by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Comparing teams from different eras is a subjective exercise at best. When it regards gridiron actors from the past, there are usually no right or wrong answers, which might be what makes these arguments so entertaining.

In college football, the most-compelling of those all-time best debates might involve the Big Ten, with no shortage of candidates from the past. For our money at TGS, however, there was one Big Ten entry that still resonates more than a half-century later, one that we believe compares favorably with any.


We could take our pick whether it’s the 1965 or 1966 editions of the Michigan State Spartans that were if nothing else among the most transformational teams in not only Big Ten, but college football, history. For the purposes of selecting one or the other, we opt for the 1965 version that many still believe was the best college defensive team ever seen, and certainly on a short list of best-ever teams that did not win a unanimous national title (though those ‘65 Spartans would spilt the wire-service honors).

We’re inclined to support both of those arguments. Though there are more subtle reasons why Duffy Daugherty’s powerhouses from the mid ‘60s are still recalled so fondly. Such as the fact that most Big Ten powerhouse teams over the decades have had the charm and color of one of those faceless Soviet Union hockey teams that used to dominate the Winter Olympics in the ‘70s. Do not, however, clump the great MSU teams from a half-century ago with the many colorless Ohio State, Michigan, and even occasional Michigan State and Wisconsin powers from subsequent years that only by accident would have the sort of characters and big personalities that have endeared teams to the masses for decades.

Besides being great, the mid ‘60s Michigan State had loads of those characteristics. Starting with the impish Daugherty, a colorful Irishman who was quick with a quip and, unlike the drab sorts such as Tom Osborne, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban from future generations, a favorite of the sporting media of the day. In fact, Daugherty is still recalled by many more for his personality than his coaching acumen, which has been the subject of some debate among Big Ten football historians.

No one, however, doubted that Daugherty could make people laugh, Among the famous Duffy quotes often floated by the media was the Irishman’s idea of superstition. “Bad luck,” said Daugherty, "is to be behind at the end of the game.” Duffy also liked to wax poetic on his days as a college student and football player at Syracuse. “I could have been a Rhodes Scholar,” said Daugherty, “except for my grades.” Or the coach’s comparison of football and dancing. “Football isn't a contact sport, it's a collision sport,” said Duffy. “Dancing is a contact sport.” The coach was colorful enough that in the early days of his retirement he would have a gig as a college football analyst with ABC.

Daugherty won early in his career at Michigan State when taking over for the legendary Clarence “Biggie” Munn, who would move upstairs to the AD chair at East Lansing in 1954. Daugherty’s second Spartan team, with Earl Morrall at QB in 1955, would finish 8-1 and qualify for the Rose Bowl, where it would beat Red Sanders’ UCLA, 17-14, on a last-second 41-yard FG by PK Dave Kaiser, who also doubled as the leading Spartan receiver that season. Daugherty also owned Notre Dame, at one point beating the Fighting Irish eight times in a row between 1955-63. Three times between the ‘56 Rose Bowl and 1964, Duffy’s MSU would also finish second in the Big Ten. Along the way, Daugherty would turn down Nebraska’s offer to become its head coach in 1962, instead recommending to the Cornhuskers one Bob Devaney, who proceeded to create a powerhouse in Lincoln. As did Duffy in the mid ‘60s at East Lansing before the rest of the college football world began to follow the Daugherty blueprint.

Daugherty’s advantage was the color line, which had been broken long before at MSU and in the Big Ten. But the SEC, ACC, and Southwest Conference were still segregated leagues. After luring handfuls of black players into the early 60s, Daugherty, noting recruiting successes that Minnesota counterpart Murray Warmath had experienced in the region, accelerated his recruiting efforts in the South and was able to lure an exceptional collection of black athletes that would form the core of the mid ‘60s Spartan powerhouses. By 1965, MSU’s lineup would include 12 black starters. Four of those–DE Bubba Smith, LB George Webster, RB Clinton Jones, and WR Gene Washington–would eventually comprise half of the first 8 picks of the 1967 NFL-AFL Draft, a feat yet to be replicated by any college. The quartet would also eventually gain acceptance to the College Football Hall of Fame, the first four black classmates to be so honored.

