Photo: Duffy Daugherty (center) with team captains George Webster (90) and Clinton Jones (26). Also in the first row are Dick Kenney (42), Charlie Thornhill (41), Jerry West (77) and Gene Washington (84). Bubba Smith (95) is in the second row, while Bob Apisa (45) and Jimmy Raye (16) are in the third row. Steve Juday from the 1965 team is No. 23 in the youtube video below.
A key debate point among Pro Football Hall of Fame voters basically applies to any athletics hall.
“Can you write the history of pro football without him?” With that frame-of-reference, I bring up Michigan State’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
Two-time All-Americans George Webster, Bubba Smith, Gene Washington and Clinton Jones are indisputable Michigan State Hall of Famers with their enshrinement into the College Football Hall of Fame. But are four players enough from two teams that accomplished so much more on and off the field than their back-to-back national championships?
On the field, realize that in the past half-century Michigan State’s back-to-back unbeaten and untied Big Ten titles have yet to be matched. Look it up. Those dominant Ohio State and Michigan teams of the 1970s suffered at least a tie.
Off the field, the Spartans’ contributions transcended sports, having led the integration of college football in the Civil Rights era. Michigan State lined up 20 black players with 11 starters. That may not sound like much today, but consider the times.
Minnesota had only five black players on its 1960 national championship team. Notre Dame had only one black player, Alan Page, on its 1966 roster that met the Spartans in the Game of the Century. USC’s 1967 national championship team had only seven black players. By 1972, USC’s national champions numbered 23 black players.
Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty’s 1965-66 Underground Railroad teams not only cracked open doors in the segregated South, they pushed open wider the doors in the rest of the nation.
Prior to Daugherty’s ground-breaking teams, coaches in the segregated South feared black players disrupting the locker room and coaches of integrated teams feared the same of too many black players on the roster. They also doubted black players could play leadership roles. That was before Michigan State’s 1966 team dispelled such prejudices. Webster and Jones were the first two black players elected team captains by a team-wide vote without a white player sharing the role and Raye was the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title.
With that background, allow me to suggest six more names that belong in Michigan State’s Hall of Fame.
--- Jimmy Raye, quarterback, Fayetteville, N.C.: There were virtually no black quarterbacks in the 1960s when Daugherty made the bold decision to start Raye. He backed up senior Steve Juday as a sophomore in 1965 and was a two-year starter in 1966 and 1967. Following the 1966 Game of the Century matching Michigan State and Notre Dame, the schools were named co-national champions by the National Football Foundation’s MacArthur Bowl for their 9-0-1 records and controversial 10-10 tie. In those days, milestones by minority athletes weren’t noted as they are today, and Raye’s stature as the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title was overlooked. He was known as a running QB, but his 10 touchdown passes in 1966 were the most by a Spartans signal-caller since All-American Tom Yewcic in 1952. He only finished second-team All-Big Ten, but that should not be held against him. The first-team choice was Purdue All-American Bob Griese, who was second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Florida’s Steve Spurrier. It should also be remembered his play in monsoon-like conditions was the difference in an 11-8 comeback win at Ohio State that preserved the 1966 unbeaten season on the march to the Game of the Century. Otherwise the 66 team would have been forgotten from national annals. He was plagued by injuries in 1967, but one of the Spartans’ three wins was over Michigan for a 2-0 record as a starter and 3-0 overall against the Wolverines. He also carried Michigan State’s banner into the NFL, breaking coaching barriers as one of its first black assistants and first black offensive coordinators with the Los Angeles Rams in 1983. His coaching career spanning five decades started under Daugherty.
--- Bob Apisa, fullback, Honolulu, Hi.: Apisa also made history as the first Samoan All-American his sophomore season in 1965 and repeated as a junior in 1966. He was recruited through Daugherty’s Hawaiian Pipeline, and his success launched a wave of Samoan and Polynesian athletes in the next half-century, culminating with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota of Honolulu the first Samoan Heisman Trophy winner. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, the first Samoan college football head coach, says every Polynesian football player owes Apisa a debt of gratitude. Injuries plagued Apisa his junior year in 1966, but he still led the team in scoring and was a two-time All-American choice. Apisa has said if he ever makes the Michigan State Hall he hopes it is with Raye.
