MSU has always taken pride in the men’s and women’s basketball programs and we have every reason to do so. With the women in the spotlight as last season’s Big Ten Champions, and the men this season with their once in a lifetime game played on the USS Carl Vinson, what is there not to talk about? Naturally, I got to wondering the other day as I was watching some Spartan hoops about the beginnings of the program at MSU. So I did a little digging…
When the University first started, sports were not a main priority set forth by the college; actually the odd three term academic year running from February to November prevented sports from being played. When the academic calendar was changed in 1896, athletics were able to be integrated into the university. Baseball was actually the first organized sport at MAC, followed by boxing, football, and finally basketball in 1899.
No one is quite sure who actually brought the sport to MSU. Nonetheless, the first basketball game at MAC took place on February 27, 1899. The match up was between the MAC Aggies and Olivet College; unfortunately the Aggies lost 6-7. The team at the time had no official coach, but Walter Brainard, the captain of the 1897 football team, served as their manager. This first game was played at the Armory on the site of the current Music Building. The Armory held about 1,200 people and the baskets and backboards were attached flush to brick walls. The overhead girders were so low that some Aggie players would actually loft long shots over them. Layups were made easier too as it was possible to spring up on a wooden ledge that encircled the Armory just above the heat pipes.
The games were played at the Armory until 1918 when IM Circle, formally known as the women’s gymnasium was built. This facility could accommodate about 3,500 people on bleachers installed on both the floor level and on a balcony level. In 1930, the location of the basketball games changed again, as the match-ups were now played in the Demonstration Hall Arena. The new facility could hold about 5,500 people and featured a portable floor so that the ROTC could use the area for drills; both programs shared the space in the building. However, because of the fact that this space was shared by ROTC, the Basketball team, and the indoor polo team, the university often faced scheduling conflicts. Dem Hall would serve as the home court of the team until 1940 when it moved to Jenison Gymnasium. Jenison would prove to be a great space for the games. With a capacity of 12,5000 the games could be attended by a great majority of the student population. Jenison was home to the basketball games for nearly 50 years until the games were played at the current location of the Breslin Center.
Charles Bemies was the first coach of the team, leading the Aggies to a season record of 5-2 during the one season he coached. The first great era of Aggie Basketball, however, came under the leadership of coach Chester Brewer. In the earlier days of athletics of MSU, there was just one coach who handled all the teams, so not only was Brewer in charge of the basketball team, but he was also head coach for the great Aggie football team as well! The MSU men’s basketball program would go on to have a total of 16 coaches, with two that are in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, Pete Newell (1950-1954) and Jud Heathcote (1976-1995). Current coach Tom Izzo currently leads the program in all time number of wins.
Believe it or not, the first organized women’s basketball team was actually formed before the men’s. In late January 1898, the Lansing High School women’s team defeated the MAC Women’s basketball team 16-2. A week later, the two teams played again, and much to the Aggies despair, they lost again 26-6. The women played four 10 minute quarters. The team started out in rough shape but eventually improved over time. After these first few inaugural years, intercollegiate women’s basketball at MAC faded away but the competitive athletic spirit lived on as they continued to participate in intramural sports. In 1899 two teams were organized by the freshmen and one by the sophomores to play against each other. Two years later the top players from six intramural teams made up the varsity women’s squad who would stand as the team ready to accept a game offer from another institution. In 1913, the seniors’ team would ask Norman “Baldy” Spencer, a member of the men’s varsity basketball team to coach them in preparation to play against another ladies team. Eventually, the team would go on to become a part of the women’s intercollegiate league and grow into the program it has become today.
Frimodig, Lyman L., and Fred W. Stabley. Spartan Saga; a History of Michigan State Athletics,. East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1971. Print.
Widder, Keith R. Michigan Agricultural College: the Evolution of a Land Grant Philosophy, 1855-1925. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State UP, 2005. Print.