Among those, however, none was quite as gregarious as Big Bubba, found by Daugherty in Beaumont, Texas from the vast network of coaching friends Duffy had developed over the years. Fortunately for Daugherty, one of his “network” was Willie Ray Smith, a legendary Texas high school coach and Bubba’s papa.

If Bubba wasn’t the best player Duffy ever signed, he was certainly the most spectacular. He was 6'7 and weighed 285, wore size 52 extra-long suits, and could run sprints with the backs. Michigan State track coach Fran Dittrich even wanted Smith to run for his team, but realized that might pose another problem.. “He’s too big to run in one lane,” said Dittrich.

Bubba could be loosely described as a free spirit who, despite an upbringing in segregated Texas, took life as it came and enjoyed new experiences. Pushing the envelope came naturally to Smith. Having a white roommate was no problem, nor was eventually joining a Jewish fraternity. Bubba thrived by testing authority all of the time; he drove around campus in his senior year of 1966 in a white Oldsmobile with his name in gold letters on the door. In addition to the fancy car, Bubba also always seemed to have plenty of walking-around money, a bit odd for a college athlete from modest means, but the student body didn’t seem to care. Whatever Bubba did, whether on the football field, cruising East Lansing at night, or parking in school prexy John Hannah’s personal spot, the students loved it, and would relish the “Kill, Bubba Kill!” chant at all home games.

Daugherty’s defense defied an easy description. Its basic alignment would look like a 6-1 front, with six linemen and a middle linebacker. While Bubba took most of the headlines, Anderson, SC product George Webster was probably the most valuable player, turning up almost anywhere between the linemen and the three defensive backs. Sometimes Webster would show up on the line of scrimmage playing over a tackle or end from an upright stance. Sometimes he’d line up as a linebacker, either in the middle or on the outside, from where Webster would eventually earn All-AFL honors with the Houston Oilers. Sometimes he’d join he deep backs. If football historians were looking for a comparison, North Carolina’s Lawrence Taylor might come to mind, though not even Taylor was as versatile as Webster.

Because of the ground he covered and because he showed up in so many different positions, Webster made the field smaller for opposing offenses. And rewarded an overdue adjustment made by Daugherty, who usually would focus his best players on offense, which is why Webster spent much of the preceding 1964 season on offense, either in the backfield or at a receiver spot. (Before '65, Daugherty had been lobbed hard by defensive coaches Hank Bullough and Vince Carillot to move Webster and LB Charlie Thornhill full-time to defense.) But with the liberalized substitution rules, and time for more specialization, Daugherty reckoned correctly that Webster (and Thornhill) belonged on defense.

Rarely have we seen a "D" obliterate opposing teams as did the ‘65 Spartans, who were bigger, faster, and more free-wheeling than the 1966 version. Smith was not the only physical monster on the stop unit, with NG Harold Lucas a 286-pounder who was quick on his feet, giving MSU a defensive front the size of platoons from 40-50 years hence, playing in an era when 220-lb. offensive linemen were not uncommon. Linebacker  “Mad Dog" Thornhill was an intimidating presence, while linemen Bob Viney and Don Bierowicz and LB Ron Goovert were gnarly veterans. Defensive backs Jim Summers and Jess Phillips would both play in the AFL (Phillips as a RB for the Bengals), as would soph CB Drake Garrett, like Summers for the Denver Broncos. Along with Webster covering the length and width of the field, MSU would routinely smother the opposition.

MSU foes in '65 could only gain 47 ypg rushing the football and were often forced to the air. Michigan was humiliated, losing 51 yards rushing and forced to the air 42 times in a 24-7 Spartan win. A Woody Hayes Ohio State team had never been manhandled as it would be against ‘65 MSU, when the Spartans stonewalled the Buckeyes into minus 22 yards rushing in a 32-7 brutalization.

