By David Thomas
FEATURE (FALL 2007)
HOW MSU BECAME A MEMBER OF THE BIG TEN CONFERENCE*
By David A. Thomas
John Hannah, MSU president from 1941-69, skillfully master-minded MSU’s entry into the Big Ten in the face of strong opposition from the University of Michigan.
Michigan Agricultural College had sought to join the prestigious (Big Ten, formerly Western) conference as early as 1924, and efforts continued over the next two decades.
Despite Michigan State College’s football success during the 1930s—including records of 7-1 in 1932, 8-1 in 1934, 6-2 in 1935, 6-1-2 in 1936, and 8-2 in 1937—the Spartan squad received little attention and respect. Hannah believed that the problem was weak schedules—beating Grinnell, Carnegie Tech, Wayne State, and Alma created little excitement in national football circles. And, of course, potential recruits tended to choose colleges that scheduled games against elite programs. Moreover, the top schools that agreed to play MSC often insisted on playing the games at home, forcing the Spartans continually to play in front of hostile crowds. Prior to 1947, for example, 29 of Michigan State’s 33 varsity games against the University of Michigan took place in Ann Arbor. The logical way to upgrade the quality of the Spartans’ opponents was for the school to join the Big Ten, but the conference was full and did not seem disposed to add another team.
Hannah’s assistant, James Denison, believed that Hannah began lobbying for Big Ten membership soon after assuming the Michigan State presidency, writing, “The growing strength of the Presidents in control of the Big Ten worked to the advantage of Michigan State with the advent of President Hannah and his developing friendship with the other Presidents and their growing respect for him and his institution.” On 13 December 1942, H. G. Salsinger of the Detroit News wrote a column arguing in favor of MSC’s admittance to the conference. “If any college is qualified for membership in the Western Conference it is Michigan State. Under the direction of President John A. Hannah the college has grown into one of the country’s most important educational institutions and one of the most progressive. Athletically, Michigan State is on a par with a majority of Western Conference members. The college is located in Western Conference territory. There is no sound reason for withholding an invitation to join.”
Hannah wasted no time in taking advantage of Salsinger’s endorsement. Two days later, he wrote to each Big Ten president, enclosing a copy of the column and making additional arguments for eventual admission. The responses were favorable, and even (University of Michigan president Alexander Grant) Ruthven voiced no outward opposition. “I have your letter of December 15,” he replied. “I know that you have long wanted Michigan State College in the Western Conference. You know, I am sure, that the presidents have absolutely no voice in determining the policies of the conference except as we may occasionally insist that we will not go along with some policy. It is a matter of irritation to members of boards of trustees that the Conference representatives are so independent that if anyone else expresses an opinion they are more likely than not to turn it down on general principles.”
World War II eclipsed college football over the next few years. “It is very evident now that at least at this college intercollegiate athletics are going to be of very little importance for the duration [of the war] due to the fact there will be no adequate number of civilian men to make up competitive teams,” Hannah wrote to Ralph Aigler, UM’s conference representative, in 1943. “We now have 2,000 Army men in uniform on the campus and accepted several hundred more, and all of them are prohibited from participation, being assigned schedules of activities that provide no free time for practice or competition.” Still, anticipating times more conducive to athletic competition, Hannah added three paragraphs arguing MSC’s cause for eventual conference admittance. And on 25 November 1945, just a few months after the war’s conclusion, Hannah wrote to the Big Ten requesting admission.
Shortly thereafter, Michigan State received its opening: early in 1946, the University of Chicago dropped its intercollegiate sports programs and withdrew from the Big Ten. The conference began considering three replacements: the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Nebraska, and MSC. Hannah and MSC went to work. In a confidential 21 March 1946 letter, Floyd Reeves of the University of Chicago, who had been instrumental in establishing MSC’s Basic College and who had also consulted at Pitt and Nebraska, wrote to Hannah that he considered Michigan State the most worthy candidate and had presented that opinion to University of Chicago dean L. A. Kimpton. Reeves continued, “My opinion is that Dean Kimpton will have some influence in the selection of the new Conference member institution and that he will be inclined to favor Michigan State College.” Sports and editorial writers throughout the Midwest also tended to back the Spartans. In a 12 March 1946 editorial, “Why Not Michigan State?” the Pontiac Daily Press stated, “Michigan State has made tremendous strides in the last decade or two and is now one of the big and important educational institutions in America. It has a magnificent plant and equipment and professors who place it among the nation’s leaders.” Despite Ruthven’s apparent support a few years earlier, the University of Michigan opposed having an in-state school join the conference, believing that the UM’s intrastate dominance would be curtailed. Officials from the University of Illinois and Indiana University also expressed apprehension, fearing that an annual MSC-UM Big Ten rivalry would diminish their profitable and prestigious annual games against the Wolverines. Iowa favored adding its regional rival, Nebraska. Leaders of other conference schools, however, believed that MSC’s entry into the Big Ten might dilute Michigan’s dominance in football, making a more balanced sports conference.
UM supporters soon began to change their views. In late April, the president of the University of Michigan Alumni Club of Lansing, Dr. Maurice C. Loree, wrote to Hannah that his group “heartily endorse[d] Michigan State College as a Member of the Big Ten Conference and as evidence of that support we are attaching hereto a copy of a formal resolution we have sent to the officials of the University of Michigan.” The resolution praised MSC’s curriculum, faculty, and student body; stated that its athletic facilities were worthy of conference competition; lauded the quality of the coaching staff; pointed out the college’s athletic success against conference teams in past years; and suggested that precedent existed for more than one institution in a state to be a conference member. “Therefore,” the resolution stated, “be it resolved that it is the sentiment of the Board of Governors of the University of Michigan Club of Lansing that Michigan State College be admitted to membership in the Western Conference.”
Nevertheless, Hannah later recalled, “We knew from the beginning that there would be no friendly consideration of Michigan State’s cause by the Big Ten if the University of Michigan had its way. We anticipated that Ann Arbor would be unfriendly and critical and obstructive, and that is exactly what they were. . . . But several other universities, particularly the University of Minnesota, helped us a great deal.” Especially important was Hannah’s friendship with University of Minnesota President Lewis Morrill. Wrote Tommy Devine in a 16 June 1949 Sports Illustrated article, “This was a coalition of two young college presidents with intimate knowledge of athletics and deep personal concern over the hypocrisy, double-talk and shady deals big-time intercollegiate athletics spawn. Morrill did not give lip-service to Michigan State’s app