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Revisiting An Intriguing Chapter of MSU History

By Robert Bao, Editor, MSU Alumni Magazine
Published on: 06/29/2012
Arrogance & Scheming in the Big Ten cover

            On May 20, 1949, MSU officially became a member of the Big Ten Conference—then popularly known as the Western Conference.  It was clearly a transformative event for MSU, but few know the details of this history—until now. 

            A new book based on extensive research of more than a dozen archives sheds light on all the pitfalls MSU faced during the process—a long, treacherous journey that President John Hannah navigated with great adroitness in the face of opposition from key representatives of the University of Michigan.

            The general story was summed up by David A. Thomas in Michigan State College:  John Hannah and the Creation of a World University, 1926-1969 (MSU Press, 2008).  Thomas explains that Hannah ran an end-run around the athletic directors and faculty representatives who had run the conference and appealed directly to Big Ten university presidents, who were just beginning to assert power over athletics.  Most notably James Lewis Morrill, president of the University of Minnesota, emerged as MSU’s key ally.

            A very detailed account of the admission process, complete with all the stumbling blocks, schemes and counter-schemes, is documented in a new book, dramatically titled Arrogance and Scheming in the Big Ten:  Michigan State’s Quest for Membership and Michigan’s Powerful Opposition (DJY Publishing, LLC, 2011).  The book is written by David J. Young, MD, a doctor from Holland, Michigan, and is available at Amazon.com or www.msu-umbig10.com.

            Young grew up in East Lansing as a Spartan fan but is an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, which coincidentally played a role favorable to MSU’s quest.  The Rev. John Cavanaugh, who became Notre Dame president in 1946, was a native of Owosso who developed a friendship with Hannah (as did Cavanaugh’s successor, The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh).  MSU’s return to Notre Dame’s schedule in 1948, after a lapse of 27 years, solidified its credibility as a football program. The two presidents reached a contract agreement during a “spaghetti and meatballs” lunch in 1946 in the home of Michigan Gov. Harry Kelly, Hannah’s friend and coincidentally an influential Notre Dame alumnus.

            Today, of course, MSU and the University of Michigan cooperate along many fronts and have an amiable relationship outside of athletic competition.  But in the postwar years, when Michigan played a leadership role in the conference and MSU was a university on the make, some leaders of each institution tended to view each other with suspicion.  Michigan Athletics Director Fritz Crisler and Faculty Representative Ralph Aigler—who ironically once had John Hannah as a student—were among several Big Ten representatives who opposed MSU’s entry (at least initially).  But Hannah anticipated such opposition, parried each thrust with a counter-thrust, and doggedly stayed the course through five rejections until he succeeded in his ultimate quest.

            By the way, Young does not limit his book to Michigan.  As he puts it, “Notre Dame, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Minnesota, Chicago, Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa would all play some role in either aiding or hindering (Hannah’s) dream.”

            I recommend this book to everyone with some interest in MSU history and also in the history of the Big Ten conference.  Most alumni know the gist of this particular chapter, but Young details, for the first time, many of the Machiavellian maneuverings, lies and intrigue that went on at the time.

            Early in the book, Young explains that he was motivated to write this story after a backyard encounter in the 1980s with his neighbor Jack Breslin, then MSU’s executive vice president.  David, then a teenager, was utterly bored by Breslin’s passionate accounts of this history.

            Three decades later, the seeds planted by Breslin in Young’s mind grew enough for him to spend countless hours in over a dozen archives, poring over shelved letters and documents, meticulously piecing together the story that he once did not want to hear.  

            P.S.  In February the University of Michigan named Anne Curzan, associate professor of English, linguistics and education, as the university's faculty athletics representative to the Big Ten Conference and to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  That’s the position once occupied by Aigler, John Hannah’s nemesis during MSU’s quest for admission.  In another turn of irony, Curzan is John Hannah’s granddaughter.

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