Still, rare was the team that went through a 10-game schedule unbeaten without wringing destiny's neck a few times. Michigan State was no exception, as five times in the first nine games, the Spartans had to rally from behind before taking the lead. Early in the season the Spartans had a splendid chance to lose to Illinois. They trailed 12-9 late in the third quarter when Illinois' Jim Grabowski broke loose for what looked like a touchdown that would have put the Illini in command. But near midfield, MSU DB Summers dived at him from behind, barely tripped him up, and the drive stalled. Game saved; the Spartans would soon take control and win 22-12. Against Purdue it appeared again that State had lost for sure. Trailing 10-8 and with time almost gone, QB Steve Juday passed incomplete on third down at the Purdue 22. But what should have been a desperate situation with fourth and eight suddenly was not. An injudicious Purdue lineman roughed Juday, and the Spartans found themselves with a first down on the 12. They promptly scored. Another game pulled from the fire!

State also lolled around against lowly Indiana and was behind, 13-10, with the fourth quarter moving along nicely. Then the explosion; Juday hit End Gene Washington with a 43-yard touchdown pass, and suddenly MSU was in control again en route to a 27-13 win.

The offense was not especially explosive, and would usually wait for the defense to provide the opening to pounce, but it was good enough to elicit some fear. Senior QB Steve Juday, junior HB Clinton Jones (who drew some comparisons to Jim Brown in the mid ‘60s), and long-striding jr. WR Gene Washington were the headliners, but there were other weapons in a punishing attack that included physical, 230-lb. Hawaiian import pile-driver FB Bob Apisa and another near-sprinter, HB Dwight Lee. Jones's best plays were counters back to the weak side and reverses to the short side of the field, a driving runner who needed only a step to be gone. A veteran OL provided power and stability.  Juday would often send WR Washington down long to clear a zone, then hit Jones in the vacated area, as he could also alter the pattern and throw to Washington when he spied only single coverage on him.

Juday indeed was a coach-on-the-field for Daugherty—driving the team, often blistering teammates for missed blocks and assignments, and allowing no nonsense in the huddles. In the 32-7 rampage over Ohio State, Juday called his plays in the huddle but did not signal the direction they would go until after the team had lined up and he could spot the Buckeyes' roving linebacker. Running away from the rover most of the time, Juday almost personally shattered the Ohio State defense. Juday's ability to make quick decisions also made him a frequent runner; knowing when to run, rather than any fancy steps he had, made him a threat on the ground, where Juday continually picked up key first-down yardage for the Spartans.

No one made yards on the ground for Michigan State like Jones, however. Though his 787 YR in ten games would seem modest by modern standards, Jones was a dominant force in the Big Ten of the mid ‘60s before moving on to the NFL Vikings. Juday called upon Jones when MSU needed yardage the most, as Jones had excellent balance and a stunning change of pace that, in his junior season, put him in a class with Jim Grabowski of Illinois among the top Big Ten ball carriers.

With the stop unit dominating and the Big Ten race effectively decided by the wins over Purdue and Ohio State, the unbeaten Spartans would eventually move atop the polls in late October. Entering the final regular season game at Notre Dame, the Spartans were on the precipice of an undefeated regular season and a likely national title. But the Fighting Irish as usual would prove quite a hurdle. Ara Parseghian’s team had only lost a close decision to Bob Griese and Purdue, and had throttled Southern Cal and eventual Heisman winner RB Mike Garrett. Moreover, Notre Dame had yet to lose a home game in its first two seasons under Parseghian.

There was a nip in the air in South Bend, a hint of the approaching winter, adding an old-time feel to the game where fans felt like applauding when a runner made it all the way to the line of scrimmage in a contest that almost more resembled rugby. No matter, 60,000 people had paid from $3 to $100 for a ticket to get into the cream-brick stadium that Knute Rockne's success had built. The dome glistened, old Notre Dame ghosts were felt lurking about and the bands blared.

Here were the Fighting Irish at home with the incentive of playing the No. 1-rated team. In itself, that was some barrier for a visitor, even one as menacing as Michigan State. Also, Notre Dame had a strong club of its own—one that featured talented ballcarriers with plenty of size and agile linemen—good enough to have beaten seven teams and rated No. 4 into that November 20 afternoon.

