How Michigan State football changed the game during segregation

20 brave athletes proved they could compete

Black History Month is coming to a close, and all month we have been highlighting inspiring stories, and there's a story from the world of college sports you might not know about. Currently, college football is very different than the college football of the 1960s.

EAST LANSING, Mich.Black History Month is coming to a close, and all month we have been highlighting inspiring stories, and there’s a story from the world of college sports you might not know about.

Currently, college football is very different than the college football of the 1960s.

“In the south, Black players couldn’t play the game at this level,” said former MSU linebacker Darien Harris. “They weren’t allowed in stadiums, weren’t allowed on the campus.”

In the segregated south, outstanding Black athletes were denied access to playing in their home states.

“The schools that are dominating on the national scene now, those schools were closed to players like my dad (Eugene Washington),” said filmmaker Maya Washington.

Eugene Washington was a man who grew up in Texas, went to a segregated high school, and was recruited by Michigan State head coach Duffy Daugherty.

“This opportunity to leave segregation was a world that was very different,” Maya Washington said. “Those were things that were not available to parents and grandparents generation during segregation in the south.”

So how did Daugherty find Eugene Washington, Bubba Smith, Jimmy Raye, and others?

It started with MSU President John Hannah, who was also on the commission for Civil Rights. Daugherty created a network and recruited in the south, which no other coach was doing at that time.

“It wasn’t happening anywhere else in the country,” Maya Washington said. “Between 1963 and 1966, that is the peak time that Duffy Daugherty’s recruitment pipeline really hit its stride.”

In 1966, there were an unprecedented 20 Black players on MSU’s roster. That year, the No. 2-ranked Spartans played top-ranked Notre Dame for a national championship. 33 million viewers watched as they saw black athletes in the ‘game of the century’ as a game-changer. MSU went on to win its second consecutive national championship.

“Sparked across the country,” Harris said. “The wide fact that you better do this, or you will get beat every single year. "

Harris is now the Director of Player Engagement. He says MSU’s history in the integration of college football is shared, talked about, and passed on. It’s something current head coach Mel Tucker is big on internally and externally.

“We want to make sure we’re telling the stories and were telling the history year-round,” Harris said. “Not just 28 days of February. It’s 365 days a year.”

Washington wrote a book and a documentary on her dad and his teammates called ‘Through the banks of the red cedar;’ Those 20 brave athletes proved they could compete, and thankfully they were given that opportunity at Michigan State University.

“It was big in that time,” Washington said. “How you can make a difference. How being more inclusive can not just change your own fate but how it can change others but also change what’s possible future generations.”

Daugherty’s recruits included multiple All-Americans, and in the 1967 NFL Draft, MSU had the first, second, fifth, and eighth picks. Gene Washington was the eighth pick where he went on to have a historic career with the Minnesota Vikings.

Local 4 News encourages you to check out all of our coverage of Black History Month, including the Detroit group working to make skiing accessible to everyone.

Read: Nation’s oldest Black ski club started in Detroit


About the Authors:

Jamie anchors sports coverage on Local 4 News Saturdays at 6 & 11 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m., in addition to hosting Sports Final Edition.

Brandon Carr is a digital content producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with WDIV Local 4 since November 2021. Brandon is the 2015 Solomon Kinloch Humanitarian award recipient for Community Service.