Editor’s note: In June 1917, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives invited Michigan back into the league, increasing membership to 10 and eventually spawning the iconic “Big Ten” nickname. One hundred years later, Land of 10 will spend the summer looking at the history of America’s legendary conference and its teams.
Michigan State wasn’t part of the original conference we know as the Big Ten. The Spartans replaced the departed University of Chicago in 1949 and became a full member in football in 1953. With that in mind, Land of 10 is unveiling its selections of the top 25 Michigan State football players since the Spartans began competing in the Big Ten. Players were evaluated solely on their performance at Michigan State.
On Wednesday, we release the fifth set of the countdown: 5-1.
5. Percy Snow, linebacker (1986-89)
Across the street from Spartan Stadium, the Skandalaris Football Center provides state-of-the-art meeting and training rooms for the Michigan State football program. But directly inside its front doors, four display cases within different pillars honor the Spartans’ four national award winners.
One pays homage to the late Ed Bagdon, winner of the 1949 Outland Trophy for best interior guard. Bagdon likely would be on this list had he played in the Big Ten. There’s Brad Van Pelt, whom we listed at No. 8 on our list. And then there are the next two players.
Percy Snow is the lone Michigan State player to win either the Butkus Award for best college linebacker or the Lombardi Award for best lineman or linebacker. In 1989, he became the first player in the nation to win both. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior linebacker recorded a then-program record 172 tackles, 4 interceptions, 3 blocked kicks and 2 interceptions as the Spartans went 8-4 and won the Aloha Bowl. He was named a consensus first-team All-American and finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting, the only defensive player on the list that season.
But he wasn’t a one-season wonder. As a junior, Snow set the tackles record (164) that he would beat a year later. He was named All-American while leading Michigan State to the Gator Bowl, which it lost to Georgia despite Snow’s 14 tackles. As a sophomore, he recorded 127 tackles as the starting middle linebacker for the 1987 Big Ten champions and Rose Bowl winners. In the Rose Bowl victory over Southern California, he took MVP honors with 17 tackles.
Snow commanded some of the most ferocious run defenses in Spartans history. In 1987, Michigan State held opponents to 69.8 rushing yards per game, a mark surpassed only by the national championship teams of 1965 and 1966. Snow led the way with his powerful and sure tackling, leading the team in tackles while helping Michigan State rank first in Big Ten rush defense from 1987-89.
Snow never found longevity as a pro like his brother and fellow Michigan State alumnus Eric, who played 13 years in the NBA. Percy Snow was selected 13th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1990 and started 14 games as a rookie, but then broke his ankle in a scooter accident during the off-season. He struggled to retain his old form and was out of the league three years later.
In 2013, Snow was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
4. Charles Rogers, wide receiver (2001-02)
There are no shrines to Charles Rogers in the NFL. Partially because of his college greatness, his fall in the pros left him regarded as one of the biggest busts in league history. The No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft, he managed just 440 yards and 4 touchdowns in three seasons with the Detroit Lions. His brief career was marked by multiple violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
But at Skandalaris, his name still stands tall. In just a two-year career for Michigan State, he became the lone Spartan to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s most outstanding receiver. He still holds the Michigan State record with 27 career touchdown catches.
In his debut season in 2001, Rogers burst onto the scene in an unmatched way. He caught 67 passes for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns (all program records at the time). The latter two still stand. The 6-4 Rogers dazzled college football fans with his speed and agility at his size, leading the Spartans to wins over Wisconsin and Missouri with 206 and 168 yards, respectively. He had 191 more in a loss to Penn State.
Rogers set Michigan State’s single-game receiving record in the Silicon Valley Football Classic against Fresno State, a 44-35 Spartans win. He earned offensive MVP honors with 270 yards and 2 touchdowns. That was Rogers’ lone bowl appearance.
In 2002, Michigan State struggled to a 4-8 finish, but its star receiver was up to his usual heroics. He recorded 68 catches for 1,351 yards and 13 touchdowns, earning the Biletnikoff Award. He racked up 175 yards against Notre Dame and finished a streak of 14 straight games with a touchdown. Then, he departed.
Despite the derailment of his pro career, Rogers remains the most breathtaking receiver in Michigan State history.
3. Lorenzo White, running back (1984-87)
Michigan State has a richer history of running backs than possibly any other position. On this list alone, we’ve included Clinton Jones, Todd “T.J.” Duckett, Sherm Lewis, Le’Veon Bell and Javon Ringer. But the best of the lot has been the best of the lot for 30 years.
