Forty four Underground Railroad legacy facts
Michigan State Share

Forty four Underground Railroad legacy facts

Duffy Daugherty's history can't be erased, but Bear Bryant myths overshadowed him

Photo: 1) Duffy Daugherty (R) and Bear Bryant; 2) Duffy's Time magazine cover, 1956; 3) Bubba Smith (L-R) with his father and two brothers, Willie Ray Jr. and Tody Smith; 4) Jimmy Raye when inducted into Michigan State's Hall of Fame in 2018; 5) Charlie Thornhill; 6) U.W. Clemon; 7) Sam Cunningham

--- Why do I write so much debunking the myths and fiction surrounding Bear Bryant and the 1970 USC-Alabam game? The answer is simple: History has failed to properly credit College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty and his Michigan State Underground Railroad teams for pioneering fully integrated rosters. The fictional stories involving Bryant and 1970 USC-Alabama game have overshadowed the Spartans and usurped their credit. Don't believe them. 

--- David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."

Click here for Underground Railroad recognition from ESPN and The Undefeated


Mark Dantonio's retirement announcement on Feb. 4 left him with a Michigan State school record win total.

Dantonio's career mark of 114-57 in 13 seasons broke College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty's record 109 win total. Daugherty's mark stood 47 seasons from his retirement in 1972 and outlasted eight coaching changes. Dantonio led Michigan State's most successful era since Daugherty's back-to-back national titles in 1965 (United Press International) and 1966 (National Football Foundation co-champions with Notre Dame).

Below are 44 facts – one for every Underground Railroad passenger Daugherty recruited from the segregated South between 1959 and 1972. The research is from “Raye of Light,” my book with Jimmy Raye, revealing previously unreported and unknown information on the depth and impact of Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams.

--- MYTH: Duffy Daugherty built the Underground Railroad, mining untapped gold, merely to win football games.

1. FACT: Black high school coaches throughout the segregated South built the Underground Railroad. THEY laid the initial tracks. THEY contacted Daugherty, telling him they wanted to send him their star player for the opportunity to defy Jim Crow laws in their home state.

2. FACT: In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Michigan State president John Hannah the first chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Hannah’s stature was added to the football program’s established reputation among fans that viewed black stars leading the Spartans to wins in the 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowls. In the 1950s, few games were nationally televised and the Rose Bowl was the sport’s penultimate event.

3. FACT: Willie Ray Smith Sr. was most prominent among the high school coaches funneling players to Daugherty. First, the Texas coaching legend at all-black Charlton-Pollard in Beaumont, Tx., asked Daugherty to take his second son, Bubba Smith. This was after both Smith Sr. and his older son Willie Ray Smith Jr. were unhappy with Smith Jr.’s experience at Iowa. Bubba turned out to be a two-time All-American defensive end enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

4. FACT: Smith Sr. and Bubba also told Daugherty to take Gene Washington from nearby Baytown, a Charlton-Pollard rival. Washington was a two-time All-American receiver and NCAA hurdles champion that joined Bubba in the College Football Hall of Fame.

5. FACT: In all, Smith Sr. directed six Charlton-Pollard athletes and three other Houston-area players to MSU. Smith Sr. has a middle school named for him in Beaumont and the Willie Ray Smith Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year Awards for the southeast Texas area near Houston.

6. FACT: Daugherty’s reputation in the South expanded on a personal level following a late 1950s invitation to speak at an Atlanta clinic. Once Daugherty learned Jim Crow laws denied black high school coaches entrance, he put on a free clinic for them. He continued the clinics in future years.

7. FACT: William Roberts, a legendary South Carolina high school coach at all-black Anderson Westside, told Daugherty about his star, George Webster. As a hybrid linebacker/safety called a rover, Webster was a College Football Hall of Famer and two-time All-American pick.

8. FACT: College football rosters, even among schools with a long history of integration such as other Big Ten schools and USC, typically had six or fewer African-American players on a roster prior to Michigan State’s barrier-breaking teams.

9. FACT: Minnesota had only five black players on its 1960 national championship team and USC seven on its 1967 national title roster. But by 1972, USC’s next national championship season, the Trojans followed Daugherty’s lead with 23 black players.

10. FACT: No other coach had a vast southern network matching Daugherty. His historic 44 players spanned eight southern states – all but Alabama, Maryland and Tennessee.

