Photo: Dan Dierdorf at Michigan
Imagine if Duffy Daugherty or Woody Hayes spotted Dan Dierdorf’s Big Ten potential. What if they had offered the offensive tackle from Glenwood High in Canton, Ohio, a scholarship?
At the time, Michigan coach Bump Elliott was one of the few to do so.
Elliott’s foresight was Bo Schembechler’s good fortune upon succeeding Elliott in 1969. Dierdorf was among the players Schembecher inherited, and he developed into a 1969 second-team All-American as a junior and a 1970 consensus All-American as a senior.
I bring this up because Dierdorf, a College Football Hall of Famer, also made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame thanks to playing five of his 12 NFL seasons for Don Coryell with the old St. Louis Cardinals.
Coryell is better recognized for his years with the San Diego Chargers, and it is well known Chargers Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and his teammates believe Coryell belongs in the Hall for his ground-breaking offenses. I wanted to know what Dierdorf and his Cardinals’ teammates thought, which you can click here to learn.
Well, my interview with Dierdorf eventually drifted to Michigan State and Daugherty. I always like an interviewee with enough insight and anecdotes for more than one story.
“Duffy was good for the game,” said Dierdorf of the Spartans’ impish College Football Hall of Fame coach. “College football needs characters like Duffy.”
I was surprised to learn the Spartans didn’t offer Dierdorf a scholarship. But he explained neither did Hayes at Ohio State, although he made recruiting trips to both East Lansing, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio.
“I never would have guessed that based on your career,” I told him.
“Most people wouldn’t,” he said. “They were part of a long and illustrious list of schools that didn’t offer me a scholarship.”
Dierdorf’s Michigan State recruiting trip in the fall of 1966 was the weekend the Spartans faced Purdue and All-American quarterback Bob Griese, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Florida’s Steve Spurrier.
The No. 2-ranked Spartans romped to a 41-20 victory before 78,003 fans on Oct. 22 at Spartan Stadium. Second-ranked Michigan State improved to 6-0 while on a course of destiny to play No. 1 Notre Dame in the Game of the Century a month later, a quasi-national championship game and seminal moment in the history of college football.
“After the Purdue game we go in into the Michigan State locker room,” Dierdorf recalled. “I’m a high school senior, and I’m in the locker room with Bubba Smith, George Webster, Clinton Jones, Gene Washington, Bob Apisa and Charlie Thornhill.
“I’m looking at these guys and I’m going, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ These guys … they looked like they were 45 years old. These were grown-ass men I’m looking at. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not ready for college football. I’m not ready for this.’ That was an eye-opening experience for me.”
Smith, Webster, Jones and Washington are in the College Football Hall of Fame and were four of the first eight picks in the 1967 NFL draft. Apisa was a two-time All-American running back and Thornhill an All-Big Ten linebacker and the team’s leading tackler. Both were drafted, but injuries ended a pro career.
Dierdorf also got a closer look at the legend of Smith, the Spartans’ 6-foot-7, 285-pound defensive end that far was ahead of his time with his combination of size and speed.
“Kill Bubba, kill!” was a popular chant from the student section.
“I had heard about Bubba driving Buick Electra 225 with his name on the door,” Dierdorf said. “It was an eye-opener. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is a world I’m not used to.’ ”
History, of course, tells us that with time Dierdorf turned out to be more than ready for big-time college football, not to mention the NFL.
In fact, his revelation that he was lightly recruited prompted my history-loving mind to wonder how history might have changed if Bump Elliott hadn’t delivered Dierdorf to Schembechler.
I don’t mean that to say what if Dierdorf had played for Duffy. I mean what if Schembechler, who was met with fan responses of “Bo who?” when Michigan hired him, was without Dierdorf to anchor the offensive line of his first team?
This in no way says Schembechler wasn't already on a clear path to College Football Hall of Fame enshrinement. But does Bo pull off his monumental upset in the 1969 Michigan-Ohio State game, 23-12? The Buckeyes were the defending national champions, ranked No. 1 and riding a 22-game winning streak.
Against that backdrop Bo pulled off what was considered his greatest victory in a College Football Hall of Fame career. Michigan led 23-12 at halftime and the running game controlled the clock the rest of the way. It's not a stretch to say without Dierdorf Michigan isn't as successful keeping Ohio State's offense off the field.
What a jump start to Schebechler’s career.
Also, Ohio State’s loss set off a domino effect the remainder of the season that highlighted a team with a sad commentary on race relations in our nation.
Texas was ranked No.2 and unbeaten while surprising the college football world with its wishbone offense it debuted a year earlier. With Ohio State out of the way, the Longhorns climbed to No. 1 and beat No. 2 Arkansas, which had been No. 3, in its season finale.
The 1969 season was the 100th anniversary of college football, but shamefully Texas, Alabama and many other southern programs remained all-white. Texas was the last all-white team to win a national title.
Both Texas, under Darrell Royal, and Alabama, under Bear Bryant, didn’t dress a black player in a varsity game until the 1971, although both schools’ student bodies were already desegregated. Arkansas had a walk-on black athletes try out for the team, but its first black varsity player in a game wasn't until 1970.
In the 1960s, Bryant had said he couldn’t find any black athletes that both the grades and talent to play for Alabama; Royal had told the segregated black high school coaches in Houston he could win national titles without their athletes.
What’s also significant about Texas as the last all-white national champion is it helps debunk claims of Alabama’s delusional fans that contend Associated Press poll sportswriters and United Press International (now USA Today) poll robbed them of a third straight national title. They claim the writers and coaches voting were prejudiced against Alabama’s all-white roster in 1966. Thus, they voted Alabama (11-0) No. 3 to No. 1 Notre Dame (9-0-1) and No. 2 Michigan State (9-0-1).
Notre Dame and Michigan State had played to a 10-10 in their season finales (Notre Dame didn’t play in bowl games until 1969; Michigan State was denied the Rose Bowl due to the Big Ten’s no-repeat rule). The National Football Foundation named Michigan State and Notre Dame national co-champions.
Alabama played a soft schedule with eight home games within the state borders with games in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Mobile. The Crimson Tide lined up All-American Cecil Dowdy as a 6-0, 204-pound offensive tackle. Who was going to block Michigan State's Bubba Smith (6-7, 285) or Notre Dame's Alan Page (6-4, 245)?
History has so many unpredictable twists and turns. With the benefit of hindsight, you shake your head in wonder when you look back at the times.
Just look at Dan Dierdorf’s career.
* * *
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
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.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”