The cold hard truth: college football can’t escape it

Photo courtesy of Twitter Michigan State players (l-r) Clinton Jones, Bob Apisa, Bubba Smith, Gene Washington and George Webster with Coach Duffy Daugherty (center front)

College football all this fall has been celebrating 150 years. However, the romanticized, celebratory recollections hide the cold hard truth that throughout its existence the sport has perpetrated and maintained racial myths about Blacks.

It’s been historically established that college football’s first Black player took the field about 1889. From then on, the decades-long practice of marginalizing Black football players continued. Although there was no official segregation policy, it was unofficially enforced along regional lines: Northern schools followed a “gentleman’s agreement” well into the 1950s and early 1960s to not play any Black player or players on their team against Southern schools.

There were occasional flashes of gridiron color: Fritz Pollard of Brown, the first Black man to play in the Rose Bowl; Paul Robeson, who later became better known for his acting, singing and activism; and Bobby Marshall, who is considered the University of Minnesota’s first Black star football player. The Big Ten was among the first major college conferences to play Blacks, but not every school did so.

After WWII, college football’s apartheid slowly started to crack, but its decades-long racial wall mostly stayed as strong as ever. The quarterback position, the sport’s most heralded position, was widely believed to be a Whites-only spot. 

Minnesota, among Northern predominantly White institutions in the late 1950s, finally broke rank and began seriously recruiting Black players. Sandy Stephens was the Gophers’ first Black quarterback.

Stephens was also the first Black QB to lead a predominately White university to a national championship (1960), the first Black to quarterback in two Rose Bowls (1961, 1962), the first Black to win a Rose Bowl (1962), the first Black to win game MVP honors, and the first Black All-American quarterback.  

Michigan State had its own “underground railroad” as “conductor” Duffy Daugherty, who coached the Spartans 1954-1972, assembled the first fully-integrated football team in college football history. He won two national championships (1965, 1966), primarily led by players of color.

“I credit Duffy Daugherty and Biggie Munn for giving us that opportunity. It wasn’t easy,” Gene Washington stressed. “The coaches wanted to win, too.”

The Texas-born and raised Washington was a star wide receiver on two undefeated Spartan teams in his three seasons at Michigan State. This included the 1966 national championship.

Washington also played in that year’s famed “Game of the Century,” a 10-10 tie against Notre Dame.  Bubba Smith, Clinton Jones and George Webster were among his teammates.

“The whole idea of all of us coming from the South to come to Michigan State,” Washington recalled, was “we all had similar backgrounds. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about that… We were student-athletes.

“I worked very hard to be a student-athlete,” he continued. “I was the first [in his family] to go to college at all. That expanded the world for me. It took a lot of discipline… I was playing three sports, but I was able to get my degree in four years. I was very focused on the education part.”

Washington and others helped break down college football’s racial stone wall, but remnants of it still exist today. Black coaches are not, for the most part, considered head coaching or offensive coordinator material as are their White counterparts when coaching openings annually occur.  

When they are hired, Black coaches aren’t given the same benefit of the doubt in building, rebuilding or sustaining successful programs. And although there are more Blacks playing quarterback today, they are still mainly seen as more athletic than cerebral.

This cold hard truth can’t be romanticized out of college football’s 150-year history.