RIP: Greatest Spartan Gridder Ever, Bubba Smith, Heads to the Pearly Gates The Enlightened Spartan: RIP: Greatest Spartan Gridder Ever, Bubba Smith, Heads to the Pearly Gates

Thursday, August 04, 2011

RIP: Greatest Spartan Gridder Ever, Bubba Smith, Heads to the Pearly Gates

Sometimes, bloggers get to a news item they MUST write about, but abhor the thought of doing so. Today is so.

Bubba Smith has died.
Yes, Bubba.  The greatest Michigan State University Spartan football player of all time.  "Kill Bubba Kill" Bubba Smith.  He anchored the greatest Spartan football teams of all time, the 19-1-1 Spartans from 1964-1966.  Bubba, who also starred in Miller Light Beer commercials with Dick Butkus and Rodney Dangerfield, who was "Hightower" in the Police Academy movies.

Yes the Bubba who was a Spartan to the day he died.  The ES met Bubba once, on his honeymoon, with the ES' brand new wife, at LAX.  He was scrunched into one of those airport chairs, this was back in 1996.  All 6-8, 320 pounds of him into some tiny chair, with a blue ball cap on, trying to hide... and the ES saw him from an instant.  Sorry, but I couldn't help myself! "Hey, Bubba, Bubba Smith!  Man you are the greatest."  He asked me about Nick Saban and the future of hope of Spartan football.  He said "I hope he's the right guy."  Little did the ES know - that should have been hint enough...  :) But, he gave me his autograph, he posed with a photo with my new wife (which is proudly displayed at my work).  A very gracious, humble giant.

Oh, man.  When the ES was brought up, it was all about how great Bubba was.  Actually it was the formation of my Spartan brainwashing -- pre-Magic Johnson.  He was THE MAN.  Matter of fact, a few years ago Sports Illustrated ranked one person from the history of college football for each position on offense and defense, and kickers... 24 in all.  Only one Spartan made the cut:  Bubba Smith.

Bubba Smith - you will always be remembered as a GREAT SPARTAN.  GO GREEN GO WHITE!  This 2011 season is dedicated to you.

FYI - Bubba has a fascinating history in College Football, important in the annals of integration -- one that if any of you ever get the chance to learn about, you should read:  Smith, John Matthew. "'Breaking the plane': integration and black protest in Michigan State University football during the 1960s." Michigan Historical Review 33.2 (2007): 101-129. 

Here are two sections about Bubba from John Smith's very good research. The first is here, the second below is more specific to Bubba.


"For Michigan State star player Charles "Bubba" Smith, a black Texas native who had never played in an integrated stadium until he went to college, this would be the pinnacle of his college career. If Smith symbolized Michigan State football, Jim Lynch, a white Irish-Catholic Ohioan and All-American linebacker, epitomized the kind of player for whom Notre Dame fans were used to cheering. At a pep rally two days before the game, on Notre Dame's pristine campus in South Bend, Indiana, forty-five hundred students and fans flooded the old field house as the marching band played the school's fight song. With chants of "cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame" ringing from the rafters, the overwhelmingly white male crowd hanged Bubba Smith in effigy next to a sign that read "LYNCH 'EM."

Coaches and athletes were often hanged in effigy by the fans and students of opposing schools, but "hanging" Smith next to a sign that said lynch 'em suggested some mixture of insensitivity and outfight racial bias at Notre Dame. Two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and nearly twenty years after Jackie Robinson broke major-league baseball's color barrier, the "dummy in the green uniform with a number 95" represented not only Bubba Smith but a rejection of racial equality. Well into the twentieth century lynching had expressed and enforced white supremacy in the South, and the powerful memory of mob rule was reinforced for African Americans in the 1960s when their churches were bombed, or they were clubbed and hosed by police or stoned by white crowds. Notre Dame's rally was emblematic of a dominant white sports culture that resisted integration.

The racial makeup of each school's football team illustrates the uneven progress of the civil fights movement. On one end of the spectrum, Notre Dame represented how hard blacks had to struggle to move beyond token athletic integration at predominantly white institutions. At the other end, Michigan State's squad was an example of what a fully integrated team might look like. While many northern football programs firmly believed that it would be dangerous to play more blacks than whites, in 1966 Michigan State's defense started eight black players and three whites. The offensive backfield started two black running backs and a black quarterback, and the team's two captains were black. In an era that accepted without question the myths that teams could not win by playing more blacks than whites and that black players did not have the intelligence to handle leadership positions, Michigan State's 1965 and 1966 football teams were unlike any others in the prior history of integrated college football.

Not only were Michigan State's teams in those two years fully integrated, but also they were the best that the school's head coach Hugh "Duffy" Daugherty had ever fielded, finishing a combined 19-1-1 as well as sharing the 1965 national championship. What separated these MSU teams from others in the country was a nucleus of talented black players, many from the South. In the late 1950s Daugherty took advantage of a talent source previously untapped (at least by coaches at primarily white schools) by developing relationships with black high-school coaches at coaching clinics in the South. Michigan State's integrated teams were created in an era when television had begun to come of age; young athletes and high-school coaches could see blacks and whites lining up beside one another.

