Spartans

Henning: Darryl Rogers left his mark with his humanity

Darryl Rogers
Darryl Rogers
Detroit News
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Next time they show the video of Kirk Gibson rounding first base at Dodger Stadium, cranking his right arm back and forth in a moment of sublime baseball glee after Gibson had just won Game 1 of the 1988 World Series with a home run, remember the celebrities and Hall of Famers who made that slice of baseball history possible.

Gibson.

Dennis Eckersley.

Tommy Lasorda.

And yes ... Darryl Rogers.

Indirectly, a football coach set it all in motion.

A football coach who died Tuesday in Fresno, California, in his sleep, at age 83.

Rogers coached the Lions from 1985-88 after running the Spartans from 1976-79. He was a coach who, like one of his California brethren, Don (Air) Coryell, believed the fastest path to and end zone was by way of a forward pass.

But, ah, the difference in Rogers, the difference in his work and in his life, the reason he is most remembered today by a football-turned-baseball player, and by a sports writer who covered him nearly nightly during that amazing 1978 season, is the goodness he regularly displayed, as he did on a chilly January day in East Lansing just ahead of that ’78 season.

Gibson was then playing football and only football, as he waded through the winter of his junior year. He was an All-American. He was a 6-foot-3, 220-pound beast who had run for NFL scouts the 40-yard dash in, yes, 4.28 seconds.

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Gibson, who now works as a Tigers analyst on FSD telecasts, recalled the moment Wednesday.

“Darryl walks up to me out of the clear blue,” Gibson remembered, “and says: You want to be a top-five, first-round pick?'”

“And I said, sure. And he says, ‘Go out for baseball.’

“I said: How does that make me a top-five NFL pick and player?

“And he explained.”

Rogers, who had grown up tough in Long Beach, California, was both smart enough and decent enough to appreciate two of life’s realities.

Gibson was of such excellence as an athlete Rogers knew he could play Big Ten baseball, especially after MSU’s baseball coach, Danny Litwhiler, had mentioned Gibson’s work in some earlier American Legion games when Gibson was a teen in Waterford. Gibson could help Litwhiler and, most of all, likely raise a 20-year-old’s market price if he had two sports cooking.

But even more fundamentally, the quality that spurred Rogers to offer baseball as an option was inherent in a man who, quite truthfully, remains one of the best people I’ve known in 40-plus years of covering sports.

Rogers wasn’t about to get proprietary with Gibson. There was no ownership in the head coach's mind. There was, rather, an easy sense of stewardship he extended to everyone, every day.

Gibson quoted Rogers, who had decided spring football was going to be well, superfluous, for a player of Gibson’s celestial skills.

“I don’t want to see you in football this spring,” Gibson remembers Rogers saying. “You’ll be ready for football next fall. Play baseball and you’ll increase your leverage.”

Darryl Rogers and former Lions quarterback Chuck Long
Darryl Rogers and former Lions quarterback Chuck Long
Detroit News

Gibson went out for baseball. He hadn’t played seriously for a few years. He soon was slamming pitches beyond the Red Cedar River. The Tigers got him that June in the first round, with the 12th overall pick, all because they and Gibson had done an artful job convincing clubs in front that Gibson was going to play in the NFL.

In fact he was going to be the first overall pick in the ’79 draft, which was confirmed when, after he signed with the Tigers, after he had a first summer of minor-league baseball at Lakeland, Florida, he returned to East Lansing, to his teammates and to his coach, and helped the Spartans win that autumn’s Big Ten co-championship by way of individual plays that yet remain among the most remarkable dynamics some of us ever have seen on a football field.

Rogers had unleashed Gibson when he arrived in East Lansing in April of 1976, a few months after MSU had gotten all but a NCAA probation lift-sentence. Rogers had been airing it out as head coach at San Jose State and MSU’s new athletic director, Joe Kearney, who had been at the University of Washington, knew all about the coach who might bring a new brand of football to the grind-and-groan Big Ten.

Rogers spotted, on the first day of spring drills, a quarterback from Pittsburgh, Eddie Smith, who was buried on the depth chart and had been planning on transferring. Rogers asked all of his quarterbacks to line up and throw the football. He decided in a nanosecond that Smith, then a sophomore, was his new QB.

It was Smith who for the next three seasons hooked up so often with Gibson on pass plays that were straight from Cape Canaveral.

A year later, in 1979, everything was upside down. A new president, Cecil Mackey, who wasn’t from the region and who had no love for the sports sphere, had taken charge in East Lansing. Kearney and Rogers jumped together to become the new AD-football coach tandem at Arizona State.

Six years later the Lions called. Rogers wasn’t interested. That is, until he got word a day later about budget cuts, big ones, coming ASU’s way.

Rogers called Russ Thomas, then the Lions’ general manager.

“Is that job still open?”

“Sure is."

“I’ll take it."

It wasn’t a great interlude, for any of the parties. The Lions were the Lions and by autumn 1988. Rogers, who had flippantly said after one loss. “What’s it take to get fired around here?” was gone.

The “what’s it take” remark was, for those who knew Rogers, on a par with another line oft-quoted that earned him the enmity of University of Michigan fans.

It came during a an MSU football banquet when Rogers quoted one of his assistant coaches, saying of Michigan, that the Wolverines were “arrogant asses.”

Rogers meant it jocularly, for a captive MSU audience, and even if he should have known better, it wasn’t said with any venom. It was Rogers being Rogers in a way Gibson remembered Wednesday.

“He had a smart-alecky way of getting his point across,” Gibson said. “There were always these great lines. Let me tell you, Darryl was a special guy. He cared about football, but he cared about you, as well.

“There are special people in your life who you want to make sure are not taken for granted,” Gibson said. “Things happen, and it’s disappointing, because I’ve had such a great experience with Darryl Rogers. If you could see some of the emails flying around from some of my teammates.”

The relationship continued. Each year, The Sparty Party, an annual golf reunion arranged by one of Gibson’s old MSU teammates, Mark Tapling, was a staple at some splashy national resort. Rogers was always there, as he was this spring, with one of his old staffers and one of the ’78 team’s favorite assistant coaches, Bob Baker.

Rogers had been there last autumn at Spartan Stadium, the last time I saw him, the last conversation enjoyed with a man who was indelible, when Gibson was celebrated by the Spartans for being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame.

The ’78 gang turned out that night. Their kinship assured it. The coach flew in from Fresno, with wife, Marsha.

“After that game,” Gibson said, speaking of the night when MSU played one of its few clunkers from 2017, against Notre Dame, “we said to him, ‘We might go over and have a drink at Kellogg (Center).’

“And then I said, ‘Might you come over and have one with us?’

“So, sure enough,” Gibson recalled, “it’s now 12:30, 1 o’clock, and here comes Darryl.

“We loved it.

“And he loved it, too.”

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter @Lynn_Henning

 

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