11. FACT: Minnesota, early on, was sometimes labeled an Underground Railroad for black stars Carl Eller of Winston-Salem, N.C., and Bobby Bell of Shelby, N.C., but progressive Minnesota coach Murray Warmath learned about them through isolated, personal contacts, similar to Illinois recruiting Bobby Mitchell out of Arkansas. Only Daugherty had a true Underground Railroad network spanning the South.

12. FACT: 60 years ago the Underground Railroad took on its first passenger, Clifton Roaf of Pine Bluff, Ark., who boarded a segregated train car until reaching Peoria. Ill. Thus, this is the 60th anniversary of the Underground Railroad wrapped within college football's 150th anniversary season.

13. FACT: 56 years ago Sherman Lewis of Louisville, Ky., was the Underground Railroad’s first All-American player. The halfback finished third in the 1963 Heisman Trophy voting. No MSU player has finished higher in the Heisman voting.

14. FACT: 53 years ago Jimmy Raye of the Fayetteville, N.C., was the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title. The National Football Foundation presented its MacArthur Bowl, symbolic of its national champion, to Michigan State and Notre Dame as co-champions. The MacArthur Bowl is now presented to the winner of the College Football Playoff and prior to the CFP the Bowl Championship Series winner.

15. FACT: 47 years ago tight end Billy Joe DuPree of West Monroe, La., was the Underground Railroad’s last All-American player as a senior, in 1972. Dupree, who went onto win a Super Bowl title in 11 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, says he has been often asked why he didn’t stay home to play for LSU. “I have to remind them there was this thing called segregation,” he says.

16. FACT: Daugherty’s impact also is felt in coaching. He hired former players Sherman Lewis (1969) and Jimmy Raye (1972) as two of the first black assistant coaches in college football. They both moved on to the NFL, ultimately serving as offensive coordinators. There were only eight black NFL assistants when Raye joined the San Francisco 49ers in1978 and he was one of the first black offensive coordinators with the Los Angeles Rams in 1983.   

--- MYTH: Part II, Duffy Daugherty built the Underground Railroad merely to win football games.

17. FACT: Daugherty’s Underground Railroad was as much about education as football. Of the 44 players recruited from the South, only 10 (23 percent) earned All-Big Ten or All-American honors, while 30 (68 percent) graduated.

18. FACT: As other schools recruited higher percentages of black football players in the 1970s and into the 1980s, the NCAA noticed red flags regarding poor national graduation rates. That trend suggested schools exploited the athletes for sports over education. In 1984, the NCAA determined the national graduation rate was only 34 percent for black football players – half that of the Underground Railroad’s track record. The NCAA responded with stricter academic rules.

19. FACT: Clifton Roaf, the first passenger, considered himself indebted to Michigan State despite a knee injury preventing him from playing a down in a varsity game. He graduated and returned home to Pine Bluff, serving his Arkansas community as a dentist and education advocate for 40-plus years. Bubba Smith is the most famous passenger, but Roaf’s story was more typical of the players. Roaf felt blessed to live out his missed football career through his son, College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Roaf. Roaf’s daughter Angela Roaf is a professor at Northern Arizona University.

20. FACT: Escaping segregation was generational change for Daugherty’s players and their offspring. Gene Washington’s daughter Maya Washington made a documentary on that dynamic, “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar.” Jimmy Raye’s son, Jimmy Raye III, is a long-time NFL executive now working with the Detroit Lions. There are many more offspring examples, along with another Daugherty-era documentary, “Men of Sparta” by Bob Apisa. He was a two-time All-American fullback for Daugherty from Hawaii, launching the Polynesian football wave as college football’s first Samoan All-American player.

 --- MYTH: Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant helped Daugherty, telling him about black stars in the South. Why Bryant, considered a powerful coach in the South and a God-like figure, feared bigots is another question unanswered by his apologists, but this false narrative portrayed Daugherty as a passive bystander, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

21. FACT: In reality, Bryant knew nearly nil about black talent, including within his state. None of the Daugherty’s 44 Underground Railroad players were from Alabama.

22. FACT: In a late 1960s interview of Bryant recorded on film and used in both “Breaking in the Huddle,” and “Against the Tide,” Bryant claimed, “We haven’t found so far, many (black athletes), if any, that qualified academically and athletically.” Clearly, he didn't search segregated high schools with talent landing at Michigan State, other schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

23. FACT: On July 7, 1969, the Alabama Afro-American Association filed a lawsuit against Bryant for failing to recruiting black athletes. Civil Rights attorney U.W. Clemon, who represented the student group, deposed Bryant. In the HBO film, Clemon says of his 1969 lawsuit: "We did quite a bit of discovery. We talked to a fair amount of black coaches who told us that Bryant was not serious in the recruitment of black athletes ... we were prepared to show his the contacts with black coaches were superficial and they were convinced he was not really serious." He says of a later conversation that Bryant told him "he couldn't find any" black athletes.

