Michigan State foursome faced Tommie Smith and Charlie Greene
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Michigan State foursome faced Tommie Smith and Charlie Greene

Spartans 440 relay team brushed with greatness 50 years ago in NCAA track meet

Photo: L-R: Jim Hines (gold), Jamaica's Lennox Miller (silver) and Charlie Greene (bronze) in the 1968 Olympics 100-meters final.

Michigan State football’s 1965 Big Ten and national championships will be recognized this fall, but let’s recall another Spartans' 50th anniversary. The spring feat has been overlooked but is worth remembering from June 1965.

The scene was the NCAA track and field finals at Edwards Stadium on the University of California campus. Michigan State’s third-place finish in the 440-yard relay was a remarkable moment.

The Spartans lined up three football players destined to make their mark as starters on back-to-back Big Ten and national title teams in the 1965 and 66 fall seasons – Clint JonesGene Washington and Jim Summers -- along with track star Daswell Campbell. Jones and Washington were hurdlers and Summers and Campbell sprinters.

You're asking, what's so special about third place? Well, consider the competition.

They ran against two future Olympic gold medalists -- a San Jose State team anchored by Tommie Smith and a Nebraska foursome anchored by Charlie Greene.

"We were in some fast company," Washington said. "We didn't know how fast that company was."

They learned with time.

Smith set the world record in the 200 meters with a time of 19.83 seconds at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. It was track's first sub-20, but the race has a larger place in Olympic and American Civil Rights history as the night Smith and bronze-medalist John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in a seminal black power protest.

Greene, a three-time NCAA 100-yard champion from 1965 to 1967, entered the Olympics sharing the 100-meter world record with Jim Hines in hand times of 10.0. But in the Olympic final, Greene nursed a hamstring injury and settled for a bronze medal performance of 10.07 to Hines’ world record 9.95. Hines’ mark was the first with automatic timing under 10 seconds. Greene later won gold running with Hines on the 400-meter relay team that set a world record of 38.24.

“We were in the eye of the storm,” said Jones, looking back on the NCAA meet. “That was a talented field. They were the best track guys in the nation and we were football players. That was a phenomenal accomplishment; it really was.”

Jones led off for the Spartans followed by Summers, Washington and Campbell. Michigan State’s third-pace time was 41.1 seconds, which converts to 40.9 for the 400 meters that is now contested. San Jose State won in 40.5 (40.3) and Nebraska was second in 40.9 (40.7)

In those days, name recognition of track and field college stars wasn't far behind football and basketball on the national landscape. Olympians were farmed from the college ranks or they were only a year or two removed from college. Smith and Greene were only one year out of college, but 100-meter silver medalist Lennox Miller of Jamaica still competed at USC. Carlos and Lee Evans, who set the 400-meter world record in the 1968 Olympics, also still ran for San Jose State.

This was in the amateur sports days before track athletes earned more than under-the-table money and could remain in the sport longer. It was before the 1980 Olympic boycott damaged interest in the sport and steroids scandals attacked track and field's credibility unlike team sports.

"Charlie Greene and Tommie Smith were huge names,” Washington said.

Added Jones, “In those days, you knew who guys were from Track and Field News and followed them.”

Jones and Washington didn’t have such track stature, but Greene remembered them (I was unable to contact Smith). Jones and Washington were only in their sophomore spring track seasons at the 1965 NCAA meet before their landmark football seasons..

“I remember them,” Greene said. “Gene was big and tall (6 foot 4) and Clint was 6 foot and 200 pounds. Track was their secondary sport, but football has that lure to it when you’re that good. They were a perfect duo for Michigan State.”

Jones and Washington were about to establish themselves as two-time All-American picks in football. Jones was a halfback and Washington an offensive end, while Summers was a starting defensive halfback in 1965 and 1966.

Smith, Greene and Jones first met as recently graduated high school seniors in 1963. They were invited to the Golden West Invitational, which at the time was held at Cal State Los Angeles. Greene beat Smith in the 100 meters, while Jones was fourth in the 120-yard high hurdles. Only All-American-caliber seniors were invited to the nationally prestigious meet that has moved around the state over its history.

Washington ran times worthy of an invitation, but the early 1960s was still a dividing line for black athletes hidden in the segregated South. Washington was from La Porte, Tx., in the Houston area while competing in obscurity for Baytown Carver High.

By contrast, Jones’ family left the segregated South for Cleveland, where he was born. He gained opportunity competing for Cleveland Cathedral Latin with times recognized among the best in the nation for the high and low hurdles as Ohio’s state champion. Smith was born Clarksville, Tx., but his family moved to California and he competed for Lemoore High near Fresno. Green was born in Pine Bluff, AR., but attended O’Dea High in Seattle. Hines, a year younger than Smith and Greene and thus a 1964 Golden West participant, was born in Dumas, AR., but raised in California and competed at Oakland McClymonds..

Greene was happy to hear Jones will be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 8 in New York. His induction follows three members of the of Michigan State's Underground Railroad: George Webster of Anderson, S.C., in 1987, Bubba Smith of Beaumont, Tx., in 1988 and Washington in 2011. They were among the African-American players head coach Duffy Daugherty recruited from the segregated South. Webster, Smith, Washington and Jones are the first four black players from the same class named to the College Football Hall of Fame and Michigan State the first school with a foursome since 1940.

"I remember the Underground Railroad,” Greene said.

Washington has often said he wouldn't be in the College Football Hall of Fame if Daugherty hadn't plucked him out of the segregated South. He otherwise planned to run track at Texas Southern, an Historically Black College and University, where oddly enough is teammate would have been Hines.

Greene is in ill health and requires in-home care from a physical therapist, but he was happy to talk on the phone from his home in Lincoln, NE., about track and his old Michigan State friends. In his college days, he was enrolled as an ROTC student, which was common in the 1960s before Vietnam turned into a quagmire. Greene served 20 years in the U.S. Army before he retired as a major. He was an Army track sprint coach at West Point and later returned to Lincoln as a high school track coach.

Jones and Washington were both NFL first-round draft picks by the Minnesota Vikings in 1967. Jones was the second pick and Washington the eighth (Smith was the first pick and Webster the fifth).

Michigan State’s 1965 track success is appropriately remembered as 2015 Michigan State’s track team – led by senior Leah O’Connor defending her NCAA steeplechase title -- is enjoying Big Ten and national success and competing in this week’s NCAA meet in Eugene, OR. Who knows what future greatness they’ll establish or brush up against?

The Spartans’ 1965 NCAA bronze medalists haven’t forgotten that magical day in California competing against Tommie Smith and Charlie Greene in the NCAA track meet.

“That very much has been overlooked,” Washington said. “You could ask anyone in the country and they wouldn’t believe what we did.”

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Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom has also written for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Chargers.com, Rivals.com, and Gameday Central. He has won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003 and USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

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