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MSU Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2010: Jim Bibbs

Sept. 30, 2010

Coach Jim Bibbs with NCAA Champions Marshall Dill (left) and Herb Washington (right).

Jim Bibbs
Men's Track and Field Coach
Ecorse, Mich.

Jim Bibbs, the longest tenured track and field coach in program history, was the first African-American head coach at Michigan State. During Bibbs' career, his student-athletes won 52 Big Ten titles, earned All-America honors 26 times, claimed three NCAA titles and set two world records.

"I feel very, very proud, because I love Michigan State," said Bibbs on getting inducted into the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame. "My reaction when I found out about the Hall of Fame was surprised and humbled because I think of all the great athletes that I have watched come through here. It just means a lot to me."

But Bibbs' long, illustrious career in track as a runner and a coach almost never got off the starting blocks.

A baseball star at Ecorse High School, Bibbs was offered a Class A contract by the New York Yankees upon graduation. He chose instead to pursue his education at Eastern Michigan. But with no freshmen baseball team available to play on at Eastern, Bibbs decided to join the track team - and a love affair was born.

Bibbs found instant success as a sprinter, and even clocked a then-world record time of 6.1 in the 60-yard dash while earning All-America honors in 1951. He was also a three-time Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion at 100 and 220 yards and from 1949-51 he led EMU to three straight IIAC titles.

After earning his bachelor's degree, Bibbs went to Wayne State and earned his master's. He taught physical education in the Detroit school system and began coaching track at the high school level in 1959. He founded the Detroit Track Club, which traveled around the country to different events, and also helped with the AAU track club in the city.

In 1964, Bibbs started a successful four-year run as the head track coach at his hometown Ecorse High School. His teams climbed the ladder at the state championships every year, placing fourth in 1964, third in 1965, second in 1966 and finally first in 1967. In his duties mentoring the Detroit Track Club, he guided the women's team to four consecutive national relay titles (1964-67). And he also led the U.S. Women's Track Team to victory in eight of 11 events in the 1967 Pan American games.

During Jim Bibbs' career, his student-athletes won 52 Big Ten titles, earned All-America honors 26 times, claimed three NCAA titles and set two world records.

But for all his success during those years, Bibbs believes Ecorse's showing at the Spartan Invitational Relays - in which his squads won back-to-back titles in 1966 and 1967 - was perhaps the most important.

"I think that caught their eye," Bibbs said of his teams' victories at the Spartan Invitational. "'Biggie' Munn called me and asked me if I was interested in coaching, and I thought it was a joke for awhile, but after we talked, I knew he was serious and he had me come up for a visit. Talking to `Biggie' in itself was a big thrill because I had heard a lot about `Biggie' Munn, he's a legend. Once I found out he was serious, there wasn't too much hesitation in coming up to Michigan State. It turned out to be one of the greatest things that ever happened to me."

Bibbs' first season as an assistant in East Lansing was in 1968, and it didn't take long before he was coaching some of the top sprinters in the world.

Two of his favorites also happened to be two of the best sprinters in Michigan State history: Herb Washington and Marshall Dill.

Both members of the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame, Washington was a four-time All-American, a two-time NCAA Champion, and seven-time Big Ten champion, while Dill was an 11-time Big Ten champion, a two-time All-American and an NCAA Champion in the 220-yard dash.

"I want to give credit to Herb Washington and Marshall Dill's high school coaches, because they did a wonderful job with them before I got them," said Bibbs. "Marshall was real outgoing. Herb was more reserved, but yet very confident."

One of Bibbs' favorite stories from his days at Michigan State involved Washington and Dill at the prestigious Drake Relays.

"We were at the Drake Relays one year warming up," recalled Bibbs, "and a couple of young men from Houston came up and spoke to Herb and Marshall. They said, `We ran a dead heat in the Texas Relays last week. We ran 9.3 and finished first and second.' Herb didn't say anything. Marshall said, `Good...that ought to get you second and third.'"

Turns out, it was more than just talk.

"One of the (Houston) runners ended up getting out of the college race where Marshall was, and went into the open race where Herb was, because Herb had already graduated," said Bibbs. "Marshall went on to win the college race, and Herb won the open race. Afterward, the same kid from Houston came up to Marshall and said, `Herb is something. I didn't realize he was that good.' Marshall said, `You jumped out of the frying pan and into the skillet. I would've let you lead for 60 yards, in case your mother or someone wanted to take a picture of you in front, and then I would come get you. But Herb doesn't let anybody ever lead - he leads from the block."

Bibbs can't help but laugh at the story, even 40 years later.

That same duo also gave Bibbs - and the Michigan State track and field program - one of the most electric nights in Jenison Field House history on Feb. 12, 1972, at the MSU Relays.

Before a crowd of more than 3,000, Dill set a world record with a 29.5 in the 300-yard dash, while 35 minutes later, Washington established his own world record in the 60-yard dash with a 5.8. Washington and Dill also were on the sprint medley relay team that came up just one-tenths shy of setting a third world record at the meet.

"That was probably my greatest night in Jenison Field House," said Bibbs, who credits Washington and Dill in helping other top-flight sprinters come to Michigan State.

Bibbs made history when he was appointed the head track and field coach in 1977, as he became the first African-American head coach in school history.

"Michigan State was a large part of my life. It was a wonderful place to work, a very nice atmosphere - I enjoyed all the people I was around. I just loved track and I loved to work with youngsters."
- Jim Bibbs

Although he was the men's coach, Bibbs also worked closely with the female sprinters, including Karen Dennis, a former Michigan State All-American who coached women's track at MSU from 1982-92 and went on to coach U.S. National Team in the 2000 Olympics, and Judi Brown Clarke, an NCAA champion and 1984 Olympic silver medal winner in the 400-meter hurdles.

"We're all excited to see him be honored in such a way that really depicts his distinguished career," said Dennis, who is now the head women's track coach at Ohio State. "He made a difference in a whole lot of people's lives.

"Coach Bibbs was the one who discovered me and saw some talent. He pointed me in the right direction in terms of how to train and how to be an athlete, as well as how to compete. Once you learn how to compete in athletics, then usually that transfers over into other areas of your life. From there, I became a better student and had aspirations of graduating from college and getting a master's degree. The fire that he lit up under me has illuminated my entire life.

"The difference between him and a lot of contemporary coaches is that now it's all about winning and it's all about their careers, where with Coach Bibbs, it wasn't about himself. I think that's what distinguished him from being just a coach and being a person who also cared about you as a human being."

Brown Clarke shared the sentiments toward Bibbs as Dennis.

"Coach Bibbs was a life coach - it just wasn't about track, it was really about how he could make you the best person you could be, athletically and as a person," said Brown Clarke, who was the head women's track coach at MSU in the mid-90s and is now a faculty member at Michigan State University with a doctorate degree in public policy and administration. "Being a good person was very important to him, and teaching you how to use those athletic skills and translate them to life skills. The way you were setting goals for the track, he said you should be using the same things to set professional goals and personal goals. I think he was very effective in that.

"He helped to understand that I actually had talent to really go far in track, which I really wouldn't have thought because basketball and volleyball were my sports in high school. He helped me to believe in myself and to set my goals a lot higher than just the current competition.

"He would talk about the Olympics, and I was like, `what is he talking about? I mean, seriously, really?' But he's really the one that planted the seed that I started to cultivate. To think I could compete on the international level was out of reality for me. He really planted the seed the year before when I was competing in the World University Games and Pan American Games. He really got me prepared for that, physically and psychologically."

On the international scene, Bibbs was the head coach for the men's North team at the 1991 U.S. Olympic Festival and an assistant for the 1989 U.S. Olympic Festival. He also attended the 2000 Olympics in Sydney when Dennis was the U.S. Track and Field Coach.

Bibbs retired as head coach in 1995, but he still feels very much a part of Michigan State.

"Michigan State was a large part of my life," he said. "It was a wonderful place to work, a very nice atmosphere - I enjoyed all the people I was around. I just loved track and I loved to work with youngsters."

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