2022 Grand Marshal Jim Bibbs’ history at Michigan State makes him an all-time Spartan great

This article originally appeared in Jack Ebling’s Great Lansing”SPORT” magazine in 2011. Ebling graciously gave me permission to reprint it this week as James Bibbs prepares to take up his duties as state of michigan University Homecoming 2022 Grand Marshal. Thanks Jack!

Other than a few minor edits, the article remains unchanged from its 2011 form – the ages, timelines, and possibly other aspects mentioned in the story are no longer accurate.

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The weather allows for training outside today and Jim is steadily moving down the hallway at East Lansing High School as he has done almost every day during the track season for the past 14 years . The journey takes longer than expected, but not because this man’s 82 years are slowing him down. The trip takes longer because Jim can’t take more than a few steps without a student beckoning him.

“Hi, Coach Bibbs! is the familiar refrain as he heads through the opening gates towards the oval that has defined his life for over 60 years now – the track. He greets each student who greets him; he embraces those who embrace him – Black and white, freshman and senior.

He knows he has a place in the hearts of these children – and he cherishes the fact that he is there.

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James Bibbs was a talented athlete, having grown up in the town of Ecorse, a southwest suburb of Detroit, the son of a factory worker. Playing baseball through the summer and running in college, the All-American Bibbs had set a world record in the 60-yard sprint and found himself on the receiving end of minor league baseball contracts. both New York Yankees and the St Louis Browns. The Yankees had offered $500 a month, and to Jim, that sounded pretty good. When he told his father about it, however, the response he got was, “You don’t quit school for $500 a month. It’s not money. You will finish school.

In Jim’s mind, it was settled.

Having just finished his freshman year at Michigan State Normal School (the ancestor of present-day Eastern Michigan University), Bibbs had struggled a lot in his chemistry and Latin classes. A student of AB in high school, Jim found himself talking with James “Bingo” Brown, the dean of MSNS men, about his difficulties in school. He remembers exactly what Bingo told him that year: “You’re a little boy from a small town who can do big things – but you gotta touch those books.”

His answer was a simple “Yes sir, Dean.”

And he did.

These two men framed his approach to life.

“I respected Bingo and was scared of my dad,” he said with a laugh. This advice was given to Bibbs in the early 1950s. Little did he realize at the time that – in the next six decades – he would say these words, or their equivalent, to hundreds and thousands of young people – on and off the track.

And they would listen.

Jim’s mother had wanted him to be a doctor; he wasn’t interested, so they opted for pharmacy as their degree program. But Jim soon realized that to study pharmacy he would have to transfer to the University of Michigan. Spartan fans everywhere can thank Jim’s athletic coach at Michigan State Normal School, James Marshall, for stopping him from doing it. Jim was grounded in his current school and didn’t want to leave his track coach; he decided to study physical education instead. After graduating, Jim continued his education, earning a master’s degree in physical education from Wayne State University.

With those degrees in hand, Bibbs’ career goal was to coach the high school route, and when he was hired at his alma mater Ecorse High School—”one of his proudest moments”—he thought he was here for life. But when his track team successfully won the Spartan Invitational Relays, winning back-to-back titles in 1966 and 1967, Bibbs was asked to do something he never thought he’d do – quit Ecorse High School after just four year.

“I must have impressed someone. So they called me and asked if I was interested in Michigan State as an assistant coach. I had mixed emotions. I love Ecorse. But how do you deny Michigan State? As much as I love Ecorse High, turning down Michigan State is like leaving Halle Berry. It’s a bit difficult to do.

Thus, the first African-American coach in Michigan State history was on his way to campus.

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Updated photo of James Bibbs in 2022.
Courtesy of Michigan State University

The date was July 23, 1967, and Coach Bibbs had yet to be hired at MSU. He was in Winnipeg, Manitoba for the kick off of the 5e Pan American Games. As he prepared to lead the United States women’s track team, the city of Detroit was on fire. Literally. The Detroit Riot of 1967 began in the early hours of Sunday morning and left dozens dead, hundreds injured, thousands arrested and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

Although Bibbs was not in the country for the race riots, he fully understood the social impact they had on society.