24. FACT: Six years had passed between the lawsuit and the desegregation of the Alabama student body in 1963, the year of Gov. George Wallace’s failed attempt to stand in the school house door at Foster Auditorium to block admission of two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Eight years passed until Bryant had a black player on his varsity roster.

25. FACT: One myth suggests Bryant and Daugherty swapped tips in a "trade" of Joe Namath, a white quarterback from Pennsylvania, and Charlie Thornhill, a black linebacker from Virginia. The facts stretch the imagination there is a grain of truth to it. First, Namath was in Bryant's 1961 Alabama recruiting class and Thornhill in Daugherty's 1963 Michigan State recruiting class. Both Bryant (in his book, “Bear,” with John Underwood) and Namath (in an HBO documentary, “Namath”) state that Maryland coach Tom Nugent informed Bryant that Namath had failed his Maryland entrance exam and remained available to Bryant. Neither Bryant nor Namath mentioned Daugherty in the sequence that led him to Tuscaloosa.

26. FACT: Daugherty learned about Thornhill through assistant coach Vince Carillot, who had taken an unsolicited phone call in the football office from Bob McClelland, a sportswriter at the Roanoke (Va.) “Times and World News.” McClelland knew Michigan State’s reputation and encouraged Thornhill to play for Daugherty and the Spartans to take him.

27. FACT: Thornhill’s younger brother, Nay Thornhill, verified Carillot’s account of Michigan State recruiting Charlie sans assistance from Bryant. Charlie Thornhill, an All-Big Ten linebacker and three-year starter, died in 2006.

28. FACT: Thornhill and Bryant did meet at a Roanoke football banquet Bryant attended, but Thornhill’s commitment to Michigan State had been reported in the Roanoke newspapers prior to the banquet. Nay Thornhill said his brother’s conversation with Bryant was limited to Bryant telling him Daugherty was a good man. Carillot said he had to push Daugherty to offer Thornhill a scholarship. Daugherty, who didn't passively accept recruiting tips, feared Thornhill was too short despite his muscular frame.

29. FACT: If Bryant says he couldn’t find qualified black athletes and his apologists have promoted it, the excuse creates a conundrum. After all, Namath was admitted to Alabama after he was denied academic admission to Michigan State, where Charlie Thornhill and so many other black athletes had played and graduated. Thornhill's sons, Josh and Kaleb, who also played linebacker at Michigan State, say their father never spoke of Bryant as responsible for his scholarship. This is contrast to so many of the 44 passengers citing a high school coach or another figure as directing Duffy to them. No player has credited Bryant and none of the 44 passengers are from Alabama.

30. FACT: Namath and Michigan State are linked because Namath’s Beaver Falls High teammate, Tom Krzemienski, played for the Spartans in addition to Daugherty recruiting Namath. Daugherty had recruited Namath until Michigan State’s admissions office denied his entrance due to insufficient grades.

31. FACT: Daugherty was quoted in 1986 he told Bryant about Namath and that Bryant had told him about black athletes, but this belies overriding facts spoken by Bryant, Namath, Carillot, Nay Thornhill, Thornhill's sons and Clemon. In Clemon’s 1969 deposition, Bryant said he began looking for black athletes in 1966, which was three years after Thornhill had enrolled at Michigan State. Daugherty’s comments may have been a way to protect (at his own expense) his old friend. This was probably and effort by Daugherty late in life (he died one year later) to help the image of an old friend once stories had emerged after Bryant’s death in 1983. Bryant's commitment to integration was questioned. Jim Murray was no longer a voice in the wilderness.

--- MYTH: In 1970, Bear Bryant scheduled USC at Legion Field in Birmingham to demonstrate to his bigoted fans it was time to recruit black athletes. This myth and surrounding revisionist history continues to be randomly regurgitated, extending its life, including recently by “The Athletic” on June 3 as part of its college football 150th anniversary series.

32. FACT: Wilbur Jackson, Bryant’s first recruited black football player, was already a member of the Alabama program prior to the 1970 USC-Alabama game. In other words, finally, Bryant had already defied his bigoted fans. However, Jackson had to watch the USC game since NCAA rules prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972.

