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.

More than just a graduation photo backdrop: The eclectic history of Demonstration Hall

2 06 2011

Every May thousands of new MSU graduates congregate near Circle Drive to take part in what for many is their final MSU tradition – having a photo taken, in full graduation regalia, with MSU’s famous Spartan Statue.  Unbeknown to many of the new alumni the backdrop to their photograph is one of the most storied and interesting buildings on MSU’s campus.

Demonstration Hall, or Dem Hall as it is affectionately known, was planned by the then Michigan Agricultural College board in 1925 to replace the Campus Armory.  Erected in 1928, it was designed to serve as a building “suitable to be used for the demonstration of agricultural stock and implements, for college athletics and the housing of the military department of the college”.  At a cost of $355,000 the Romanesque Revival style building has been one of the most versatile on MSU’s campus and with its impressive arches and vine covered exterior it is still one of the most iconic to stand on the banks of the red cedar.

In its early days Dem Hall served many varied purposes for M.S.C. including housing commencement – as seen in this photograph in 1931 – as well as being an arena for agriculture students to show their cows as these students are doing in Farmers’ Week in 1933.

Dem Hall was always a popular sport arena with basketball, soccer, volleyball, and many other sports taken place inside its hallowed walls.  From 1949 Dem Hall was home to MSU Men’s Hockey.  However, this did not prevent MSU from melting the ice in 1951 and using the building as a dormitory to house 650 beds for the Michigan Future Farmers of America and the Michigan Future Homemakers of America; not, it should be pointed out, at the same time….Dem Hall proved to be a happy stomping ground for MSU hockey throughout the ensuing decades and even hosted a game against Gordie Howe’s Detroit Red Wings in 1959 and housed the Spartan team that won its first NCAA Hockey National Title in 1966.

However, Dem Hall was slowly beginning to lose its appeal to MSU’s hockey faithful.  Called (rather unfairly) an “eyesore” by the State News in 1971 and described at the same time by then MSU Head Coach Amo Bessone as “the only hockey rink that can guarantee everyone a bad seat” the old building’s days as a major sport arena at MSU were numbered.    MSU hockey eventually moved to the purpose-built Munn

Ice Arena in 1974 but Dem Hall’s iconic high ceilings and low lighting  still plays host to numerous sporting events such as Intramural indoor soccer and Intramural floor hockey.  The arena has also recently become home to the Mitten Mavens, a Lansing/East Lansing flat-track roller Derby team who regularly attract hundreds of spectators to their bouts at the storied venue.  Dem Hall has also been used at various times as a gallery for local artists to showcase their goods, as a venue for plays and concerts, and as the location of MSU’s blood-drive.

In recent years Dem Hall’s exterior has been renovated with the north facing windows replaced to give a more aesthetic image for the thousands of MSU grads who have it as a backdrop to their Spartan Statue graduation photos and 23 Sienna Glen Maple trees being planted to give the building a more historic feel.  Inside the building the smaller hall has been renovated and now serves as a practice venue for the Spartan Marching Band; the acoustics have even been improved so as to replicate the game day sound for the band.  The building still houses MSU’s ROTC, although the shooting range has gone, and the budding cadets no longer have to fight for space with cows, sheep, and other livestock!

Next time you are near Spartan Stadium or Munn Ice Arena and you pass by a rather dilapidated old-style building or you see a graduate having their photo taken on the Spartan statue with an intimidating but impressive looking arena in the background; stop and take a closer look.  As you do, remember the graduation ceremonies, agricultural shows, ROTC training, Red Wings hockey games, NCAA championships, and many other events that have taken place in one of the most historic venues on MSU’s campus.