“I guess people were worried that black people would still have games and maybe come to Michigan and Michigan State, and then hit colleges,” he half-joked. “So they decided to hire black coaches. I happened to be the lucky one they picked. I think at that time they were looking for an African American coach and I guess they thought that I was the best. And I’d like to think they were right.

When he arrived at East Lansing, Bibbs was confident in his abilities to represent his race as a coach.

“I’m not one to feel a lot of outside pressure. I just tried to do my best,” Bibbs said.

The only racism he encountered was subtle.

“If it was kept subtle, I might let it go,” he said. “I might have reacted differently if someone had been aggressive. My mother always taught me that sticks and stones would break my bones, but words would never hurt me.

Bibbs has always viewed Michigan State as a leader in diversity, but until he was hired, that diversity hadn’t extended beyond the athletes. Bibbs knew the color of his skin might have helped him land his job, but he also knew for sure that it wouldn’t help him keep it.

“You get a job for a number of reasons,” he said. “But you have to produce to keep the job. And I managed to stay here 28 years. I had a lot of wonderful athletes who helped me look good.

Two of those athletes were Herb Washington and Marshall Dill. Washington joined Bibbs in his freshman year at East Lansing in 1968 and two years later Dill arrived. These two athletes won multiple All-American honors, won the Big Ten and NCAA championships, and eventually became members of the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame. He was exactly the type of athlete Bibbs recruited: good runner, good student, good boy.

“I don’t buy trouble,” Bibbs said with a laugh. “If I’m going to have problems, I have to get them for free. I’m not going to give scholarships to anyone to get me in trouble.

As head coach, Bibbs turned down certain athletes who did not fit the character or academic categories. He also brought a few who were on the edge and spent more time with them, emphasizing the importance of studying hard.

“I see myself as a coach and also as an educator,” Bibbs said. “I think all of our work is to help young people prepare for life. Like I tell them, even if you go pro or become everyone – if you do that and leave school at 22 – say 10 – now you’re 32. If you’re lucky and you die at 33, you had a good life. But if you age like me, what would I be doing between 32 and 82 if I didn’t have other things going for me? We all have a small period of time where we are blessed with athletic skills. But at some point, it runs out. No one will hire me just because I raced on the track.

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When Bibbs first arrived in East Lansing he moved into the Cherry Lane flats. When he married a year later, at 40, he and his new wife, Martha Bibbs, moved across the street to the Red Cedar neighborhood, about five blocks from Breslin Center – where they have lived ever since.

Bibbs describes his 41-year-old wife as “more remarkable than me.” Michigan’s first black — and first woman — state civil servant, Martha had her own impact on MSU Athletics.

“She has been a great asset to me as a coach over the years. We were going to recruit and she was recruiting moms while I was recruiting father and son,” Bibbs said with a laugh.

In 1995, Bibbs retired from MSU as the longest-serving head coach in program history. He’s still involved at MSU, though, and often travels with teams and speaks with current athletes.

Walt Drenth, director of Michigan State’s men’s and women’s track and field and cross country programs, recently asked Bibbs to impart his wisdom at the team banquet.

“Our athletes respect him,” Drenth said. “They were on the edge of their seat. There was no one talking. There was no one texting. No one was looking out the window.

Coach Bibbs took a few years off from training before returning to high school in 1997. One of his grandchildren was running at East Lansing High School and he wanted to see if he could do anything to help. 14 years later, Bibbs not only helps on the track, he helps off the court. He is considered a friend and mentor to local children, always passing on the advice he learned at their age.

In fact, Bibbs became so popular that the James E. Bibbs Invitational Track Meet was started in 2006. Current East Lansing track and field coach Pat Murray says Bibbs shows up every year.

“He’s been sitting there all day, all competition,” Murray said. “He knows the children, the parents and the grandparents. His enthusiasm is contagious.

By all indications, “Bingo” Jones’ prophecy of 60 years ago has indeed come true, and on many occasions – a little boy from a small town has indeed done great things.

On and off the track.

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