Feb. 15, 2008
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-American football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-American basketball star whose contributions have a major impact today, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of Spartan profiles, longtime writer and radio broadcaster Jack Ebling will present some of the greatest of the great in 2008. The first is athletic administrator and educator Clarence Underwood.
Growing up in Gadsden, Ala., Clarence Underwood had never seen blacks and whites do anything together. That changed on Jan. 1, 1954, when he first saw Michigan State's football team and watched a Rose Bowl win over UCLA.
More than 54 years later, one of the greatest team players in Big Ten history still recalls that evening and a break between guard shifts at Fort Bragg, N.C. It was the best break of Underwood's life and a lucky one for Spartan athletics.
"I was training to be an army paratrooper," he said of a two-year stint in the 82nd Airborne Division. "When I stared at the television and saw 10-or-so blacks play for Biggie Munn in his final game, I was astonished. Right then and there, I said, `When I get out, I'm not going to go to Tuskegee Institute to play football and run track. I'm going to go to Michigan State.'"
Underwood had been a three-sport star in the segregated South, a single-wing tailback and a three-year captain at Carver High. Seeing LeRoy Bolden, Ellis Duckett and John "Thunder" Lewis lead their integrated team past the Bruins, 28-20, changed more than his college choice. It changed the lives of thousands who benefited from his tireless efforts, as a teacher, counselor and administrator.
"It wasn't easy at first," Underwood said. "When I got off the train in East Lansing with my wife and 3-month-old baby, the first thing I did was get a newspaper and look for a place to stay. Everyone said the same thing, `We don't rent to Negroes' or `We just rented the last place.'"
While his family waited at the station, Underwood began walking. Finally, he found a black man who helped him rent a place on Butler Street in Lansing. If he hadn't made that contact, he might have left Mid-Michigan for good. Instead, he made it a much better place.
"There were only about 100 blacks at Michigan State, and I never saw one in any of my classes," Underwood said. "I did when I went out for football. But there were 175 freshmen and two coaches. I was there 10 weeks and never got to practice. The 30 players on scholarship did. But the rest of us just stood around. Finally, I said, `This doesn't make sense.'"
A lot of things didn't make sense in those days, but Underwood stayed and kept working toward a degree in physical education. He knew he had found his calling after his student teaching when a letter arrived from the East Lansing schools' superintendent.
"The letter said, `Clarence, I wish I had an opening. But consider this a real tribute to you.' The students had all signed a petition, asking the district to hire me," he said. "Later, I got a call there, offering a part-time job while I worked on my master's."
Underwood thought he had a dream situation a year later with a chance to be the head coach in football, basketball and baseball in Ashley, Mich. But his wife, Noreese, felt isolated and didn't want to move there. Fortunately, another job in East Lansing was created, combining middle school and elementary classes for five years.
The Underwoods finally moved to Marquette, Mich., where Clarence directed a new women's recreation center at Northern Michigan for two years. His next stop was at the University of Wisconsin, where he was asked to organize a program for black students, only to find that the project lacked funding. Armed with a master's degree, Underwood returned to work for the Michigan Department of Education as a Title I consultant in the southwest part of the state. But MSU needed him, too.
"There were a lot of protests in the late '60s," Underwood said. "One of the demands was that they bring in a black counselor, So MSU hired me in 1969 as an assistant ticket manager. The idea was that I'd take over what's now Breslin Center whenever it was built. When the students voted no on that referendum, I resigned to return to the state. But when Biggie had a stroke, they moved Burt Smith up to be the A.D, and I took his job as assistant A.D. for academic support."
Underwood has had 12 different jobs in education, not counting the 50 he did from one office in Jenison Field House under Smith and successors Joe Kearney and Doug Weaver.
"I never had a job I didn't enjoy thoroughly," Underwood said. "I gave my life to those jobs. If I'd never had the chance to be A.D., I knew I was qualified. I learned how to treat people, how to deal with coaches and how to raise money. With two secretaries, I took care of everything for 800 athletes. Today, they have 15 people to do what I did. I'm not sure I was ever the best. I know I did my best for 15, 16 or 17 hours a day."
Without Underwood's intervention, hundreds of athletes would never have earned degrees. After he finished his third degree from MSU, a Ph.D. in 1982, Underwood left to become deputy commissioner of the Big Ten. He returned in 1990 as assistant A.D. for compliance, then senior associate A.D. and finally director of athletics from 1999-2002.
Despite overseeing the department in one of its greatest years, with a New Year's Day bowl win in football, an NCAA championship in men's basketball and a CCHA title in hockey, Underwood is most proud of something else - the individuals who went on to be productive citizens and leaders.
"We probably graduated more black athletes in the 10 years after I became assistant A.D. than in the history of MSU," Underwood said. "They were forced to go to class. And we organized the first tutorial program. It was just me and the athletes. Most of the coaches would rather have had those programs abolished."
Underwood said his greatest disappointment was in the administrative handling of an NCAA investigation in 1975-76. That probe led to major penalties for the football program and tough lessons for everyone involved.
But Underwood was a tough as they come in terms of perseverance. He understood that "no" usually meant "not yet" and worked non-stop to turn dreams to reality. When he watched the Spartans beat Florida on Jan. 1, 2000, he had completed the bumpy trek from Fort Bragg with plenty to brag about. Best of all, he could look at himself in the mirror and like what he saw.