by Nick Kurtansky
This Saturday, the Michigan State football team looks to veer off the losing track with a visit from Brigham Young University. In many ways this game feels odd, and I believe it has to do with some source of unfamiliarity. Most likely it is because the two teams have never met before, especially since we are coming off of games with Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Indiana, in which we have played a combined total of 194 times. But then again, after a string of years competing as one of the national elites, maybe we are less accustomed to our 0-2 record in the Big Ten than we are a Mormon school located in the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. It is unusual that, after coming off of games versus two conference opponents, State faces a team that has no such affiliation. People today can’t imagine Michigan State not being part of the Big Ten. Yet it took a combination of administrative moxie by John Hannah, the cessation of an entire athletics program, consent among regional sportswriters, and a Clarence Munn coached football team to get them in. The only fans who might recall the independent status would have been born before World War II. So as we set to face conference Independent BYU, I figured I’d write about Michigan State’s ambitious campaign that triumphed in 1948’s vote into the Big Ten, where we have since grown entirely familiar.
John Hannah believed very strongly in athletics. He said, “I have always thought that a sound athletic program was good for a university… they unify probably more than any other feature of the institution… they merge the enthusiasm of students, alumni, faculty, friends and supporters of the university, and all to the university’s good.” In 1939, the University of Chicago dropped its football program, putting the Big Ten Conference, known as the Western Conference, at nine teams. From Hannah’s start as president of the college in 1941, his ambitions were to build Michigan State College into a worldly prominent university. He saw the open seat in the Western Conference as his opportunity.
Scheduling was very difficult for Michigan State as an Independent. In order to receive national or even regional attention, you have to play tough teams and be competitive. This has not changed. However, Michigan State was unable to attract tough teams or regional rivals to East Lansing. Reputable competition usually had to be played on the road, leaving home contests to weak, small schools and school out West, in which regional attention cared little. Only five of State’s 48 meetings against the University of Michigan were in East Lansing before election into the Big Ten. Inclusion into the premier Western Conference offered consistent opportunity to play tough competition evenly between home and road games.
As an independent, MSC did not have the same experience that Notre Dame had and continues to have. As a state college, they did not have access to similar resources or operate under such privileges as Notre Dame by virtue of being a rich, private, Catholic school. Nevertheless, Michigan State owes Notre Dame a great deal of thanks. John Hannah had built a valuable relationship with Father John Cavanaugh of Notre Dame, and in 1943 the two are said to have agreed upon an annual series beginning in 1948 (which lasted over six decades until Notre Dame’s recent decision to end the annual agreement). However Notre Dame has always been considered a powerhouse football program. This series was very attractive to the Western Conference as they considered candidates to fill the University of Chicago’s old seat in the Big Ten.
Understandably, the interest in sports was at a low during World War II. But shortly after the War had ended, Hannah wrote a letter to the Big Ten requesting admission into the conference. At the same time, the student population under Hannah at Michigan State grew exponentially with Hannah’s efforts and help from the G.I. Bill. Then in 1946, the University of Chicago dropped the rest of its athletic program and the conference began considering candidates including Michigan State College, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Nebraska. The University of Michigan and their president, Alexander Grant Ruthven, represented strong opposition to Michigan State’s case. In the First half of the century the Wolverines had been nationally dominant. Adding an intrastate rival to the conference would undoubtedly dilute their resources and ability to sign the best athletes. Indiana and Illinois were concerned that an annual Michigan vs. Michigan State conference game would take the air out of their nationally recognized contest with the maize and blue. Iowa lobbied for Nebraska because of geographical proximity would have resulted in another neighboring rival. But for the most part, the Big Ten schools supported Michigan State in this so called election in order to weaken Michigan and level the playing field.
Especially beneficial was John Hannah’s relationship with Lewis Morrill, the president at the University of Minnesota. It was from this city that the sports editor of the Minneapolis Star urged his fellow Big Ten regional sportswriters to support Michigan State in their newspapers. Logically, media support weighed heavy in the conferences decision. Even legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote in support of Michigan State to a national reading audience, and in particular, expressed admiration for John Hannah. In justifying their case, he wrote, “And why not? Michigan State has more than 15,000 students. It also has one of the best football layouts in the game, a new stadium that can handle 55,000 spectators, the most modern one yet build. Beaten only by Michigan and Notre Dame, Michigan has known one of its best seasons this fall. It has a better team than several members of the Big Nine.” In support of Hannah’s ideas in favor of college administrative control over college athletic programs in order to preserve the purity of amateur athletics, Rice would later write in the Pittsburgh Press, “I would like to see Dr. Hannah put in charge of handling all of college football.”
One of the obstacles involved athletic scholarships. Michigan State awarded their Jenison Awards, a scholarship for tuition, books, room, and board, to 90 athletes each year. At the time, this aid was one the level of schools from the Southeastern Conference. The Big Ten did not approve of the Jenison Awards and looked down upon all athletic scholarships. State complied, and decided to drop this tradition in order to please the Western Conference.
Biggie Munn was hired in as the MSC football coach perfectly in between the folding of the University of Chicago’s athletic program and the beginning of the series with Notre Dame. He went 7-2 and 6-2-2 in his first two years, 1947-48. As a great coach, Biggie looked the part, and he went on bring the football team to national glory in the early 1950s. When the Michigan State News published the headline “State Makes Big 10” on December 12, 1948, a crowd of students gathered outside the home of John Hannah. It was announced as a unanimous, although that score is a likely formality to underscore any strife. In front of the joyous crowd, Hannah graciously downplayed his role in the decision, boiling the situation down to a credit to Biggie Munn and the football team’s performance.
Because of scheduling, Michigan State did not play its first official conference football game until 1953. That year they were coming off of AP and Coaches’ Poll national titles in 1952 as independents, but in their first conference season, the Spartans won their first Big Ten title. As far as getting into the Big Ten, of course it was much more complicated than president Hannah claimed on the night of December 12, 1948. It required the recipe of student populating growth after WWII, administrative networking, one school’s crumbling athletics program to contrast State’s up-and-coming football program, and a little bit of help from our friends, the talking heads in the media, for Michigan State to since reap the fruits as a member of the proud Big Ten tradition.