33. FACT: In the 1969-70 school year, Alabama’s high schools desegregated, complying with federal laws that dated to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. the Board of Education. The 1969 change meant previously all-white high schools on Bryant’s recruiting trails were now lined up black athletes. As a result, in 1970, Jackson was Bryant’s first recruited black recruit as a senior out of desegregated Carroll High in Ozark, Ala. Jackson had played his junior year at D.A. Smith, the city’s all-black high school. With desegregation, D.A. Smith was converted to a middle school, which was typical of school districts throughout the South.

34. FACT: Clem Gryska, a long-time Bryant assistant coach and later a luminary at the Paul W. Bryant Museum, said the myth of scheduling USC to lose wasn’t true. He stated this in the HBO documentary, saying Bryant never scheduled a game to lose it. In reality, Alabama played eight integrated opponents out of an 11-game schedule. In addition to USC, Virginia Tech integrated in 1970; Florida, 1970; Tennessee, 1968; Houston, 1965; Mississippi State, 1970; Miami, 1968; Auburn, 1970; an Oklahoma (1956) in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl. 

35. FACT: Bryant once said he may not be the first SEC coach to recruit an African-American athlete, but he wouldn’t be the third. He was tied for sixth with Vanderbilt. They were preceded by Kentucky (1967), Tennessee (1968), in-state rival Auburn (1970), Florida (1970) and even Mississippi State (1970). They all lined up black players before Alabama and Vanderbilt, in 1971.

36. FACT: The USC roster, according to the myth, resembled segregated HBCU Grambling State's powerful football program, but the Trojans actually had only five black starters among 22: quarterback Jimmy Jones, fullback Sam Cunningham, tailback Clarence Davis, defensive end Tody Smith and linebacker Charlie Weaver. That’s hardly Grambling. USC had only 16 black players overall in its transition from seven in 1967 to 23 in 1972. It wasn't until then USC had a fully integrated roster equal to numbers that were routine for years at Michigan State.

37. FACT: Years after Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns in USC’s 42-21 rout of the Crimson Tide, a tale surfaced that Bryant paraded Cunningham around the Alabama locker room, stating he was an example of what a football player looked like. Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter and other players denied it happened. John Papadakis was the loudest voice in the room promoting of the Cunningham tale, but he may have had an ulterior motive. Papadakis and writer Steven Travers discussed a screenplay. Travers, a USC, alumnus, twists himself into a pretzel trying in the face over overwhelming evident it never happened in an effort to legitimize the Cunningham tale in his book, "One Night, Two Teams." The screen played failed but the story circulated in California long enough it spread far enough for Bryant apologists to embrace it. Among them have been Alabama author Keith Dunnavant and Winston Groom, an Alabama alumnus that wrote Forrest Gump. Cunningham played along with the myth until 43 years later he admitted in the Showtime documentary it never happened.

38. FACT: Bryant couldn’t have predicted Cunningham would overwhelm his team. The more significant player for Bryant to single out for the future was quarterback Jimmy Jones. Condredge Holloway of Huntsville Ala., was a senior in 1970, but he left his home state for Tennessee to become the first Southeastern Conference black quarterback, in 1972. Holloway said Bryant offered him a scholarship as a defensive back, but he told him Alabama’s fans weren’t ready for a black quarterback. It’s another example of Bryant dragging his feet and caving in to bigots.

39. FACT: Part of the myth Dunnavant promoted was northern teams refused to play at Alabama due to the racial strife; USC coach John McKay, Bryant's close friend, bailed him out with the 1970 game. This overlooks Duffy Daugherty, also close friends with Bryant, took his Michigan State team to play at North Carolina in 1964. It was the first time a fully integrated team played in the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

40. FACT: ESPN’s Paul Finebaum of the SEC Network is an authority in SEC football and Bryant. He has said, “I don’t buy the argument that Bryant couldn’t have done more. He had more power than any football coach in the South, maybe in the country, and any public declaration from him would have helped enormously. I honestly wish he’d have forced integration a couple of years earlier. It would have enhanced his legacy.” The late David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize winner that covered Civil Rights in the South early in his career, wrote this about Bryant dragging his feet in an ESPN article: " ... the Bear was late to the dance, especially because people are always talking about coaches as leaders."