Blood had started to boil on Friday, when, after arriving in South Bend, MSU, dressed in its sweats, held a light workout at Notre Dame Stadium. Only the Spartans were not alone, sharing the field with the Fighting Irish band, which practiced nothing but the famed Victory March. The band continued to play even after MSU left the field, and it was inevitable that some words would be exchanged when Big Bubba & Co. would leave the stadium. Soon word leaked into South Bend that the MSU players had slurred the Notre Dame band.

The next afternoon, after the Spartans had finished their warm-ups and returned to their locker room, they received word that the Notre Dame students had retaliated against the MSU band in the stadium tunnel. Someone said something about one of the band members being stuffed inside his tuba.

That was enough for the football team. When they came out for the game, Thornhill was steaming and his fellow defensive teammates were looking for someone to destroy. Their game plan called for them to do just that. They would put the whole platoon on the line of scrimmage and dare limited Irish QB Bill Zloch to throw the ball, which they knew he couldn’t, at least very accurately. If Zloch wanted to hand the ball to one of his vaunted runners Nick Eddy, Bill Wolski, or Larry Conjar, let him. Mad Dog Thornhill, Big Bubba & Co. would eat him alive.

One of the most overwhelming displays of defensive power football that we at TGS can ever recall was at hand.

All Michigan State did was hold Eddy and Wolski, two of the so-called "modern Four Horsemen," to minus yardage and Notre Dame's entire rushing effort to minus 12 yards for the afternoon. The Irish would gain all of 24 yards passing, and could generate only three first downs. The meager 12 yards gained marked the worst offensive performance in the history of the school. This was Notre Dame, not Kansas State or post-Parseghian Northwestern. And what made it worse for the Irish was the constant woofing of Big Bubba and Mad Dog Thornhill, the sort of trash talk that would eventually be common but in the mid ‘60s was limited to Muhammad Ali and few others. Thornhill and Bubba, however, talked every chance they got, and not just to the players. When they drove somebody out of bounds in front of the ND bench, they looked for Parseghian and told him what they thought of him as well.

“There was a lot of bad-mouthing,“ Irish star RB Eddy remembered. .”You don’t mind getting beaten up by somebody who is a good sport about it, but when somebody rubs it in your face, it stays with you.”

And when beaten up physically, it would stay longer. “They beat the hell out of us,” Irish G and future Houston Oiler Tom Regner said.

Notre Dame had two splendid chances to succeed where the others before it failed. In the first half, Irish DB Tom Longo made a diving interception of a Juday pass at the Michigan State 25. Normally, Notre Dame could have score on the Viet Cong from only 25 yards out, but on the first play QB Zloch tried a pass, and Thornhill intercepted it. A few minutes later Notre Dame recovered a Juday fumble on the State 18. But Zloch, who completed only 36 of 88 passes all season, threw the ball into the end zone and DB Don Japinga took it in stride as if he were the intended receiver. "We knew we could play 'em loose," said Japinga, "because Zloch floats the ball, you can get to it even if you're beat."

Notre Dame kept trying to throw in similar situations because of Michigan State's quick and aggressive defense, which refused to yield any outside running room. When the Irish ran to the right they were met by Bubba; when they ran left, they met the ornery Bob Viney; when they ran inside, LBs Buddy Owens, Goovert, and Thornhill, plus Webster all impeded progress. White getting stonewalled, they met Michigan State players from South Carolina (three of them), Texas (three of them), from Virginia, Pennsylvania and, even, from Michigan. Like most of the Spartan foes, the Irish were forced to the air. As mentioned, Notre Dame was not the first to wind up with minus yardage rushing. Remember, Michigan had lost 51 on the ground, and Ohio State was minus 22.

Michigan State's defense was so quick and sound that Parseghian's team, even though it benefited from three big breaks in the first half—getting the ball on State's 19- 25- and 18-yard lines—could dredge up only a 3-0 lead on Ken Ivan's 32-yard field goal. The Irish defense performed admirably, too, but when the offense could not move, the Domers were bound to eventually crack. Well into the third quarter, the dam finally broke.

