As part of ESPN's Black History Month celebration, I took a look back at Michigan State's national championship teams of the 1960s, which blended white, black, North and South at a time when the country itself was changing.
Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty provided a landing spot for black players from the South who couldn't play closer to home because of segregation. Many of the Southerners -- Bubba Smith (Texas), George Webster (South Carolina), Gene Washington (Texas), Charles Thornhill (Virginia), Jimmy Raye (North Carolina) -- helped the Spartans reach the top of the college football ladder in 1965 and 1966. They achieved many historical milestones, although they didn't fully realize them until years later.
They came to Michigan State's lush campus in the early 1960s from places like Beaumont, Texas; Fayetteville, N.C.; Anderson, S.C.; and Roanoke, Va. Michigan State provided an opportunity -- to play college football at the highest level -- not afforded to them in their home states because of their skin color.
"All the Southern players, we were outcasts from our own states," said former Michigan State wide receiver Gene Washington, a native of La Porte, Texas. "All of the states where we were from, they would not take black athletes. We bonded at Michigan State because we all had similar stories. We could make a contribution. That was very important to us. We didn't talk about that all the time, but we knew we had something to prove, and this is our opportunity.
"We wanted to be the best in the country."
And they were. Led by coach Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State won national championships in 1965 (UPI) and 1966 (National Football Foundation) with some of the most racially and geographically integrated teams in all of college football. The 1965 roster included 18 black players, nine from Southern states (Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina). The 1966 roster featured 17 black players, 10 from the South.
In contrast, the team that earned national championship honors in 1964 -- Alabama -- came from the Southeastern Conference, which didn't integrate until 1966.
"Duffy used to always tell us that if you play with enthusiasm and you play as a team, our names would be printed in indelible ink and would last for a lifetime," Raye said. "But at the time, when you're 18 or 19 years old, you're just playing. We didn't think about the history that was being made. We were just winning."
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In talking with some of the former Spartans, I was struck how the Big Ten -- especially teams like Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa -- truly became the league of opportunity for top black players from the South.
"We didn’t have newspapers writing about us," Washington told me. "We were not on television. The only black players I remember on TV were [from] the Big Ten. We would watch Texas and Rice and the University of Houston, and it was all white players. I just wanted to have an opportunity, and I'm so glad I got that opportunity playing with Michigan State.
"I'm so grateful that the Big Ten was so up front with receiving black athletes."
Added Raye: "At the time, the only opportunity the blacks in the South had was to go to the Big Ten."
It's a part of Big Ten history that should make all Big Ten fans very proud.