Photo: Kirk Gibson was known for football before his baseball career.
Two seasons ago Jimmy Raye, Gene Washington, Clinton Jones and other Michigan State players from the Spartans’ 1965 and 1966 national championship era reveled in traveling to Pasadena for the Spartans’ 2013 Big Ten title and Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
Raye chatted with a College Football Hall of Fame official on one of the afternoons preceding the 2014 Rose Bowl. They discussed how George Webster (inducted in 1987), Bubba Smith (1988) and Gene Washington (2011) were in the Hall, but Clinton Jones, the fourth member of their class, remained on the outside looking in (Bob Apisa, the Spartan’s fifth two-time All-American, was a year younger).
I was reminded of this upon receiving my ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2016. Voting among 12,000 National Football Foundation members is underway with the class announced in January. Three Michigan State players are on the ballot: kicker Morten Andersen, 1978-81; wide receiver Kirk Gibson, 1975-78; and running back Lorenzo White, 1984-87. Former head Darryl Rogers (1976-79) is on the coaches' ballot.
It's hard to predict if one of the players will be elected, but indirectly the program's current return to national prominence has shed new light on past players. They were overlooked during a time period Michigan State had faded from Top 25 rankings and prominent bowl games.
Take notice that three Spartans have been named in rapid fire since Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio regained national consciousness for the Spartans. In recent seasons, Dantonio has pushed Michigan State back into the limelight with a share of the Big Ten title in 2010, Big Ten Legends crown in 2011, Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl win in 2013 and Cotton Bowl victory in 2014.
I believe it coincides with Washington's election in 2011, Percy Snow in 2013 and Jones in 2015. The trio, and Spartans fans alike, can thank Dantonio for Michigan State success that attracted votes to lift three recent Hall-of-Famers in five years to election.
Consider the gap in Hall-of-Famers elected between Bubba in 1988 and Brad Van Pelt in 2001. Both players were overwhelming choices that couldn't be overlooked in that 13-year time span when the program was largely outside the Top 25 rankings.
And then there was another gap between Van Pelt in 2001 and Washington in 2011 when most years bowl eligibility was recognized as a good season. With the exception of spikes from the 1987 Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory and a 10-win team in 1999, the recent Hall-of-Fame droughts coincide with the program fading from the national view.
Now observe that Michigan State's resurgence under Dantonio coincides with three MSU Hall-of-Fame elections in five years. All three were long overdue. Washington and Jones played their senior year in 1966 and Snow in 1989. The waiting period for eligibility is 10 years; Washington waited 45 for election, Snow 24 and Jones 49.
Snow's wait isn't that unusually long. Astonishingly, Webster waited 21 years and Smith 22; Webster and Smith are two of the game's all-time legends. Washington and Jones didn't get any better in the past half-century. Except, I say, in the minds of voters reminded of their alma mater's identity through the Spartans' resurgence.
How else to explain only five Hall of Famers from a program of MIchigan State's stature prior to Washington, Snow and Jones bumping the total to eight (which still seems low)?
Surprisingly, Jones will be only the eighth Michigan State player in the Hall of Fame when he is enshrined Dec. 8 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. In addition to Webster, Smith, Van Pelt, Washington, Snow and Jones, the other two with their induction year are halfback John Pingel (1968) and tackle Don Coleman (1975).
Eight seems like a small number for a school with six national titles, two College Football Hall of Fame coaches (Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty) and 27 consensus All-Americas. Especially when four of them are from the same class as seniors on the 1966 team. Andersen, Gibson and White are worthy candidates that might also benefit from the Dantonio era shining a light on Michigan State.
Andersen, with his booming leg, finished his career as Michigan State’s all-time leader in field goals (45), extra-points (126) and scoring (261). Playing on Muddy Waters’ bad 1980 and 1981 teams may have aided his number of field goal opportunities, but not his scoring chances.
Gibson, one of Michigan State’s all-time greats as an All-American in football and baseball, was a football All-American as a senior 1978, which included a Big Ten title and upset of Michigan. He broke some of Washington’s records, finishing his career as the Spartans’ all-time leader in catches (112), yards (2,347) and touchdown receptions (24). But his All-American senior year was also the third straight during Michigan State’s probation period that included no television exposure.
Football was arguably Gibson’s best sport, but he chose the longevity of professional baseball. He enjoyed dramatic World Series home run moments playing for both the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers.
White led Michigan State back to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 22 years with the 1987 team’s win over USC on New Year’s Day 1988. He led the Spartans in rushing four straight years, highlighted by his sophomore season in 1985 with a school record of 2,066 yards. He was fourth in the Heisman voting behind Auburn running back Bo Jackson, Iowa quarterback Chuck Long and BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco.
Rogers, oddly enough, might have a better chance for election in the coaches' category. His 24-18-2 record, highlighted by a 1978 Big Ten title, isn’t in in the class of Munn and Daugherty, but the only other coaches on the ballot are Jim Carlen (West Virginia, Texas Tech, South Carolina), Pete Cawthorne Sr. (Austin College, Texas Tech), Danny Ford (Clemson, Arkansas) and Billy Jack Murphy (Memphis). Voters can vote for up to two choices. Ford is the only one with a national title at Clemson in 1981.
Coaches are eligible for the Hall with 10 years as a head coach, a minimum 100 games and a .600 winning percentage. That qualifies Rogers, although his only conference titles in 20 years at four schools was 1975 at Fresno State and 1978 at Michigan State. He coached at Cal State Hayward, 1965; Fresno State, 1966-72; Michigan State, 1976-79; and Arizona State 1980-84.
Thanks to Dantonio, this has been the best time to be associated with Michigan State since Daugherty's 1965 and 1966 teams that produced four Hall of Famers. Michigan State is only the fourth school with four Hall of Famers from the same class, the first school since 1940 and the first foursome of black players in yet another tribute to Daugherty's Underground Railroad teams that mined the segregated South for talent.