Down 3-0, Michigan State took over on Notre Dame's 39 after a punt, and in six plays after gouging the Irish on the ground, Jones, who would gain 117 YR on the day, scored on a play called "full house right half at eight power," as Jones followed what appeared to be the entire population of East Lansing into the end zone and the touchdown that finally put the Spartans ahead. And, since Notre Dame couldn’t move, the game was basically decided right then and there.

"Clinton Jones slept soundly Friday night for the first time all season, so we really weren't worried," said QB Juday, who in the 4th Q would sew up the game with a 19-yard TD pass to Dwight Lee. That put the score at 12-3, and for the season put MSU ahead of all foes in the 4th Q by an astounding 103-7 total score!

The game was no artistic masterpiece but such a war of wills on the defensive side that it continues to resonate more than a half-century later. It was 17 punts, five interceptions, five fumbles and a total of 29 rushing plays that went for either minus yardage or no gain, and Michigan State's defense could take most of the credit for the unfashionable 12-3 scoreline. The Spartans gladly took it, giving MSU a spotless 10-0 mark to take to the Rose Bowl and inside track to the mythical national title. UPI would rank the Spartans number one in its final poll, while MSU seemed likely to gain the AP version (this year finally awarded after the bowls). More than anything else, in a season in which offenses had posted big numbers, it proved again that a skilled, vicious defense was, in 1965 at least, still the most reliable thing in college football.

So why aren’t the 1965 Spartans routinely listed among the great college teams of all-time? That’s because of the Rose Bowl vs. a 14-point underdog UCLA side that had been smothered, 13-3, in the opening game of the season at East Lansing. Though Bruins sophomore QB Gary Beban (shown at left in the opener) had developed into a dangerous force by the end of the season, and RB Mel Farr gained the notice of pro football scouts, UCLA appeared overmatched.

Bruins fans were hoping that their Cinderella team had one more improbable effort inside of it after staging a remarkable late rally to upset Southern Cal, 20-16, to get the AAWU Rose Bowl bid after being pushed around much of the day by Garrett and the bigger, stronger Trojans. Beban, however, had a bit of magic about him, firing two long TD passes in the last 4 minutes to shock the Trojans, and first-year HC Tommy Prothro was a master tactician who would be coaching in his second consecutive Rose Bowl after leading Oregon State into Pasadena the previous year.

What Daugherty couldn’t do was convince his team to merely be confident, and not cocky. After handily winning the opener vs. the same team, MSU’s team had trouble taking UCLA seriously. Moreover, accommodations before the Rose Bowl would have a boomerang effect on the Big Ten champs, as the monastery that Daugherty picked over a comfy hotel for his team did not inspire the troops, who were already sure of their superiority over the Bruins and would have liked to have spent a little more time enjoying some of the fun of the L.A. area, as had the Illinois team of two years earlier, which among other activities had gone to CBS Television City to watch a taping of the Lucille Ball Show. The trip to California was not comparably fun for the Spartans, and Daugherty did not help, especially when deciding many of his seniors deserved the chance to be showcased over more-talented underclassmen.

One of those, DB Don Japinga, was given punt-return duty that he handled earlier in his career but had relinquished to fellow DBs Jess Phillips and Drake Garrett during the ‘65 season. Japinga, returned to his old role, would thus make a grievous error in the 2nd Q, fielding a punt inside of his own 5-yard-line instead of letting the ball roll into the end zone. Trying to field the bouncing ball, Japinga fumbled and the Bruins recovered. A short Beban TD run would subsequently give UCLA a 7-0 lead.

