“It’s a beautifullll dayyyy for football!!” Every time I hear this phrase said at Spartan Stadium I get goose bumps, for it marks yet another football Saturday at MSU. As our team is off to another great year and with a new uniform for the Michigan game on its way, I couldn’t help but to think…”I wonder what Spartan football was like in the earlier days of MSU”. Well ladies and gentlemen, here it is for you, a (very) brief history of the beginnings of MSU football.
The first college football game took place in 1869; however, Michigan Agricultural College did not form a team until 1884. At this time, football was frowned upon by the administration, so even though the college had a team and a coach, Professor of math and civil engineering Rolla Carpenter, they did not play any games (however, they did have their picture taken!). It wasn’t until 1896 where we see the Aggies play their first season consisting of four games. Why did it take 12 years for the team to establish itself? – At this time in school history, their break used to be in the fall and winter so students could teach at country schools. The change in the school breaks, strongly supported by President Snyder, allowed for the football team to form and begin playing in the college league. Games were held on a field near what used to be the “Indian Grounds”, an area where local tribesmen were able to hunt and fish. Practice for the team took place 5 days a week. On two of the days, they would hold a 45 minute-long practice on the parade grounds, followed by a mile run and then a rub down. On the other three days the team would run wind sprints on the grounds near the president’s house. In 1897, the team, coached by Henry Keep, played its first match against Notre Dame. The next year they would match up against Michigan for the first time.
The program began to grow and changes took place for the football team. In 1900, a few rooms in the basement of Abbot Hall (the current location of the Music Building) were converted to a dressing room and bathroom for the team. In 1902, the college decided to construct an official Athletic Field. Old College Field was built on the south side of the Red Cedar in the present day location of the McLane Baseball Stadium. We see the team start wearing green and white uniforms, introduced by coach Chester Brewer, upon playing in the new stadium. Six years after the new athletic field, we see the first half time show. Unlike today’s half time shows featuring the band and Zeke the Wonder dog, the first show consisted of a push-ball contest between Wells and Williams Halls. In 1911, the college introduced the option of purchasing season tickets for $2.00. October 17, 1914 marked the first “Alumni Game” (aka. Homecoming) at MSU. Nearly 10,000 people were in attendance. The uniforms received an upgrade in 1915 when the player jerseys were numbered for the first time. The fight song was formally introduced in 1919, and in 1922, the band began the tradition of raising the American flag and playing the National Anthem before the games.
Over the years Michigan State football underwent many changes. A stadium was built and enlarged numerous times and underwent several name changes from Old College Stadium, to Macklin Stadium, to Spartan Stadium. At one point, the football team wore jerseys not of green and white, but rather of black and gold earning themselves the nickname “The Black Knights of the Red Cedar”. The band’s uniforms transformed from a military style uniform to a college marching uniform. The football season was even canceled in 1943 because of World War II. During this season, an inter-campus league, consisting of 5 teams (the on-campus engineers, the off campus engineers, the veterinarians, the ROTC team, and the civilian football team) was formed to keep football alive on campus. Even our mascots underwent numerous changes. Did you know that we once had a rooster and a bear as our “mascots” for the football team? In 1907, a student brought a large white rooster with its wings painted green on the middle of the field and it stuck as a symbol of the team for 2 seasons. Then, in 1909, a little brown bear brought in from Montana, named “Monty” represented the team. It was held in a cage behind the armory and taken to Old College Field for home games before being donated to the zoo after the season’s end. As time went on, rivalry trophies were introduced, coaches and players left legacies, attendance soared, and football became a staple of Michigan State University.
I can only imagine what these games were like back in the early days of football. Picture a crowd, the size of the current day student section, dressed up in their nice clothes watching a football game. The Aggie Yell Team would lead chants to pump up the boys and the crowd. Hawkers, as they called them, would float through the stands selling refreshments ranging from 5¢ – 10¢. Oh and don’t forget those cigarettes for 15¢! The game would take place with the spectators cheering the team on to a victory!
Spartan Football, 100 Seasons of Gridiron Glory by Ken Hoffman and Larry Bielat