Despite the widespread perception that Daugherty had built a color-blind football program, Michigan State's black athletes later challenged the assumption that all of the university's sports programs were free of racism by boycotting spring practice in 1968. At the height of the Black Power movement, these black athletes protested racial discrimination in MSU's athletic department and transformed their privileged position into one of empowerment. Thus, football provided a way for Michigan State's black athletes to challenge segregation both on and off the field."

And, here is a second entry relating to Smith more directly:

"Despite winning praise from the African American community, Michigan State's team struggled, ending the 1962 season at 5-4, good for a fifth-place tie in the conference. It was clear the Spartans would have to rebuild. Although the team was floundering on the field, Daugherty's program continued to receive national attention for playing African Americans. The AP reported that MSU "has probably the largest delegation of Negro players in the history of major college football." Slowly other coaches began to realize the benefits of recruiting black players. Ohio State's Woody Hayes contended that most coaches began playing black players not because they believed in the importance of equal opportunity regardless of color, but because they believed in the importance of winning and the financial rewards that accompanied success. While speaking to a group of coaches at a clinic Hayes stated, "We had a Negro problem once, I know. That was in 1959, when we had no Negroes on the team and we lost four [conference] football games. I hope we never have a problem like that [again]." Even so, most coaches like Hayes and the University of Michigan's Chalmers "Bump" Elliot were slow to play as many black athletes as Daugherty. Meanwhile, the MSU coach increased his recruitment of black players, especially in the South.

After moderate success in 1963, finishing 6-2-1 and second in the Big Ten, the 1964 team slid back to 4-5, placing sixth in the conference. The Spartans' record left fans dissatisfied, but Daugherty had begun to develop talented players who would be critical to the team's success in the coming years, when it would have some of its best seasons. Many of these gifted players were blacks who had migrated from the South. Of the twenty-one black players on MSU's 1964 squad, ten were from the South, a major shift from Daugherty's first team in 1954, which did not have a single black southerner. In contrast, only three of Daugherty's fifty-seven white players were from the South. Clearly, Daugherty limited recruiting in the South mainly to black players.

Yet, even as Daugherty worked to establish MSU's football program as a place of opportunity for black athletes, many whites decried Daugherty's liberal policies about integration. A number of alumni questioned why Daugherty used so many black players. He recalled one alumni meeting where in the middle of his speech someone yelled, "Hey, Duff, how many niggers are you gonna start this year?" Daugherty responded by questioning the manhood of the racist who was willing to yell an epithet from the back of the room but unwilling to step forward, identify himself, and take responsibility for his words. The room fell silent.

Daugherty explained that it was his policy to "play the best players, whether they happened to be all black or all white." At another gathering at one alumnus's home, the man threatened the coach, "Duffy, you've been using a lot of niggers lately. You know, the minute you start four or five of them in the same backfield, you've lost me." Daugherty looked the man straight in the eye and said, "Then I've lost you right now," and with that he left.  Daugherty played African Americans to win, not to be known as a civil rights activist. Nonetheless, he risked his career by recruiting so many black players. What if his "experiment" had failed? It was one thing to play a few black players here and there, but to start more black players than whites, as he did with his 1965 defense, was unprecedented. At the beginning of the season, the only question that remained for Daugherty was whether it would work.

Twenty-three African Americans made the 1965 team, a new high for Spartan football. Not only were there more blacks than ever before, but they stood out as top playmakers as well. Among those starting on defense were Charles "Bubba" Smith, George Webster, Charles Thornhill, Jim Summers, Jess Phillips, and Harold Lucas.  Willie Ray Smith, Bubba Smith's father and the head football coach at the all-black Charlton-Pollard High in Beaumont, Texas, had a big impact on Daugherty's success in recruiting black players in the state. After meeting Daugherty at a coaching clinic in Dallas in 1960, Willie Ray Smith and the Spartan coach developed a level of trust that created a pipeline for talent stretching all the way from Smith's hometown of Beaumont to East Lansing. 

When eighteen-year-old Charles "Bubba" Smith left Beaumont in the summer of 1963 to play football at Michigan State, the East Lansing campus looked nothing like his hometown. Before his trip to Michigan, Smith had not known very many whites well. In addition, Smith had been scarred by racial violence as a young boy when he witnessed a black man cry for mercy as five members of the Ku Klux Klan branded the letters KKK into the man's chest with a hot iron. Those three letters burned into Smith's memory, leaving him wondering, "Why do white people hate me?" As Bubba prepared to leave Beaumont, one of his father's assistant coaches predicted, "You'll never make it up there with the big boys. Those corn-fed white boys will lynch your fat ass without your pappy." (49) This coach's attitude highlights the ambivalence some black southerners felt toward the North. Blacks faced a complex set of unspoken rules there that forced them into the precarious world of de facto segregation.

Football enabled Smith to escape the endemic violence of a segregated South. In Michigan there were no "colored only" signs hanging above water fountains or nailed to bathroom doors, and no "colored sections" for blacks at football stadiums. But he faced other indignities. When Smith's own fans, a predominantly white crowd, shouted, "Kill, Bubba, Kill!" Smith became, figuratively speaking, animalized. The command bore an eerie resemblance to the order one might give an attack dog. While Notre Dame students hanged him in effigy, Smith's own fans cared only for his usefulness in winning games and raising the reputation of their school. (50) Off the field, Smith and his teammates had a difficult time finding an apartment in East Lansing. Even though Smith had left the segregated South, racism was also alive and well in his new northern surroundings."