Spartans Of Today Bring Back Memories of Old with the Great Bubba Smith


The Great Bubba Smith is always gracious with his time for Spartan Nation!
The Great Bubba Smith is always gracious with his time for Spartan Nation!


This season is shaping up to be historic for the Michigan State Spartans football team.

Not since 1987, when the Spartans were ranked eighth in the country prior to its 20-17 1988 Rose Bowl victory over USC has Michigan State enjoyed a spot in the top 10. The Spartans are No. 8 in both the AP and Coaches poll, and seventh in the BCS standings.

After three consecutive Big Ten victories, which includes a 34-17 road win over bitter rival Michigan, the 7-0 Spartans are seemingly back to their former winning ways.

The Spartans weren’t always a team in rebuilding mode. In fact, Michigan State was once a national powerhouse. Michigan State won two consecutive national titles from 1965-66 under coach Duffy Daugherty, and one of the reasons why was Texas native Bubba Smith’s play.

The Spartans didn’t lose a game during those years, and Smith simply said in a recent Spartan Nation Radio interview: “Michigan State should have been a dynasty for at least 10 years after those two years after we went undefeated.”

Smith is widely regarded as one of the greatest football players of his era, not just one of Michigan State’s finest. He enjoyed a seven-year pro career, and dabbled in acting as well.

Three straight wins over Michigan is something to celebrate nowadays, but beating the Wolverines was expected in Smith’s days.

“Being from Texas I didn’t know about the rivalry until I’d been there a couple years,” Smith said in a recent Spartan Nation Radio interview. “Once we started playing, it was pathetic. We had a team they couldn’t do nothing with. I don’t remember a game with thought of us losing. That is a hell of a feeling. They were another team we had to get out of the way to get to our goal to make it 10-0.

They didn’t have the ball players to beat us. We had a lot of people on defense. I know when we were playing in Ann Arbor, George (Webster) hit Jack Clancey and knocked him out. You know, that radiated through the whole defense. Everybody wanted to knock somebody out. It’s the type of ball players that you get. You can have some skilled ball players, but they might not have no heart.”

Heart is an attribute not rated by statistics. Coaches preach it, players talk about it, but Smith’s Spartans lived it.

“It is very underrated,” Smith said.  “You know, we had Dog, Charles Thornhill, and he was always in your ear.”

“Mad Dog” Thornhill was one of the Spartans’ top defenders, and he had a knack for getting Smith — a bruising 6-foot-7, 265-pound defensive end and tackle — into game mode.  Smith said few players had the heart of “Mad Dog.”

 “He told me, it was third and long, and they started chanting “Kill, Bubba, Kill,” Smith recalled.  “Dog said ‘They’re chanting for you. Why don’t you do something?’ It kind of pissed you off. You’re out there working your butt off, and then you got the rest doing the same thing.”

Smith said he wasn’t much for small talk. He just went out and played football. And besides, he was confident in his team’s abilities to win.

“We were going to take care of business anyway,” he said.

After a moment reminiscing of Thornhill and Michigan State's past dominance, Smith was asked what he thought about the Spartans’ All-American linebacker Greg Jones. Jones is without a doubt one of the best in the business, and Smith said Jones plays a lot like the man with moxie, “Mad Dog” Thornhill.

“I think he has a tremendous upside,” said Smith. “He’ll make All-American and that, but where he’ll flourish is in the pros. He has speed, he’s intelligent in the way that he plays, and most people that go into pro ball, even the ones that have been there four or five years don’t know what they’re doing.

I see a defensive end trying to run over a guy that’s 340 (pounds), and he might be 260. Why would you do that? You better make him move his feet so you can beat him. Your middle linebacker is tough. He has the same attitude that Dog had. Dog would push you out of the way to get to somebody. He has that same mentality.”

The two-time Pro Bowler has vivid memories of his days in green and white, and shared one of his all-time favorite moments as a Spartan.

And you guessed right, it was against Michigan.

“They talk the talk, but they couldn’t walk the walk,” Smith said. “The thing that when we played them at State — I remember we were walking over the stadium, and somebody started whistling the (UM) fight song, and by time we got to the locker room, everyone was absolutely crazy.”