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Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith died yesterday in his home in Los Angeles at age 66 and took an awful lot of history with him.
There were two primary reasons why Bubba Smith became such a folk hero while still in college, at Michigan State. The first is that the ’65-’66 Spartans were the first major college power to be made up of black stars. Of course, there were great black players before them, but the stars at nearly every key position of those Spartan teams were black. They changed college football. For one thing, the success of Smith and his Spartan teammates spurred integration in the South.
The second reason is that Bubba, if not the biggest player in college football up to that time, was certainly the biggest famous player up to then.
Think about it this way: the Notre Dame team they tied that November afternoon in 1966 had just one black starter, defensive lineman Alan Page. Defending champion Alabama, who finished number three in the polls, had no black players at all. (At Bear Bryant’s 65th birthday party in 1978, in Birmingham, Alabama, Bubba’s old coach, Duffy Daugherty, cracked up the audience by saying, “I got out of coaching when Bryant started recruiting black kids.” He wasn’t kidding.)
At Michigan State in the mid-1960s, Bubba — along with such greats as linebacker George Webster, receiver Gene Washington, and running back Clint Jones — was a star on the Spartans team that won the 1965 national championship, although not outright — most polls gave to it to Alabama that season, but the Spartans claimed a couple of polls themselves. The next season he helped take MSU within one game of the championship when, on November 19, 1996, the number two Spartans tied the number one Fighting Irish of Notre Dame at East Lansing, Michigan. Neither team went to bowl games that year, so when the season ended it was Notre Dame first, Michigan second.
You will read in some of Bubba’s obits that he took out Notre Dame starting quarterback Terry Hanratty early in the game; he did, but no one seems to remember that he also took out the Irish’s starting center, George Goeddeke, also in the first quarter. That season he became famous when Michigan State signs held up signs which read,. “Kill, Bubba, Kill!” and “Intercontinental Ballistic Bubba.”
By 1963 the rules limiting substitution in college football — the so-called “single platoon” rules — had been eliminated; within two seasons, rosters grew enormously with specialists who coaches intended to play only a single position. Some of the player grew enormously, too. Since a player no longer had to put in time on offense and defense in a game, he could be chosen for his size and strength, not for his quickness and endurance. (MSU listed Bubba as 6-7 and 295 pounds, though they insisted that once the season started he was well over 300. In the NFL, the Baltimore Colts insisted he was 6-8.)
Bubba had all those qualities. Don Shula’s Colts made him the first draft pick in 1967. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Colts against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1971 game, but it was the 1969 Super Bowl against the New York Jets that he couldn’t forget. That was the game that Joe Namath “guaranteed” victory for New York, and in Bubba’s 1983 autobiography, Kill, Bubba, Kill, he claimed — no, let’s say he hinted — that the game was fixed. How the game could have been fixed if he himself was not in on it was something he never addressed.
In his book, he probably gave the real reason why the Jets were upset the Colts: during halftime, with Baltimore shockingly behind, he went up to Shula and said, “‘Let me line up over the center so I can change their blocking scheme.’ And he [Shula] said, ‘Just play your position.'”
I talked to Bubba about that game at an 1985 card show where he was gracious enough to discuss what he regarded as the most humiliating day in his career. I didn’t ask about the “fix” suggestion because I didn’t really think he was serious. He did, however, say, “Man, you just couldn’t get Coach Shula to change his mind about something once he had a thought. We weren’t just outplayed that day, we were out-thought and out-coached. But I don’t want to say anything more that sounds bad about Coach Shula. He was a good man.”
Bubba Smith was a good man, too. I suppose he’ll be best remembered for the recurring role in the Police Academy movies, though he was damned good in those “Tastes great, less filling” Miller Lite commercials.
Many of his obits are quoting the first line of Ogden Nash’s poem about him. Because you’re smart enough to be reading the Village Voice blog, I’m going to give you the whole thing from my December 13, 1968 issue of Life, with its special section by Nash on “My Colts.”
When hearing tales of Bubba Smith
You wonder if he’s man or myth.
He’s like a hoodoo, like a hex,
He’s like Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Few manage to topple in a tussle
Three hundred pounds of hustle and muscle.
He won’t complain if double-teamed;
It isn’t Bubba who gets creamed.
What gained this pair of underminers?
Only four Forty-niner shiners.
The poem was opposite a full-page color photo of Bubba squashing two would-be San Francisco blockers.