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He was a game changer, a program changer and a position changer. He was Charles in charge.
Smith was at times called "The Ambulance" because he drove a lot of quarterbacks to the hospital.
And he left Michigan State University a much better place for having been there. Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles at age 66. No one who saw him play college football will forget a then-mammoth 6-foot-7, 280-pound defensive end – and occasional nosetackle.
No one who saw Smith smile on campus or in commercials can quite appreciate the frightening chants of “Kill, Bubba, Kill” in the mid-60s. And no one who heard him speak through tears about a Texas-to-Michigan migration can doubt how much East Lansing meant to him. He was big enough to have three nicknames: “Bubba,” “The Beaumont Tower” and “The Ambulance.” Why the last two? Because the Beaumont, Texas, native drove a lot of quarterbacks to the hospital.
No. 95 was big enough to be one of just three Spartan players to have his number retired, joining tackle Don Coleman (78) and roverback George Webster (90), his partner in crunch. And Smith was big enough to be one of only two MSU athletes to rank among the Big Ten Network’s top 50 Big Ten Icons – No. 26 on the list last fall, 24 spots behind Magic Johnson.
Long before that honor, the two-time consensus All-American had been seared into our consciousness as one of the best of the best. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988 and was a charter member of the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1992. He was No. 6 and No. 8 on two lists of the Top 10 Greatest Defensive Players of All-Time, according to collegefootballnews.com. And his memory will be preserved this fall with the Big Ten’s first Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year Award, an honor he shares with Penn State end Courtney Brown.
If MSU defensive tackle Jerel Worthy isn’t able to win any other award this season, he ought to make sure he’s worthy of that one. It belongs in a case in the Skandalaris Center – a few feet away from the Paul Bunyan Trophy and new Big Ten Championship hardware. Worthy doesn’t remember Smith. How could he? They never met.
I remember him very well. How could I not?
I remember the first time I heard much about him. A disappointing 4-5 program in 1964 began the following season with a 13-3 win over UCLA and a 23-0 triumph at Penn State. The best was yet to come.
The ’65 Spartans can make a case for being as good as any defense in college football history. In separate interviews, Hall of Famers Joe Paterno, Bump Elliott and Ara Parseghian have told me they’d testify to that fact. Duffy Daugherty’s greatest team held seven opponents to seven points or less – including Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame – and never allowed more than 14 in any of its 11 games. The average yield? Try 6.2 points. MSU’s only close call in a 10-0 regular season was a 14-10 win over sixth-ranked Purdue and quarterback Bob Griese in West Lafayette.
We saw Smith in 2006 when he came back to campus one last time for his number retirement.
But what really separated Hank Bullough’s defense was its demolition of rushing attacks. In an era where few schools could pass, it held the defending Rose Bowl champion Wolverines to -51 rushing yards, Woody Hayes’ ground-bound Buckeyes to -22 and the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish to -12 – a three-team total of -85. Click "Read More" below for the rest of the post...
That 12-3 win in South Bend on Nov. 12 came after a fan assault on the Spartan Marching Band and a subsequent de-hinging of the door to the visitors’ locker room. It also wrapped up at least a share of the national title, since the final UPI poll was taken before the bowls in those days. Even in a bizarre 14-12 loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, the MSU defense was amazing. The Bruins rushed 41 times for just 65 yards, 139 less than the Spartans managed. But three interceptions and a fumbled punt at the 6-yard line fueled a humongous upset.
I remember watching that game in total disbelief. But I remember my first trip from Detroit to East Lansing the following spring even clearer. I’d gone to lots of U-M games as a kid but didn’t get to MSU until a ninth-grade trip to the state capital included a stop on campus. There, I wandered into the basement of the Union and heard the crashing of pool balls. As I blindly turned the corner, I ran smack into Smith’s lower extremities. He stood up – and up and up some more. If he’d asked me my name, I wouldn’t have remembered. Suddenly, he smiled. I was never so happy to see a jolly green giant with a pool cue about the size of a pencil.
From that day on, I followed the Spartans and eventually chose MSU over Northwestern as my school-of-choice in 1969. By that point, Smith had helped one of the best senior classes the NCAA has known earn a slice of another national title.
Actually, he may have been a bit too good – or so Daugherty always believed. Smith’s first-quarter crush of ND quarterback Terry Hanratty knocked the sophomore All-American out of the ’66 “Game of the Century” and changed momentum completely. The Spartans had Hanratty scouted perfectly and believed they could blank the Irish. In fact, they did lead 10-0 until backup QB Coley O’Brien took over and led his team to a TD and a tying field goal.
On the game’s final series, Parseghian wisely chose not to pass, protecting the ball and the slimmest of No. 1 rankings. But with Smith lined up directly over a backup center, you can imagine the verbiage when the visitors stopped trying to score and “Tied One for The Gipper.” At 9-0-1, MSU couldn’t return to Pasadena or play in any bowl due to the Big Ten’s no-repeat rule. But in early 1967, it contributed an unprecedented half of the first eight selections in the first combined AFL-NFL Draft.
Smith’s dominance was duly rewarded when the Baltimore Colts made him the No. 1 overall choice. Minnesota took halfback Clinton Jones No. 2 and split end Gene Washington No. 8, while Houston gladly grabbed Webster with the No. 5 pick.
Smith spent nine years in the NFL – five with Baltimore, two with Oakland and two with Houston. After being stunned by Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, a game he always suspected had been thrown, he earned a championship ring in Super Bowl V when the Colts edged Dallas.
Individually, Smith was off to a great start with back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances in 1970-71. But while with the Raiders, he suffered a horrific knee injury when he nearly impaled himself on a down marker. His career and, in many ways, his life was never quite the same. Making the best of a bad situation, Smith took up acting and seemed to be a natural. It’s hard to say which made him more famous, his Miller Lite commercial for “the easy opening can” or his role as Moses Hightower in all the Police Academy films.
I remember seeing him in L.A. in late December 1987. MSU was making its first appearance at the Rose Bowl in 22 years. And Smith couldn’t have been prouder at the annual Big Ten Club of Southern California Dinner, hosted by Bob Hope.
I remember talking my bosses into sending me to New York City the following year when Smith was inducted into the College Football Hall. He must’ve thanked me three times for coming and gave me bear hugs and handshakes. All I wanted was my right hand back. There, we talked for close to two hours as former teammates like opposite end and close friend Robert Viney stopped by. Smith was bitter at the way he felt his younger brother, Tody, had been treated at MSU – though not as hurt as he would be 20 years later over a rejection by then-Spartan head coach John L. Smith.
He had an up-and-down relationship with Daugherty, who never seemed to understand the tickets that gravitated to a hard-to-hide Buick Electra. And in a test of wills, Smith and the other defensive stars inserted themselves back into a game to save a shutout after Daugherty had pulled them. But there were more laughs that night in Manhattan than in all his commercial and comedy roles combined. Equally impressive was his undying love for Bullough, the only college or pro coach he respected without question in their days at MSU and in Baltimore.
Then, as was true until the moment he died, Smith was proud of what his university represented. He spoke of the racial barriers that were obliterated in Mid-Michigan, as opposed to life in East Texas. And he loved to wear his green-and-white gear in Hollywood when he was active in acting.
We saw that love again in 2006 when Smith came back to campus one last time for his number retirement and the 40th anniversary of the 10-10 tie. If he could’ve suited up one more time, he would have. Perhaps that’s why one of his last objectives on Earth was to try to set up a scholarship in his name in East Lansing. Marcia Livingston, a nurse and a 45-year friend of Smith's from his campus days, had just returned to Michigan from California the day before the end came.
Pending an autopsy, the initial reports are that Smith died of natural causes. He had just found the Lord, according to devout Christian and longtime MSU football friend Fred Tinning and had received daily scriptures. Of all the places Smith could pass away, sitting in his chair and reading the Bible, then dying instantly has to rank high.
Maybe he was just ready to go home – and that doesn’t mean Beaumont. Smith had just had back surgery. And he needed a new knee very badly. The last time I spoke with him on the phone, he told me how much pain he was in and how he could barely get around.
Tinning had just made a request to the MSU football staff that they get a football signed and send it to L.A. to help lift his spirits. I don’t believe that ever happened. But as Smith would know, defensive linemen aren’t handed the ball. They have to go get it.
He’s headed where his father, Willie Ray, is probably about ready to start practice and where Tody loves and respects his coach. Best of all, he’ll be back in a huddle with a lot of departed Spartan stars from a defense that went 19-1-1 in two seasons.
Middle guard Harold Lucas went first. Then, defensive back Jess Phillips, linebacker Charlie “Mad Dog” Thornhill, Webster and cornerback/captain Don Japinga all joined him. Maybe Daugherty needed a little more pass rush.
If you believe in omens, it could serve MSU well this season. The last time the Spartans went to Pasadena, Daugherty died that September, the day before the Florida State game. George Perles has always believed that had something to do with USC’s last fumble.
Either way, Daugherty is slowly getting all his old players back. Let’s hope they play their home games in heaven. With Smith in the lineup, they’ll still be a helluva team.
Special thanks to MSU Athletic Communications for use of the Smith pictures.