Photo: Michigan State's 1956 Rose Bowl team on the steps of Jenison Fieldhouse. Pat Wilson is No. 24 in the center of the second row. Earl Morrall is No. 21 in the first row.
Pat Wilson rattled off a long list of multi-sport stars to play for Michigan State.
Wilson, a Spartans football and basketball letterman from the 1950s who is 80 and still practicing law in Traverse City, Mi., cited Bob Carey, Jack Breslin, Robin Roberts, Tom Yewcic, Earl Morrall, Dean Look, Steve Garvey, Brad Van Pelt, Kirk Gibson, Andre Rison and Matt Trannon.
He didn’t include himself, although his name is alone on a unique page in Spartans sports history.
“I’m just the answer to a trivia question,” he pleaded.
But, oh man, it’s a holy Big Ten trivia question: Name the only Michigan State athlete to play in a Rose Bowl and a Final Four?
Answer: Pat Wilson, Lapeer, Mi.
He took the field as a defensive back in the 1956 Rose Bowl and the hardwood as a guard in the 1957 Final Four. And he’s not likely to be joined by anyone, with sports increasingly having evolved into specialization and overlapping seasons.
Wilson’s three football letters were in the 1954, 1955 and 1956 seasons. He shared the quarterback and defensive back role in the era of single-platoon football. The 1955 Spartans were named national champions by the Boland System and defeated UCLA in the 1956 New Year’s Day Rose Bowl 17-14.
His quarterback competition was two future NFL signal-callers, Earl Morrall and Jim Ninowski, but they were poor tacklers. At the Rose Bowl, Wilson substituted in on defense for Morrall, his roommate. Single-platoon football permitted one substitution among the starting 11.
“None of the quarterbacks were great on defense, and sometimes, I was the lesser of two evils,” Wilson said. “So I played that side of the ball during the Earl Morrall days, and had a good shot at offense my senior year, while being pushed by Jim Ninowski.”
Morrall possesses his iconic double, having played in the 1956 Rose Bowl and the 1954 College World Series. But unlike Wilson, Morrall isn't alone in that feat. Tom Yewcic, a Spartans All-American quarterback, played in the 1954 Rose Bowl and was the MVP of the 1954 College World Series. However, to take it one more step, Morrall is the only one to play in two Rose Bowls (1954 and 1956) and one CWS.
Wilson’s career also overlapped legendary Michigan State football and basketball coaches. In football, Biggie Munn retired from coaching after his freshman year and he played three varsity seasons for for Duffy Daugherty.
“There were many characters on the earlier teams: Bob Carey, Sonny Grandelius, Lynn Chandnois, Dorne Dibble, and later, Don McAuliffe, Doug Weaver, Jimmy Ellis, Don Coleman, Gordie Serr, Ed Luke, Dick Tamburo, Leroy Bolden, Ellis Duckett, Ed Timmerman and Don Dohoney to name a few. And each one of them could fill a book.”
In basketball, he was a three-year letterman, 1954-55, 1955-56, 1956-57. He was a starting guard on the school’s first Final Four team that was led by two All-Big Ten picks, sophomore Johnny Green and senior Jack Quiggle. Green went on to become a two-time All-American and play in the NBA.
To earn the Final Four bid, the Big Ten co-champion Spartans upset Kentucky and head coach Adolph Rupp 80-68 on the Wildcats’ home floor in the NCAA Mideast Regional final. Green was the only African-American on the floor in segregated Lexington, Ky.,
“I remember the racial tension at the regionals with Jumping Johnny Green as our star,” he said, “and the segregated restaurants and hotels.”
The 1957 Final Four was epic -- worthy of an ESPN 30 for 30 or Big Ten Network documentary for the two triple-overtime games and the racial ground broken by Green and Kansas’ Wilt Chamberlain, one of the all-time legends of the sports world.
In the semifinals, Michigan State and North Carolina locked into a triple-overtime game that the Tar Heels pulled out in controversy 74-70. The Spartans to this day contend they were robbed of victory. They say shot at the end of regulation to win the game by Quiggle beat the buzzer, but the referees ruled it off as late.
North Carolina advanced and survived another triple-overtime affair, beating Kansas, 54-53. It was the Tar Heels’ first national title in basketball.
Similar to football, Wilson played for two giants among Michigan State basketball coaches. His freshman year, Pete Newell was in his final East Lansing season before he returned home to the West Coast to coach Cal (and win a 1959 NCAA title). He was succeeded by Forddy Anderson.
Although multi-sport athletes were more common in the 1950s, Wilson didn’t plan to go out for basketball. A varsity player spotted him in an intramural basketball game and encouraged him to try out as a walk-on.
“I regard my opportunity at MSU as somewhat of a fluke,” Wilson said. “I was an average high school player with an opportunity. We had great assistant coaches – Dan Devine, Bill Yeoman, Bob Devaney, and, of course, Duffy.”
Wilson, though, wasn’t the only family member writing Michigan State history. He was one of three brothers out of Lapeer to play football for the Spartans.
John, the oldest, lettered from 1950 to 1952. He was an academic All-American defensive back on the 1952 national championship team and a Rhodes Scholar. Later he served president of Washington and Lee University from 1983 to 1995. He passed away two years ago.
“John cleared the way for us,” Pat said.
Tom Wilson lettered in football from 1958 to 1960. He claimed the team MVP, the Governor of Michigan Award, playing quarterback in 1960. Pat says Tom could have lettered in basketball, too, but he injured his knee playing football his freshman year.
“MSU was good to all the Wilsons,” Pat said.
The same could be said of the Wilsons for MSU.
Oddly enough, John Wilson wanted to attend Michigan, but the Wolverines didn’t recruit him. So John’s high school coach, Paul Smarks, took him to East Lansing to meet Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty.
The rest – as they say – is history, including a unique trivia question with only one answer for the past 59 years and counting.