Michigan State University is in East Lansing. You’d be hard pressed to find teenagers in Texas that could identify the location of East Lansing, much less its culture, climate or demographics. That fact is reflected in the Michigan State Spartans roster – it is almost completely devoid of players from the Lone Star State. In this day and age of national recruiting, it’s almost impossible to find a team competing at the level of Michigan State with no impact players from Texas. From Ohio State to Alabama to Oregon, Texans almost always play a key-role on the country’s best college football squads.
In fact, Michigan State hasn’t had a letter winner from Texas since 1998-1999 when Greg Robinson-Randall (Galveston, Texas) won letters playing on the Spartan offensive line. Between the late ‘90s and last year, the only Texas recruit the Spartans had signed was Nick Foles (Austin, Texas) in 2007. He would transfer to Arizona before ever playing a down for Michigan State. Bolstered by success on a national stage, including a Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor in Dallas last year, the Spartans signed three Texans in their 2015 recruiting class (Josh Butler – Mesquite, Texas; Tyler Higby – Houston, Texas; Darrell Stewart – Houston, Texas).
Perhaps we will soon see Texans playing impact roles in East Lansing. However, if we do, it won’t be the first time. During Michigan State’s most dominant era in college football – the 1960s – the team was led by Texans on both offense and defense.
From 1965-1966, the Spartans went 19-1-1 while winning two Big Ten titles and claiming at least a share of two National Titles. During this time, the Southwest was rich with talent. The University of Texas was flourishing under the leadership of Darrell Royal and would win their own National Championships during the decade. However, anyone watching games in the South and Southwest during this time period would notice a very important difference between Austin and East Lansing – UT was all-white.
The Longhorns would win the National Title in 1969, the last time college football’s consensus national championship was won by an all-white squad. That year UT had their first African-American player, Julius Whittier, but as a freshman he was ineligible to play on the varsity team. Texas wasn’t alone in barring black players. During much of the 1960s, every SWC school not only kept African-Americans from participating in sport, they kept them from even being allowed to enroll in classes. If African-American athletes from Texas wanted to play college football, it meant enrolling at an HBCU or travelling far from home to play in a foreign conference.
Thanks to the ignorance and bigotry of Texas’ major programs, Michigan State was able to flourish. It all began with Earl Lattimer an offensive guard from Dallas, Texas. Lattimer made the bold step of leaving Texas for the Big Ten and by his senior year in 1963 he was an All-American for the Spartans. Michigan State’s coaching staff, led by college football legend Duffy Daugherty, was quick to capitalize on Lattimer’s success in recruiting. The Spartans would dip back into the Lone Star State, acquiring four letter winners for the National Championship teams in 1965-66.
Those four letter winners were offensive/defensive lineman Alton Owens from Ft. Worth, defensive back Jess Phillips from Beaumont, defensive end Charles “Bubba” Smith from Beaumont and wide receiver Gene Washington from LaPorte.
If nothing else, those last two names probably sound familiar, as they should. Both Smith and Washington would be named All-American players by the end of their college football careers. Both have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Both were drafted in the top-10 overall picks of the 1967 NFL Draft (Michigan State had four players selected in the first round of the ’67 Draft). Both players made multiple Pro Bowls.
After his collegiate career, Bubba Smith was drafted with the #1 overall selection of the 1967 draft by the Baltimore Colts. At 6’7” and 265 pounds, Smith was a physical specimen that could dominate any opponent he faced. While playing with the Colts, Smith and his teammates won Super Bowl V to end the 1970 season. After a gruesome injury in the 1972 preseason that caused him to miss the year, Smith was traded to the Oakland Raiders before finishing his career with the Houston Oilers. After football, Smith had a lengthy career as an actor. His most notable role would likely be as Moses Hightower in the first six Police Academy movies. Smith passed away in August 2011 at the age of 66.
Gene Washington would also be drafted in the first round of the 1967 draft with the #8 overall selection. At 6’3” and 212 pounds, Washington was a big receiver for the time, but also boasted outstanding speed having excelled on the Michigan State track team. Washington played six seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before finishing his career in one last season with the Denver Broncos. Washington finished his time in the NFL with 3,237 receiving yards, 26 touchdowns and an impressive 17.8 yards per catch. While playing with the Vikings, Washington had his own shot at a title playing against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV, although Minnesota would fall 23-7.
While Michigan State University may be far away in East Lansing, there is no doubt every Texas sports fan owes the Spartans a big thank you. Without the support and opportunity provided by Michigan State, two of Texas’ most remarkable athletes in the 1960s might never have fully realized there potential. From everyone at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, thanks Sparty! We’ll long remember and honor these players!
This article was written and researched by Ryan Sprayberry, Collections and Exhibits Manager at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame