Feb. 17, 2007
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 player whose contributions have a major impact today, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of profiles, longtime Michigan State beat writer and columnist Jack Ebling will highlight some of the greatest of the great. The fourth of those stories is All-America halfback and longtime coach Sherman Lewis.
He knew about Michigan State long before Michigan State knew about him.
But it didn't take Sherman Lewis long to be noticed. After all, how many 154-pound halfbacks spend half their time in opponents' end zones?
"I wanted to go to a big school to see if I could make it," the Louisville, Ky., native said Friday. "I grew up listening to University of Kentucky football. But blacks couldn't play in the SEC. I had to go somewhere West or North."
Or East - as in just East of Lansing.
"When we watched games on TV in the '50s, we were always looking for black athletes," Lewis said. "Minnesota had a lot. Iowa was loaded. And Michigan State had a history. It had 'em and played 'em. I remembered that from watching the Rose Bowl."
When "Squirmin' Sherman" got to campus, he couldn't believe the size of the Spartans. And he was talking about the freshman backs, not the senior linemen.
"I thought about what the coaches had told me - that I'd be better off at a smaller school - and wondered if they were right," Lewis said. "Ollie Dunlap and Earl Lattimore were huge. And Dewey Lincoln, the next-smallest guy, was about 5-foot-11, 185. I had to find a way to convince them."
Duffy Daugherty and his staff held No. 20 out of full-speed contact drills in close quarters the first week of practice. Finally, Lewis asked to be treated like everybody else. And defenders couldn't crush what they couldn't catch.
The biggest problem he faced was discrimination - and not in the football program, where Daugherty's color-blind reputation was well-deserved.
"It's hard to pinpoint discrimination sometimes," Lewis said. "It can be subtle. But the town of East Lansing was still very segregated. It was hard to find a place to live there. And mixing wasn't condoned. The football program was definitely more progressive than the town was."
His senior year was a highlight reel. In a key win over the Northwestern Wildcats of Ara Parseghian, Lewis scored on a 29-yard reception and an 87-yard run, and then sealed the victory with an 84-yard punt return.
Lewis was third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1963. No Michigan State player has ever finished higher.
"They made the right choice," Lewis said. "The guy who won it, Roger Staubach, had a fantastic year for Navy. He had a great game in their win at Michigan. And maybe if we'd beaten Illinois in that last game, I'd have had a chance."
That Big Ten title showdown was postponed five days to Thanksgiving afternoon after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
"Nobody wanted to play that day," Lewis said. "They cancelled the game after our pregame meal. Illinois went home. And we went inside and had a knockdown, drag-out practice, one of our best. But when we did play, we were down to our third-string quarterback. And we kept turning it over (in a 13-0 Illini win)."
Lewis was drafted by three teams - Cleveland in the NFL, the New York Jets in the AFL and Toronto in the CFL. He chose to go to Canada so he could play offense, then joined the Jets in 1966 for a year and a half before injuring his knee.
"I knew I wanted to coach," Lewis said. "The people I always looked up to were coaches. They were always the most respected people in the school or the neighborhood. And I knew what it took - being a teacher and being yourself. You can't try to be Rockne or Lombardi."
Lewis sent resumes to nearly 20 universities with no success. Finally, his high school created a job for him. And one year later, Daugherty gave him a shot when Don Coleman left the MSU staff.
As an assistant with the Spartans from 1969-82, Lewis hoped to take over one day. That dream continued through an NFL coaching career from 1983-2004.
"When Darryl Rogers left in 1980, I was the only assistant who stayed," Lewis said. "I thought I had a real good shot at it. But they hired Muddy Waters, and I worked for him. Then, when George Perles came in, he wanted to bring his own coordinator, and I caught on with San Francisco. I tried to come back when George left. But everything happens for a reason, I guess."
Lewis spent nine seasons as the 49ers' wide receivers and running backs coach and earned three Super Bowl rings. He moved to Green Bay as Mike Holmgren's offensive coordinator in 1992 and won another title in eight years with Brett Favre. He also coordinated the offense for Minnesota in 2000-01 and with Detroit from 2002-04.
"It's hard to say how close I came to getting a head coaching job," Lewis said. "I had a second interview with Dallas when Chan Gailey got it. And I thought I interviewed well with Chicago, Arizona and Atlanta. The job I always wanted was Michigan State."
His contributions made it easier for other black coaches in the NFL. And Super Bowl coaches Tony Dungy of Indianapolis and Lovie Smith of Chicago made sure to salute Lewis contributions.
"I was very proud in the two weeks leading up to the game," Lewis said. "They're two classy guys. And it mattered to all of us. It was kind of like when Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship of the world."
Lewis' world is different these days. After leaving the Lions, he spent a year as an analyst on Michigan State radio broadcasts. But at age 64, he said he loves retirement and the chance to do things he has never done - wherever and whenever he wants.
Of course, if the San Diego Chargers called, he'd be there tomorrow. And if the Spartans ever needed him, he'd be there today.