--- Charlie Thornhill, middle linebacker, Roanoke, Va.: “Mad Dog” was the leading tackler and the inspiration of the 65 and 66 defenses. Offenses had to pick their poison: run at George Webster at rover on one side or at Bubba Smith at defensive end on the other. Avoiding them would have worked better if Thornhill wasn’t such a sure tackler. He was unanimous first-team All-Big Ten in 1966. It should be noted Thornhill’s legend includes a significant myth in college football lore off the field. Somehow a false narrative grew that Alabama coach Bear Bryant steered Thornhill to Daugherty. I believed the accepted myth until researching my book “Raye of Light” revealed otherwise. Thornhill committed to the Spartans before before Bryant met him at a college/high school football awards banquet in segregated Roanoke. The real story, verified by Charlie's younger brother William, was Bryant merely endorsed Daugherty to Thornhill as a good man upon learning he was committed to the Spartans. Of the 44 black recruits Daugherty recruited from the South from 1959 to 1972, none were from Alabama. The myth includes the leap Bryant did this for other southern black players, but it was proven in 1969 court depositions by Civil Rights attorney U.W. Clemon that Bryant had little to no knowledge of black athletes in Alabama. He had been sued in 1969 by the school’s Afro-American student body for failing to recruit black athletes on a campus that was desegregated since 1963. Bryant’s teams remained segregated until 1971, but the Thornhill myth has helped protect his legacy. His apologists paint him as a benevolent segregationist. Thornhill passed away in 2006.
--- Steve Juday, quarterback and two-sport athlete with baseball, Northville, Mi.: Juday and Earl Morrall are the only two Michigan State quarterbacks to earn first-team All-American designation on the prestigious Associated Press team. Juday led the Spartans to the 1965 UPI national title, he also was All-Big Ten honorable mention in 1964, Academic All-Big Ten in 1965 and a three-year baseball letterman 1964-65-66. Morrall, who is in Michigan State’s Hall, was named the AP first-teamer in 1955. Spartans quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook from the past decade will rightfully join Morrall someday in Michigan State’s Hall, but Juday should, too.
--- Dick Kenney, kicker/punter and two-sport athlete with baseball, Honolulu, Hi.: The Hawaiian Pipeliner was a consensus All-Big Ten first-team kicker as a 1966 senior. The bare-foot kicker and punter had a big leg, including a 47-yarder in the 10-10 Notre Dame tie. He accounted for five points in the 11-8 comeback win in 1966 at Ohio State with a 27-yard field goal in the mud and a two-point conversion pass to Charlie Wedemeyer in the closing moments. In baseball, he was a third-team All-Big Ten pitcher in 1966. His 88 strikeouts in 1967, when teams played fewer games than now, still ranks in MSU’s Top 10. He ranked as high as fourth three decades later until players began to pass him in 1998; he now stands eighth. Kenney remains 10th in career strikeouts with 178 and is one of only nine Michigan State pitchers with three or more shutouts in a season. Kenney passed away in 2005.
--- Jerry West, offensive guard, Durand, Mi.: West was a 1966 All-American by the Newspaper Enterprises Association. He also was consensus first-team All-Big Ten choice in 1966 and second-team in 1965. The 65-66 Spartans had other honored linemen worthy of consideration, but West separates himself as a two-time All-Big Ten selection.
I’ve served on a couple of different Hall-of-Fame committees, and I know it can be an experience that turns into a frustrating task. It can be a thankless job, too.
For whatever reason, the above credentials have been overlooked for too long. Ten players may seem like a large number, but it’s not when representing two teams that wrote Michigan State and college football history.