Earning a Seat at the Big Ten Table

6 10 2016

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.


1948 action shot from the first annual meeting between the Spartans and Fighting Irish in South Bend.


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.


Clarence “Biggie” Munn and his assistant coaches, including Duffy Daugherty.


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.


State News of December 12, 1948 breaking the news with the headline “State Makes Big Ten.”

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.

Answers to the American Archives Month 2013 Trivia Contest

5 11 2013


Our 2013 Trivia Contest featured questions about athletics at Michigan State University.  Twenty-eight people entered and two people answered all eight questions correctly.  We will be contacting the winners soon.

The staff at the University Archives & Historical Collections would like to thank everyone for playing and we hope that you will participate in our contest again next year!


1. What was the first year the Michigan State football team played in the Big Ten Conference?

b. 1953

Michigan State was officially admitted into the Big Ten Conference in 1949.  Since the football schedules are set years in advance, the Spartans had to wait until 1953 to play their first Big Ten football game.

2. Which Michigan State boxer was undefeated in every college bout he fought?

d. Chuck Davey

Chuck Davey (center)

Chuck Davey (center)

Boxer Chuck Davey went undefeated in every college bout he fought, was 3 times voted the NCAA’s outstanding boxer, and fought at the 1948 Olympics.

The other three boxers listed as choices in the contest also had notable accomplishments. John Horne won three consecutive NCAA titles between 1958 and 1960, was a two-time All-American, and competed without a regular coach, program or sparring partner.  Herb Odom (1952-1955) was back-to-back NCAA Champion at 147 pounds (1954-1955), led MSU to a 1955 team National Championship, was a two-time All-American (1954-1955), and compiled a 29-5-2 career record.  Choken Maekawa of Hawaii won the 1956 NCAA individual title and was awarded the John S. LaRowe Trophy (outstanding boxer of the tournament).  He was chosen for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, but did not make weight at the official weigh-in and was disqualified from competition.

Note: According to the U.S. Social Security Death Index, his last name was spelled Maekawa.  In some sources, his last name is spelled Mackawa, hence the misspelling in the trivia contest.

Women's Basketball article from February 1, 1898 issue of the MAC Record

Women’s Basketball article from February 1, 1898 issue of the MAC Record

3. What year did women form their first basketball team at Michigan State?

b. 1898

The first women’s basketball team at Michigan State played against teams such as Lansing High School, the teachers from the Flint School for the Deaf, and the Michigan State Normal School (now known as Eastern Michigan University).

4. Prior to being “The Spartans,” what was Michigan State’s nickname?

d. Aggies

Being an agricultural school, Michigan State’s original nickname was the Aggies. After the 1925 name change from Michigan Agricultural College to Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, a contest was held to pick a new nickname.  Dissatisfied with the winning choice of “Staters,” LSJ sports writer George S. Alderton looked through the other entries and picked “Spartans.”  Unfortunately, it is unknown who submitted the entry.

Gideon Smith

Gideon Smith

5. What year did Michigan State’s first African American athlete, Gideon Smith, begin playing?

c. 1913

Gideon “Charlie” Smith helped the Michigan State football team score their first win against the University of Michigan in 1913.  He played until 1915, leaving with a 17-3 record.  For more about Gideon Smith, please read Steve Grinczel’s article on MSUSpartans.com 

6. In 1895 Shoichi Yabina was the first Michigan State student to participate in which sport?

Shoichi Yebina (front, right side)

Shoichi Yebina (front, right side)

a. Fencing

Shoichi Yabina (class of 1895) participated in the first fencing match at the 1895 MIAA field day.  He defeated his opponent, Mr. Swift, from the Michigan State Normal School (EMU).  The sport was revived in 1924 by French professor Omar M. Lebel, and Joseph Waffa, an Egyptian student.

Note: His last name may have been spelled Yebina.

7. In May 1910 Michigan State faculty approved regulations for student athletes.  Which of these were included?

d. All of the above

The faculty regulations stated that students must compete under their own names, could not be compensated for playing and freshmen were not allowed to play intercollegiate sports.  Additionally, student’s eligibility was limited to three years, the football team could not practice until the school year started, they could only play teams from other colleges, and the number of games played was limited (9 for football, 16 for baseball and basketball).

8. What was the name of the first baseball club formed at Michigan State in 1865?

c. Stars

The Stars baseball club played against teams in the surrounding community.