Photo: Darryl Rogers
So close yet so far.
That always has been my first Darryl Rogers thought when recalling his arrival from California. He brought a progressive brand of football to rebuild Michigan State before his abrupt departure just four years later.
He came so close to returning the Spartans to contending for national titles, but his quest remained a bridge too far. I thought of that again when I learned he died on Wednesday at age 83 at his home in Fresno, Calif.
Rogers was the first college football coach I got to know when I wrote for Michigan State’s student newspaper, “The State News.” I can still feel the butterflies when I walked up the steps of Jenison Fieldhouse to his office to meet him for the first time at the start of 1976 spring practice. As a college kid, I had a one-on-one interview with him (it was a different era).
At the time, Michigan State’s 1965 and 1966 national titles seemed like ancient history (funny how time perspectives change with age). I asked Rogers if the Spartans could return to their national championship days under Duffy Daugherty.
“Yes,” he said straightaway, “because it’s been done here before.”
It was one of the reasons he uprooted his family with a rare move from the West Coast to Midwest. In those days, Big Ten coaches were inbred with Midwestern roots; it contributed to staid play. The outsider exceptions were Illinois’ Bob Blackman, an Ivy Leaguer from Dartmouth, and Indiana’s Lee Corso, whose background was Louisville and the South. Neither came as close to Rogers to elevating their school to national prominence.
Rogers' answer was my first lesson on why national powerhouse stature starts with possessing tradition and then maintaining it.
After Rogers’ initial 4-6-1 season (an encouraging 4-4-1 before two season-ending losses), his California passing game with Eddie Smith throwing to Kirk Gibson, Eugene Byrd and Mark Brammer lit up the Big Ten.
In 1977, the Spartans were 7-3-1 overall and 6-1-1 in the Big Ten. Only a tie at Indiana prevented a three-way tie for the Big Ten title with Ohio State and Michigan.
In 1978, Michigan State beat Michigan, 24-15, to end an eight-year losing streak and shared the Big Ten with the Wolverines. Only NCAA probation from the Denny Stolz years – whose dismissal opened the doors to Rogers – prevented a Rose Bowl trip.
Also, the 1978 season's 8-3 record was deceiving. The Spartans likely wouldn't have lost their opener to Purdue (21-14) if Eddie Smith didn't injure his hand in the first half. The other two losses were to eventual UPI/Coaches (now USA Today/Coaches) national champion USC (30-9 without Smith) and No. 6 Notre Dame (29-25 with Smith), one spot behind No. 5 Michigan (Michigan State wasn't eligible for rankings due to NCAA probation). In the Rose Bowl, USC beat Michigan, 17-10. That's how good the Spartans were in 1978.
Rogers’ fresh breath of West Coast air was the dawn of a new era in the Big Ten.
Prior to Rogers, the conference was known for three yards and a cloud of dust. Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler had reduced the conference to the Big Two and the Little Eight, but they also were Rose Bowl embarrassments. Woody and Bo were 1-9 against the West Coast schools in the 1970s.
Hayes liked to say if you throw the ball three things can happen and two of them are bad. Rogers said if you complete the pass you don’t have to worry about the other two.
Rogers was good with a line.
After Rogers' third Spartans team beat Michigan and went on to win the Big Ten title, at the team's post-season banquet he referred to the “arrogant asses in Ann Arbor." Spartan Nation roared its approval.
When Rogers tried to coax Michigan State All-American track sprinter Randy Smith to come out for football to stretch the field, his pitch to the contact-shy Smith was "the ball only weighs 14 ounces."
He didn't convince Smith, but Rogers was good at motivating his players – on both sides of the ball. He’ll never receive enough credit for how he pushed defensive end Larry Bethea to reach his potential. But that’s only because Bethea is a forgotten name in Michigan State annals due to his descent into drugs with the Dallas Cowboys when they were known as South America’s team, his arrests and finally his tragic suicide end with a gunshot to his head.
In 1977, Bethea dominated Big Ten offensive lines. He recorded 16 sacks and was the Big Ten MVP/Chicago Tribune Silver Trophy winner. Think about that: Big Ten MVP on a third-place team behind athletes from co-champions Ohio State and Michigan.
The ball is thrown far more times these days and teams play more games, yet Bethea’s 16 sacks total still stands as Michigan State’s season record and remains tied for the Big Ten standard. His 33 sacks for a career remains Michigan State’s mark.
When I read “God’s Coach,” a book by Skip Bayless about the hypocrisies of the Dallas Cowboys and head coach Tom Landry, there was a part where draft guru Gil Brandt’s picks were blamed for the franchises' 1980s decline. Scout John Wooten cited Bethea as an example of a first-round bust in the 1978 draft, saying Brandt talked up Bethea too much in the draft room to be a first-round pick.
Wooten is quoted as saying, “I think Bethea had made two plays his entire career at Michigan State."
Rogers could have told Wooten (and Bayless) that Bethea often made two plays in a series.
For a brief shining moment Rogers had Michigan State rolling on both sides of the ball, but it turned out he wasn’t good at the lifeblood phase -- recruiting. He didn’t make strong inroads with Michigan and Ohio high school coaches that continued sending talent to play for Bo and Woody.
In 1979, when it was time to win with players Rogers recruited, the bottom fell out.
The Spartans fell to 5-6 with five wins over teams with a combined winning percentage of .358. With the writing on the wall, Rogers and athletic director Joe Kearney, who hired him, bolted together for Arizona State (Kearney moved on to become the Western Athletic Conference commissioner). The next three years under Muddy Waters Michigan State went 3-8, 5-6 and 2-9.
If Rogers had been able to build on his 1977 and 1978 success with his own recruiting ties, he might be in the College Football Hall of Fame by now rather than only on the ballot for the past decade.
His success at Fresno State (43-32-1) and San Jose State (22-9-3) along with returning Michigan State to national prominence would have been plenty for election.
But his time at Arizona State (37-18-1) and in the NFL with the Detroit Lions (18-40) were uninspiring. Those stints didn’t match those promising 1977 and 1978 seasons that flirted with the Rose Bowl.
Although Rogers failed to bring Michigan State to national title contention, he's not alone. After all, Rogers claimed one more Big Ten title than Nick Saban managed in his time at Michigan State (1995-99), although he is called by some the best college football coach of all-time now that he's winning titles at Alabama.
The other side of the coin while reflecting on Rogers should make Spartans Nation appreciate Mark Dantonio all the more as he enters his 12th season. Both Rogers and Saban departed Michigan State in the middle of the night when they were unable to lift the Spartans to the national footing that Dantonio has climbed.
Dantonio has brought Michigan State back to national title contention with a College Football Playoff berth in 2015 as well as a No. 3 ranking in 2013 and No. 5 in 2014 in the Associated Press polls.
He has succeeded at a school where “it’s been done here before” despite so many others before him falling short.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- 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.
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