Duffy Daugherty Took Black Athletes From South to Fame at Michigan State
Duffy Daugherty’s impact on college football ultimately may have less to do with his great teams at Michigan State than his steps toward desegregating the sport.
Over 26 years, the coach built three national champions and teams that 11 times finished in the top 20. Many of his key players were from states where blacks were not allowed to attend major institutions.
Daugherty recruited Gene Washington, George Webster, Bubba Smith and Jess Phillips from Texas. Linebacker Charles (Big Dog) Thornhill came from Virginia. Quarterback Jimmy Raye was recruited from North Carolina.
“I didn’t deliberately go into the South and recruit black players,” said Daugherty, now the head scout for the East-West Shrine game. “But I got calls from a lot of coaches about black players, and we were happy to take them. They all seemed to like Michigan State and did well.”
One of those coaches who called was Willie Ray Smith, Bubba’s father.
“I had talked to Willie Ray one time when I was in Texas for a football clinic,” the former MSU coach said. “Blacks weren’t allowed in bars at the time, so I invited Willie Ray and a number of other black high school coaches up to my hotel room. I ordered a couple of cases of beer and we sat there and talked football.
“Some time later, I got a call from Willie Ray asking me if I’d take his son on a scholarship and teach him to be a man. I told him teaching him to be a man was his responsibility, I would teach him to be a football player. He said he’d also get me another player who turned out to be Gene Washington.”
The Michigan State-Texas connection continued the next season when a coach told him about Phillips, who went on to be an outstanding running back with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. The last piece of the puzzle came when Webster decided to come north.
“I got a call from George Webster’s coach, so I went down to his high school and talked to the student body,” Daugherty said. “George was a shy young man. But the visit certainly paid off, George never considered another school.”
Webster went on to become one of the great defensive players in college. He joined Washington, Raye and Smith on the 1966 undefeated Spartan team. The only blemish on the team’s record was the famous 10-10 tie with undefeated Notre Dame.
Daugherty also was helped by coaches at Southern universities.
“(Joe) Namath and his top receiver came up to visit Michigan State from their high school in Pennsylvania,” Daugherty recalled. “He (Namath) was leaning toward coming to Michigan State, but we just couldn’t take him because we had a rule you couldn’t sign anyone who wasn’t in the top half of his high school class. Joe was bright, but he had fooled around.
“So I called Bear Bryant down at Alabama and told him he should take a good look at this kid. Well, a couple years later Bryant called me up and told me about Thornhill. He (Bryant) had already talked to him about coming to Michigan State so when I called, he was all ready to come and play for us.”
Daugherty had his detractors during the racially troubled times.
“They used to say I was getting the black kids who were poor students, but I have my doctors and lawyers,” he said. “I’m not proud of them because they were black. Instead, it is because by their success they refuted the bigots who said they were not intelligent.
“We had a lot of bright students because we had so many blacks wanting to come to play for Michigan State. We could be selective.”
Daugherty is encouraged by what he sees are steps toward racial equality in football.
“I was doing the color on a broadcast of a game between Tennessee and Alabama in the early ‘70s,” he said. “Alabama had a black running back named Wilbur Jackson, who was their first black player, and Tennessee was being quarterbacked by a young black man by the name of Condredge Holloway. I said at the time that if it was five years earlier, they both would have been playing for me. It was nice to see.”
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.