41. FACT: Jim Murray's 1970 LA "Times" story wasn't a revelation Bryant resisted desegregation; he had long criticized Bryant. In 1961, Murray confronted Bryant about a quiet backdoor maneuver he sought Alabama to the Rose Bowl in place of the Big Ten representative. His queries were posed around the subsequent response from UCLA's black players that they won't take the field against Alabama. Murray's story revealed Bryant and his former Navy boss, Admiral Tom Hamilton, who was then the commissioner of the what is now called the Pac-12, were working together. In the Showtime documentary, a quote from that 1961 LA "Times" story Murray wrote is transposed in the film to portray it was written following the 1970 game. Murray wrote in 1961 that an all-white team doesn't deserve to be ranked No. 1, which was the leverage Bryant and Hamilton were working to sneak the Crimson Tide into the Rose Bowl. The Showtime misdirection fits Dunnavant's theory that in 1966 the the polls voted Alabama No. 3 to Notre Dame and Michigan State following their Game of the Century. Dunnavant's absurdly ironic theory suggests an all-white team in the Jim Crow South was the victim of racial bias.     

--- MYTH:  Duffy Daugherty’s pipeline to southern talent dried up with desegregation.

42. FACT: Daugherty’s final 1972 recruiting class listed six black players from the South, including future African-American coaching pioneer Tyrone Willingham. Six was more than on entire varsity rosters at schools in the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and (defunct) Southwest conferences in the early 1970s. Willingham considered Raye an Lewis mentors. Tony Dungy, the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach from Jackson, Mich., also considered Raye a mentor. Dungy was the first black coach to win a Super Bowl.

43. FACT: Alabama’s first integrated roster had only two black players (Jackson and Eastern Arizona Junior College transfer John Mitchell), so Bryant hardly searched state now that doors were now open to him. The same was true at other southern schools. In 1972, the final three SEC teams joining the Union with black varsity players were Georgia (three), LSU (one) and Mississippi (one). In another irony, Bryant admits in his book he didn't know about Mitchell, who was from Mobile, Ala., until John McKay made the mistake of mentioning he was recruiting a player from Bryant's backyard. Bryant subsequently told his assistant coaches to find Mitchell. Bryant is portrayed in the book's anecdote as a sly fox, but it actually reveals how little he know about black talent in Alabama. 

44. FACT: Plenty of talent remained in the South for Daugherty to pluck following the 1965 and 1966 championship seasons, but with the exception of All-American Billy Joe DuPree he and his staff no longer found enough players that turned out to be a George Webster, Bubba Smith, Gene Washington, Charlie Thornhill, Jimmy Raye or other Underground Railroad players from powerhouse teams.

* * *

Among media members and fans about age 45 and older, myths and revisionist are entrenched obscuring Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s history of dragging his feet. They also don't seem to want to accept facts that show otherwise. Among those under 45, they don’t understand or fully appreciate how recent was segregation.

I accepted many of these myths until research taught me otherwise. With each fact, I began to realize the established tales didn’t add up. I dug deeper. In presenting these facts, I wanted to draw a line between the courage of Duffy Daugherty and the deception of Bear Bryant myths. These facts debunking the myths are in my book with Jimmy Raye, which features the Foreword by Tony Dungy.

“RAYE of LIGHT, Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans and the integration of college football.”

I will put my research up against anyone.

* * *

Think back to a few years after all-white Kentucky lost to Texas Western's five black starters in the 1966 NCAA basketball final. Imagine that apologists for Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp came up with a plot out of the Alabama/revisionist history playbook that portrays Rupp as using the loss to convince his fan base it was time to recruit black athletes.

Rupp's first black player was Tom Payne, who accepted a scholarship in 1969 and played in his first games in the 1970-71 season. That's a year ahead of the Alabama football coach Bear Bryant signing Wilbur Jackson as his first black athlete in 1970 and Jackson playing his first game in the fall of 1971.

Now imagine the Rupp/myth taking hold and overshadowing North Carolina coach Dean Smith, denying him his rightful place in history. Fortunately it didn't; Smith was rewarded for his winning record on the court, with two national titles, and as progressive leader promoting racial equality. President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Smith signed Charlie Scott as the first black basketball player in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1966-67. He also was known for challenging segregation as early as 1958 when he was still an assistant coach at North Carolina and could have been fired.

Folk heroes are granted a certain amount of latitude for believable stories. Bryant was a good old boy that benefited from folklore. Rupp, widely considered a racist, didn't have Bryant's charm or folklore to obscure his shortcomings.

Smith's award is well deserved, but Duffy Daugherty also warrants consideration with two national titles and his progressive leadership in college football. Daugherty's legacy has suffered from the Alabama/Bryant myths and revisionist history. 

* * *

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light

-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."

Click here to purchase Raye of Light from August Publications

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer,, and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."