The Michigan State Mafia was an affectionate term for the number of assistants Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty placed in jobs around the country in their time as Spartans head coaches – Munn from 1947 to 1953 and Daugherty 1954 to 1972.
Men such as Earle Edwards were named the head coach at North Carolina State; Dan Devine at Arizona State, Missouri and Notre Dame; Frank Kush at Arizona State; Bob Devaney at Wyoming and Nebraska; Bill Yeoman at Houston; Cal Stoll at Wake Forest and Minnesota; Dan Boisture at Eastern Michigan; Vince Carillot at Tulsa; and John McVay at Dayton.
Dave Smith joined the East Lansing Good Fellows football fraternity without the Good Fellasdark side when Daugherty added him to his staff in 1967.
“One of the things I learned from Duffy was don’t take yourself too seriously and enjoy the ride,” Smith said.
The ride for Smith to Michigan State began smoothly before there were some bumps when he accepted a job as the head coach in 1971 at Ferris State in Big Rapids, two hours north of East Lansing.
He was coaching at Walled Lake Senior High (there was only one Walled Lake high school at the time) when Daugherty hired him. Smith enjoyed the blissful homecoming and was soon joined on the staff by other former Spartans, George Perles and Joe Carruthers.
“I can still remember the three of us standing in the middle of the stadium after a practice,” Smith said, “and talking about how lucky we were to be back at State coaching.”
Smith’s path to coaching at Michigan State began with enrolling at the school to play football in the early 1950s. He had played at Detroit Redford and Charlevoix before he served two years in the U.S. Army.
He might have stayed with Daugherty longer, but two Ferris leaders wanted to build Ferris’ program from lowly NAIA status to the prestigious NCAA. They eyed Smith as their man.
Ferris president Robert Ewigleben, a man with three Michigan State degress, was newly named in 1971. He and School of General Education dean Don Butcher, who had played freshman basketball for the Spartans and earned two Michigan State degrees, wanted to carry out a Michigan State inspired plan to elevate the football program and the college.
“(Ewigliben) convinced me that he wanted a program that would play on the level of Eastern, Western and Central Michigan and promised me the scholarships that would support that type of a program,” he said. “We recruited well and had 45 freshmen on our varsity that fall.”
The blueprint was one John Hannah used as Michigan State’s president from 1946 to 1969. He believed a strong football program was the cornerstone to building a world-class university with a home in a major athletic conference.
He hired Munn, with his Big Ten background at Michigan, away from Syracuse in 1947 and Munn brought Daugherty with him. By 1950, Michigan State was voted into the Big Ten (1953 was the first Big Ten football season) to fill the space that had been vacated by the University of Chicago’s decision to drop big-time sports.
Smith wasn’t an easy hire for Ferris. He had had twice turned down the school, but every time he thought he’d remain in East Lansing, Ewigleben and Butcher pulled him back into the Michigan State Mafia profile.
In 1971, only Western was a NCAA Division I school. But Central and Eastern would soon be on paths to move up to Division I. They began play in the Mid-American Conference alongside Western in 1975.
But we’ll never know how far Ewigleben intended to take the Ferris football program and other sports with it. The Ferris Board of Directors voted not to approve the funding that Smith had been promised during Ewigleben’s recruiting pitch.
“I can remember my dad talking about it and how disappointed he was,” said Tom Butcher, the son of Don Butcher who serves as Grand Valley State’s vice-president and general counsel. “They thought the Board would approve it.”
Smith, whose 5-5 season with two narrow losses left him encouraged about the future entering 1972, left Ferris disgruntled.
“It probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve done,” Smith said. “In retrospect, I probably should have stayed through the (1972 football season) and then gone to the (American Football Coaches Association) Convention and taken a new job.”
He worked jobs in real estate, high school coaching and coached with the Detroit Wheels of the defunct World Football League in 1974 under head coach Danny Boisture, a former Michigan State assistant before he took the Eastern Michigan job in 1967.
Smith eventually turned to scouting for the remainder of his career; he has been with the Buffalo Bills since 1979. He still works viewing video at home in Charlevoix while on a reduced travel schedule with title Scout Emeritus.
Despite the sour ending at Ferris, he’s remained a friend of Bulldogs football. and on speaking terms with Ewigleben, who was president until 1984.
Smith visited Ferris’ campus to scout talent. He advised the Bills to sign three Ferris alums over the years that made Buffalo’s active roster. His son Steve was an assistant coach at Ferris under Dan Underwood, another former Michigan State player and assistant coach. He also coached with his son Steve at Harbor Springs High.
Ferris athletics eventually elevated into an NCAA Division II program, but Ewigleben still eye Division I prestige. He set his sights on a hockey program. He sagely realized hockey was a sport the NCAA permitted a school to sponsor at the Division I level without funding an entire athletic program as Division I.
The people charged with building a hockey program lived up to Ewigleben’s vision. Michigan State was again part of the equation; the first head coach was Rick Duffett, a former Michigan State All-American goalie. The Bulldogs began play in the 1975-76 season and were elevated to Division I by 1979-80.
Ferris has sent alums to the National Hockey League, earned its first NCAA bid in 2002-03 and advanced to the Frozen Four in 2011-12. The 2013-14 season ended in the NCAA’s Elite Eight and a No. 6 national ranking.
For Smith, his experiences as a player and coach with Daugherty have helped remain in the sport into his 80s.
“I’ve been fortunate because football has been my life at all levels,” he said. “When I cut back to part time after the draft in 1995, I even coached locally for seven years as an assistant high school coach to ‘give back’ to the game and the kids.
“When finally pass away I guess I’ll still be a coach at heart. I love the game and the people who play and coach it; scouting keeps me in touch with what I have a passion for.”