 1972 recruit was Ray Smith of Dallas, Texas, although he didn’t pan out.

Daugherty’s vast southern network included Underground Railroad passengers from every southern state but Alabama, Tennessee and Maryland. His span of states separated the Spartans from other Big Ten schools such as Minnesota and Illinois, teams with only isolated examples of a Black player from the South.

Michigan State started out 1972 believing it was a Big Ten title contender, but the lack of quarterback play led to a 1-4 start. Michigan State finished the season 4-1-1 with an upset of No. 5-ranked Ohio State for a final record of 5-5-1.

Although South Carolina desegregated in 1969 and Clemson in 1970, southern schools typically only took one Black player their first year ending segregation. Hamilton’s options were thus limited even before 1970s when schools like Clemson and Alabama finally recruited their first Black player. By the 1970 season, 33 of 37 major southern programs were integrated.

Clemson president Robert Edwards had pushed his coaches since 1963 to desegregate their programs, but football coach Frank Howard (1940-69) resisted. He retired after the 1969 season without coaching an African American. Howard’s successor, Cecil Ingram, in his first season as the Tigers’ head coach, signed Marion Reeves, in 1970.

As for Hamilton’s Michigan State opportunity, he said years later he met Roberts and learned why Westside’s legendary coach (1951-98) recommended him to Daugherty. It based on a Westside-Beck game. Roberts’ defense targeted Hamilton early in the contest with two players hitting him hard high and low (it was a much rougher game in the 1960s with the referees allowing more contact).

“They assaulted to me,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “They thought I’d tuck my tail and that I wouldn’t play. But I got back up and played every down. Coach Roberts told me later, that’s when they knew I was tough.”

Maybe Roberts would have recommended Hamilton anyway, but the toughness no doubt added to his sincerity while pitching Daugherty on Hamilton’s behalf.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Hamilton said. “Going to Michigan State was a dream come true.”

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Click here for the Kirkus Book Reviews of THE RIGHT THING TO DO

Click here for the Kirkus Book Review of BUBBA’S DAD

The Right Thing To Do was also endorsed by the Vanderbilt Sports and Society Initiative.

Below are links to click on to purchase my books focused.

My books tell the true story of college football integration in the 1960s and address the myths and fiction that allowed a false narrative surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game to usurp the credit from the true pioneers. As I said when I spoke at the National Sports Media Association book festival, no two books provide an accurate portrayal more than RAYE OF LIGHT and THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

I’ll put my facts up against anybody, anytime, anywhere. Watch here.

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 the summary as a first-place story.

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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

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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

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Click here to purchase my children’s book, Bubba’s Dad, Duffy and College Football’s Underground Railroad

The book for now is only a Kindle version on Amazon. Print and audio platforms available soon.

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My next children’s book coming soon: How Duffy Put Hawaii on the Football Map

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