As Percy Snow and the Spartans defense were swallowing opposing running backs, Lorenzo White was running wild against all challengers. Few statistics stand the test of time in college football, but White’s 4,887 career rushing yards on 1,082 carries remain as eye-widening now as they did then. No Michigan State player has come within 489 yards of his program record.
White’s sophomore season alone would’ve placed him 18th on the list, even beyond Jones, a College Football Hall of Fame member. In 1985, White rushed for 2,066 yards and 17 touchdowns on 419 carries, including 286 yards in a win over Indiana. White finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting.
That year was bookended by freshman and junior seasons in which he rushed for just over 600 yards, a modest mark by his standards, as he shared touches with several teammates. But as a senior, he carried the Spartans offense with 1,572 yards and 16 touchdowns on 357 carries. Along the way, he reappeared in Indiana’s nightmares, rushing for 292 yards, the second-best mark in school history.
That year, Michigan State marched to its third Rose Bowl victory and first in 32 years. He wrapped his career with another consensus All-American nod. Like the two players in ahead of him on this list, he earned those honors twice.
A first-round draft pick of the Houston Oilers, White spent eight years in the NFL, rushing for 4,242 yards. He went to the 1992 Pro Bowl.
2. Bubba Smith, defensive end (1964-66)
He’s surely the most recognizable figure in Michigan State football lore. Charles “Bubba” Smith stood 6-7, 280 pounds and sported a thick mustache for much of his playing days and post-football life. That retirement included a successful acting career, most notably as Cadet Moses Hightower in the Police Academy movies.
At Michigan State, however, he was a fresh-faced kid with a monstrous frame. He came from Texas, where the home-state Longhorns wouldn’t allow black players in their program. Legendary Spartans coach Duffy Daugherty was more than happy to welcome him.
The stats that could help to put Smith’s greatness in perspective weren’t recorded. Instead, we rely on video and the memories of those who watched him. “Kill, Bubba, kill,” they shouted in Spartan Stadium as Smith helped lead the Spartans to a 19-1-1 record over his junior and senior seasons. The Spartans didn’t lose a Big Ten game those years and claimed two national titles.
The “Gang Green” defense, as it was called, held opponents to 47.3 and 51.4 rushing yards per game in 1965 and 1966, respectively. When Smith wasn’t tracking down rushers, the double- and triple-teams he faced allowed his teammates to do so. As a senior, he recorded 30 tackles, 10 of which went for a collective loss of 59 yards.
Smith was named a consensus All-American those two years. He continues to be named among the best defensive players of all time, and Sports Illustrated named him to its All-Century Team. Plenty of defensive linemen have come along since, but arguably none have surpassed his impact. His No. 95 jersey was retired in 2006.
Smith was taken first overall in the 1967 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts. He played nine years in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors, before retiring and becoming an actor. He died Aug. 3, 2011, at age 66 and was later diagnosed with CTE, a brain disease that has plagued many former football players.
1. George Webster, roverback (1964-66)
Goodness gracious, this team. We’ve already listed three players who arrived in the same recruiting class: Clinton Jones, Gene Washington and Bubba Smith. George “Mickey” Webster is the fourth — he was the first of those to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
Webster’s legacy sometimes is overshadowed by the mammoth Smith, whose figure and personality seemed larger than life. But in Spartans lore, Webster is seen as the program’s most impactful player in the Big Ten era, as evidenced by the retirement of his No. 90 jersey in 1967, one year after he finished his breathtaking college career.
At 6-4, 218 pounds, he possessed size and speed unprecedented to Michigan State. He revolutionized Daugherty’s idea of the roverback position, a linebacker/safety combination that allowed him to stand up running backs and run with receivers. As a senior in 1966, he recorded 93 tackles, 10 of which went for losses.
As Smith often took on the attention of multiple players on the offense, Webster roamed free. A consensus first-team All-American in 1965 and 1966, he helped Michigan State hold opponents to 5.6 and 9.9 points per game, respectively. You can’t go wrong with either Smith or Webster in this spot given what they helped Michigan State accomplish, but Webster simply had the freedom and the versatility to do more. He was named to the Sports Illustrated All-Century Team as well.
Webster was taken fifth overall in the 1967 AFL Draft by the Houston Oilers. He played 10 seasons for the Oilers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, earned three All-Pro selections and was named to the AFL All-Time team. He suffered various health ailments before he died of heart failure on April 19, 2007.
“George died like he lived,” former Spartans assistant coach Hank Bullough said after Webster’s death. “He went out a warrior.”