This article was originally published in Jack Ebling’s Greater Lansing “SPORT” magazine in 2011. Ebling graciously gave me permission to reprint it this week as James Bibbs prepares to perform his duties as Michigan State University’s Homecoming 2022 grand marshal. Thanks, Jack!
Outside of a couple of minor edits, the article remains unchanged from its 2011 form — ages, timeframes and perhaps other aspects mentioned in the story are no longer accurate.
The weather allows for practice outside today and Jim is steadily making his way down the hallway of East Lansing High School as he has done nearly every day during track and field season for the last 14 years. The trip takes longer than expected, but not because this man’s 82 years of age are slowing him down. The trip takes longer because Jim can’t take more than a few steps without a student flagging him down.
“Hi, Coach Bibbs!” is the familiar refrain as he walks towards the doors that open in the direction of the oval that has defined his life for over 60 years now – the track. He greets each student that greets him; he hugs those that hug him – Black and white, freshman and senior.
He knows he has a place in these kids’ hearts – and he cherishes the fact that he is there.
James Bibbs was a talented athlete, growing up in the city of Ecorse, a southwest suburb of Detroit, the son of a factory worker. Playing baseball during the summer and running track in college, the All-American Bibbs had set a world record in the 60-yard dash and found himself on the receiving end of minor league baseball contracts from both the New York Yankees and the St Louis Browns. The Yankees had offered $500 per month, and to Jim that sounded pretty good. When he mentioned it to his dad, however, the response he got was, “You ain’t quittin’ school for $500 a month. That ain’t no money. You’re gonna finish school.”
In Jim’s mind, that settled that.
Having just finished his freshman year at Michigan State Normal School (the precursor to today’s Eastern Michigan University), Bibbs had struggled mightily in his chemistry and latin classes. An A-B student in high school, Jim found himself talking with James “Bingo” Brown, the Dean of Men at MSNS, about his academic difficulties. He remembers exactly what Bingo told him that year: “You’re a little boy from a little town who can do big things - but you’ve got to hit those books.”
His reply was a simple “Yes sir, Dean.”
And he did so.
Those two men framed his approach to life.
“I respected Bingo and was afraid of my dad,” he said with a laugh. These words of advice were spoken to Bibbs in the early 1950s. He didn’t realize at the time that – in the six decades to follow – he would say those words, or their equivalent, to hundreds and thousands of young people – both 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 had settled on pharmacy as a course of study. But Jim quickly realized that in order to study pharmacy, he would have to transfer to the University of Michigan. Spartan fans everywhere can thank Jim’s track coach at the Michigan State Normal School, James Marshall, for keeping him from doing so. Jim was entrenched at his current school and didn’t want to leave his track coach; he decided instead to study physical education. After earning that degree, Jim continued his studies, earning a Master’s Degree in physical education from Wayne State University.
With those degrees in hand, Bibbs’ career goal was to coach high school track, and when he was hired at his alma mater Ecorse High School – “one of his proudest moments” – he thought he was there for life. But when his track team had a successful run at the Spartan Invitational Relays, earning back-to-back titles in 1966 and 1967, Bibbs was asked to do something he never thought he’d do – leave Ecorse High School after only four years.
“I must have impressed somebody. So, they called me and asked me if I was interested in Michigan State as an assistant coach. I had mixed emotions. I love Ecorse. But how do you turn down Michigan State? As much as I love Ecorse High, turning down Michigan State is like leaving Halle Berry. It’s kinda difficult to do.”
And so the first African-American coach in Michigan State history was on his way to campus.
The date was July 23, 1967 and Coach Bibbs hadn’t yet been hired at MSU. He was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for the kick-off of the 5th Pan American Games. As he was preparing to lead the U.S. Women’s Track Team, the city of Detroit was on fire. Literally. The 1967 Detroit riot began in the early morning hours that Sunday and resulted in dozens dead, hundreds injured, thousands arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.
