Gibson: With MSU on probation in '70s, UM game was everything

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Kirk Gibson greets Connor Cook after MSU's Rose Bowl win over Stanford on Jan. 1, 2014.

This is the third in a series of profiles on former Michigan State players and their thoughts on the Michigan game.

Michigan had beaten Michigan State eight consecutive years, and then entered the 1978 game ranked No. 5 in the country.

Many expected more of the same.

Until, that is, the first play of the game for Michigan State -- an incomplete pass, albeit one that opened some eyes.

"You remember it?" Kirk Gibson asked. "I just ran a straight bomb right by the guy, and Eddie Smith overthrew me, by an inch! I was gone. We kind of served notice right away."

While MSU missed a field goal on that first possession, it scored on its next three, took a 17-0 lead into halftime, and ended up shocking the masses at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, with a 24-15 victory.

For Gibson, a senior whose football days would soon be coming to a close, it was sweet as could be.

After all, the All-American wide receiver had never been recruited by Michigan and Bo Schembechler -- they knew he was always going to Michigan State -- but then was on the losing side of the rivalry game his first three years in college.

"Hey, look, they beat you three times; you're down to your last time," Gibson said. "We took them down.

"It was fun. I just remember standing out there in the huddle and letting the clock run down. Certainly, it's a memory I'll never forget. They were very formidable. We all respected Bo."

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Gibson was the leading receiver that day, with five catches for 82 yards. But many players were involved in the offense that afternoon.

In fact, what stood out most to Gibson from that game -- the balance of the offense. Gibson said he thought MSU had the exact same number of rushing yards as passing yards, and research of box scores shows he's right. It was 248 yards each.

"We just had a very balanced game. Everything went right for us," he said. "We passed the ball. We ran the ball.

"I came in with high hopes. We were 7-4 my first year, then we got put on probation (for recruiting violations), which I think was somewhat unfair," Gibson said. "This group of guys stuck with it, they fired Denny Stolz, brought in Darryl Rogers. We kind of brought it back up til that last year, when we really kind of gelled and came together. The Michigan game, to beat them, we should've went to the Rose Bowl.

"We got three damn years put on us!"

Michigan State used the Michigan triumph as a springboard to finish the season with seven consecutive Big Ten victories, and at 7-1, the Spartans tied for the Big Ten championship -- with the Wolverines, who went to Pasadena while MSU was wrapping up its third and final year of bowl ineligibility.

Gibson had bigger things to come, anyway.

He became the No. 12 overall draft pick by the Tigers in 1978, and he would go on to a 17-year major-league career that included two World Series titles and some of the most clutch performances the game has seen.

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First, though, his athletic skills were showcased on the Big Ten football fields. He caught passes in all four games against Michigan, including an 18-yard touchdown pass in the 1977 loss.

"You're trying to win the Big Ten; to win the Big Ten, you've gotta beat Michigan," said Gibson, now 58 and a member of the Tigers broadcast team on Fox Sports Detroit. "The Michigan game was a big way for us to measure ourselves. There was a lot of talk about it. A lot of excitement about it. People tend to brag, being a Michigan guy or a Michigan State guy. As much as for bragging rights, it's important.

"Though there was a little extra, you try to stay focused."

Gibson isn't sure if he'll be at Saturday's game, though he said he might do a little tailgating in the area.

He has nothing but praise for MSU coach Mark Dantonio and UM coach Jim Harbaugh, though he's not necessarily buying into the game's current narrative -- that the Wolverines are on the rise and the Spartans are sinking.

It's MSU vs. UM. It'll likely be a ballgame.

"Regardless if Michigan's flying high and State's beat up, who cares?" Gibson said. "They're both well-coached teams. These coaches are exceptional. They've done a great job. Both of their teams feed off them and believe in what they're trying to accomplish.

"It's gonna be a good one. I can only hope the experience and the things State's experienced over the last several years is gonna get the job done."

Just like it did, by the way, back in 1978.

Kirk Gibson against Michigan

1975: Michigan, 16-6

1976: Michigan, 42-10

1977: Michigan, 24-14

1978: Michigan State, 24-15