Then, Prothro’s surprise element would work on the kickoff, as an onside kick was recovered by LB Dallas Grider, and a quick strike from Beban to WR Kurt Altenberg, the hero of the USC game, was good for 27 yards to the Spartan one, from where Beban scored again to put the feisty underdog Bruins ahead 14-0, though Daugherty’s team was still confident it would hit the accelerator and eventually assume command of the game.
Only it was taking longer than Spartans fans hoped for the turnaround to occur.  Aroused and unorthodox UCLA had plenty of belief and was by now thinking it could win, as Prothero’s side kept Michigan State at bay. The Spartans didn’t begin to perform with a sense of urgency until the 4th Q. Up to that point, Prothro’s defense, though undersized, was swarming, and Juday was forced into a rough day, completing just 6 of 18 passes for 80 yards and 3 picks. Daugherty toyed with the idea of benching the ineffective senior Juday at halftime for skittery soph Jimmy Raye, but, sticking to his pre-game proclamation to let the seniors play, would keep the struggling Juday in the game until it reached the 4th Q and MSU still down 14-0.

Raye was finally summoned and sparked a couple of TD drives, first with a long pass to Washington preceding a pitch to the bullish Apisa, who rumbled 38 yards to score. Daugherty curiously went for 2 after the first TD and missed as Juday’s pass was batted away, so the score remained 14-6. Only until Raye got the ball back in the final minutes to fire up another drive, after Big Bubba had partially deflected a Bruin punt and given the Spartans good field position at their 49. Raye got the team close to the end zone and Juday would be inserted near the goal line to score the TD on a short run to bring the margin to 14-12 with 31 seconds left. Trying for the tying 2-point PAT, Raye perfectly executed an option pitch to the bruising Apisa, though Bruin DB Bob Stiles would heroically hurl himself at Apisa, stopping the big Hawaiian just short of the goal. Stiles knocked himself unconscious making the game-saving tackle, and Prothro and Beban had their upset, 14-12.

Thus, the ‘65 Spartans would be historically consigned to something less than all-time greatest status. In the final AP poll, conducted after the bowls, the Spartans would fall to number two, usurped by a 9-1-1 Alabama for that wire service’s national title. MSU would have to settle for the UPI version of the national title, and the MacArthur Bowl, awarded by the National Football Foundation as the best team in the land. A nice haul, to be sure, but the Spartans were still denied a spot among the all-time teams because of the Rose Bowl loss.  Gridiron historians would eventually compare Nebraska's 1983 powerhouse, a one-point loser vs. Bernie Kosar and the Miami Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl, to '65 MSU.

No matter, memories of the havoc wrought by those Spartans, and the manner in which they intimidated foes and physically dominated, have not dissipated in the 50+ years since. Moreover, Daugherty’s desire to fully integrate his roster was the template soon co-opted by all major programs. Southern schools, seeing black athletes from their region starring for far-away Michigan State, were finally moved to integrate within the next few years. The mid ‘60s Spartans indeed gave college football a first look at what the composition of its teams would look like in subsequent years.

As for Daugherty, his ‘66 team was also legendary, with only the epic 10-10 tie vs. Notre Dame marring the season, but the Spartans would begin a period of decline thereafter. Duffy’s teams would still be capable of a big effort and occasional upset, but with other schools in the South now keeping their best black athletes near home, Daugherty’s recruiting edge would soon disappear. Duffy lasted until ‘72 in East Lansing without MSU ever approaching the levels of the mid ‘60s. Not until a George Perles-coached team won the Big Ten in 1987 would the Spartans return to the Rose Bowl.

There was another endearing postscript to the mid ‘60s MSU, and it was authored by none other than Big Bubba, who played nine seasons in the NFL, most notably for the Colts, where he made two Pro Bowls, before knee injuries would end his career after a move to the Raiders. That, however, opened up a new career in Hollywood for Smith. Big Bubba would indeed make another cultural footprint along with other rough-hewn jocks of the era like Dick Butkus and Alex Karras, finding a niche as a deadpan comic actor: in the ubiquitous Miller Lite ads ("I also love the easy-opening cans"), in TV series (Taxi, Vega$) and in the Police Academy movies. In so transforming his image, Smith helped pave the way to acting for a parade of lovable sports lugs, all of the way to Shaquille O’Neal. Big Bubba passed away far too young in 2011 at the age of 66, but today, any behemoth who elicits yuks in Hollywood might thank Big Bubba for helping blaze another trail.

Not a bad legacy. Like the 1965 Michigan State Spartans, who will always make any all-time TGS list for most memorable college teams!

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