Big Ten: George Webster

As part of ESPN's Black History Month celebration, I took a look back at Michigan State's national championship teams of the 1960s, which blended white, black, North and South at a time when the country itself was changing.

Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty provided a landing spot for black players from the South who couldn't play closer to home because of segregation. Many of the Southerners -- Bubba Smith (Texas), George Webster (South Carolina), Gene Washington (Texas), Charles Thornhill (Virginia), Jimmy Raye (North Carolina) -- helped the Spartans reach the top of the college football ladder in 1965 and 1966. They achieved many historical milestones, although they didn't fully realize them until years later.
They came to Michigan State's lush campus in the early 1960s from places like Beaumont, Texas; Fayetteville, N.C.; Anderson, S.C.; and Roanoke, Va. Michigan State provided an opportunity -- to play college football at the highest level -- not afforded to them in their home states because of their skin color.

"All the Southern players, we were outcasts from our own states," said former Michigan State wide receiver Gene Washington, a native of La Porte, Texas. "All of the states where we were from, they would not take black athletes. We bonded at Michigan State because we all had similar stories. We could make a contribution. That was very important to us. We didn't talk about that all the time, but we knew we had something to prove, and this is our opportunity.

"We wanted to be the best in the country."

And they were. Led by coach Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State won national championships in 1965 (UPI) and 1966 (National Football Foundation) with some of the most racially and geographically integrated teams in all of college football. The 1965 roster included 18 black players, nine from Southern states (Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina). The 1966 roster featured 17 black players, 10 from the South.

In contrast, the team that earned national championship honors in 1964 -- Alabama -- came from the Southeastern Conference, which didn't integrate until 1966.

"Duffy used to always tell us that if you play with enthusiasm and you play as a team, our names would be printed in indelible ink and would last for a lifetime," Raye said. "But at the time, when you're 18 or 19 years old, you're just playing. We didn't think about the history that was being made. We were just winning."

Check out the full story here.

In talking with some of the former Spartans, I was struck how the Big Ten -- especially teams like Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa -- truly became the league of opportunity for top black players from the South.

"We didn’t have newspapers writing about us," Washington told me. "We were not on television. The only black players I remember on TV were [from] the Big Ten. We would watch Texas and Rice and the University of Houston, and it was all white players. I just wanted to have an opportunity, and I'm so glad I got that opportunity playing with Michigan State.

"I'm so grateful that the Big Ten was so up front with receiving black athletes."

Added Raye: "At the time, the only opportunity the blacks in the South had was to go to the Big Ten."

It's a part of Big Ten history that should make all Big Ten fans very proud.

Michigan State's Mount Rushmore

February, 20, 2009
2/20/09
9:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Without the faintest idea that ESPN would do this Mount Rushmore project, I got a head start on Michigan State's list in August when I took a tour of the school's new Skandalaris Football Center. The lobby might as well be a museum of Spartans football history, with tributes to national award winners and All-Americans. 

There was some deliberation with Michigan State's Rushmore, and much like Minnesota, the Spartans force you to look back quite a few years. Aside from dominant stretches in the 1910s, 1930s and 1950s and Rose Bowl appearances in 1966 and 1988, Michigan State has been solid but not spectacular. The program underachieved for most of this decade until head coach Mark Dantonio arrived.

Here's the Spartans' fab four:

  • Duffy Daugherty -- Daugherty guided Michigan State to two Rose Bowls and back-to-back Big Ten championships in 1965 and 1966. He coached in "The Game of the Century" against Notre Dame and was named National Coach of the Year in 1965. The College Football Hall of Famer coached 29 first-team All-Americans. 
  • Bubba Smith -- An athletic marvel at 6-foot-7, Smith was a two-time All-American defensive lineman who starred for the Spartans league title-winning teams in 1965 and 1966. Named UPI's Lineman of the Year in 1966, the immensely popular Smith led Michigan State to two unbeaten seasons before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 1967 NFL draft.
  • John Hannah -- Any university president who has a number retired for him deserves a place on the team's Rushmore. In 1969, Daugherty had the No. 46 retired as a tribute to Hannah's 46 years of service to the school, 28 as president. He lobbied for Michigan State to get into the Big Ten, which took place in 1950, and raised the profile for both the university and the football program.
  • Brad Van Pelt -- The countless tributes this week after Van Pelt's sudden death underscore what the multisport star meant to the Michigan State program. An oversized safety, Van Pelt was a two-time All-American for the Spartans and became the first defensive back to win the Maxwell Award in 1972. Van Pelt had 14 career interceptions and is one of only five Spartans players inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. 
Other candidates considered included: Clarence Munn, George Webster, Don Coleman, Lorenzo White, Percy Snow and Art Brandstatter.
 

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