Although Bibbs wasn’t in the country for the race riots, he definitely understood the social impact that they had on society.
“I guess people worried that Black people still had matches and they might be coming to Michigan and Michigan State, hitting the colleges next,” he said only half-joking. “So they decided to hire some 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 I was the best one out there. And I’d like to think they were right.”
When he arrived in 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 the best I can,” Bibbs said.
The only racism he bumped into was subtle.
“If it stayed subtle, I could pass it up,” he said. “I might have reacted differently if someone had been confrontational. My mother always taught me 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 that the color of his skin might have helped him land his job but he also knew for certain that it wasn’t going to help him keep it.
“You get a job for any number of reasons,” he said. “But you gotta produce in order to keep the job. And I managed to stay here 28 years. I had a lot of wonderful athletes that helped make me look good.”
Two of those athletes were Herb Washington and Marshall Dill. Washington joined Bibbs in his first year in East Lansing in 1968 and two years later, Dill arrived. Both of those athletes earned All-American honors several times, won both Big Ten and NCAA championships, and ended up as members of the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame. They were exactly the type of athlete that Bibbs recruited: good runner, good student, good kid.
“I don’t buy problems,” Bibbs said with a laugh. “If I’m gonna have problems, I gotta get them for free. I’m not going around giving nobody no scholarships to create me problems.”
As head coach, Bibbs turned away some athletes that didn’t measure up in the character or the academic categories. He also brought a few in that were border-line and spent extra time with them, stressing the importance of studying hard.
“I see myself as a coach and also see myself as an educator,” Bibbs said. “I think all our jobs is to help young people prepare for life. Like I tell them, even if you make the pros or become all world – if you do that and you leave school at 22 – let’s say 10 years – now you’re 32. If you get lucky and die at 33, you had a beautiful life. But if you get old like me, what am I going to do between 32 and 82 if I didn’t have some other things going for me? We all have a little period of time when we are blessed with athletic skills. But at some point in time, that runs out. No one’s gonna hire me just because I ran track.”
When Bibbs first came to East Lansing, he moved into the Cherry Lane apartments. When he got married one year later, at age 40, he and his new wife, Martha Bibbs, moved across the street to the Red Cedar area, about five blocks from the Breslin Center – where they’ve lived ever since.
Bibbs describes his wife of 41 years as “more noteworthy than me.” The first Black – and the first woman – Civil Service Director of the State of Michigan, Martha had her own impact on MSU Athletics.
“She’s been a great asset to me as a coach down through the years. We’d go recruiting and she’d recruit mamas while I recruit the dad and the son,” Bibbs said with a laugh.
In 1995, Bibbs retired from MSU as the longest-tenured head coach in program history. He is still involved at MSU, though, and often goes on trips with the teams and speaks with the current athletes.
Walt Drenth, Director of the Men’s and Women’s Track & Field and Cross Country programs at Michigan State, had Bibbs impart his wisdom at the team banquet recently.
“Our athletes respect him,” Drenth said. “They were on the edge of their seats. There wasn’t anybody talking. There wasn’t anybody texting. Nobody was looking out the window.”
Coach Bibbs took a couple years off from coaching before he found his way back to the high school track in 1997. One of his grandchildren was running track at East Lansing High School and he wanted to see if there was anything he could do to help. 14 years later, not only does Bibbs help on the track, he helps off the field. He is seen as a friend and a mentor to children throughout the area, always passing on the advice that he learned at their age.
In fact, Bibbs has become so popular that the James E. Bibbs Invitational Track Meet was launched in 2006. East Lansing’s current track and field coach, Pat Murray, said that Bibbs shows up every year.
“He sits there the whole day, for the whole meet,” said Murray. “He knows the kids, the parents, and the grandparents. His enthusiasm is just catching.”
From all indications, “Bingo” Jones’ prophecy from 60 years ago has indeed come true, and many times over at that – a little boy from a little town did indeed do great things.
Both on and off the track.