By Robert Bao, Editor
Just a couple of years ago, controversy erupted over MSU plans to establish a newer Spartan helmet logo. Many Spartans took to the airwaves and social media outlets to cry out against any tampering with the “traditional” helmet logo.
Ironically, the helmet logo that everyone now reveres was of relative recent vintage, unveiled in the late 1970s amid a controversy of its own. At that time many alumni preferred the old unshaven cartoon image known as the “Gruff” and they considered the helmet logo as too corporate and too politically correct.
How did the helmet logo appear in the first place? Central to the story is Bob Perrin, MSU vice president of university and federal relations from 1970-79. Perrin, now 86, lives in Naples, FL.
“Part of my job then was to look after the university’s image,” recalls Perrin, who worked for President Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. “To my mind, the worst face we were presenting was that of Sparty.”
Perrin hastens to emphasize he had no problem with “The Spartan” statue. What he did not like was, in his words, “. . . that dirty, unshaven, lantern-jawed, cretinous caricature wearing the helmet with the brush on top.” Accordingly, in 1976 he launched a contest for a new Sparty image that would be chosen by popular vote. He even offered a $100 prize for the winning design.
“The caricature was not only ugly, it was just one of several Sparty renditions floating around,” explains Bob. “More to the point, it was not even exclusive to MSU.”
But Perrin began to rue his decision after alumni inundated him with pleas to stop tampering with tradition and to leave “Gruff” Sparty alone. To make matters worse, contest entries did not exactly gush forth.
“I was wondering how to close out the sorry mess,” Bob admits.
At long last, some 10 entries materialized, and so they became the contest finalists. The drawings were printed in the State News along with a ranking ballot. Although there were more than 40,000 students on campus, and several thousand faculty and staff, a mere 737 ballots were cast—of which 606 wanted to retain the old gruff image.
The winner, with 56 first-place and 46 second-place votes, turned out to be a design that Robert Alexander, MSU professor of art, had hurriedly sketched on the back of an envelope. The winner was announced on June 9, 1976. “He was asked to turn it into a finished drawing, which then was made available to manufacturers of campus store goods,” recalls Perrin.
Alexander was a member of MSU’s faculty from 1955-87. He taught industrial design, drawing, graphics, and photography. He passed away in 1989.
“The lesson I’ve learned from this episode is that vice presidents shouldn’t interfere in such emotional matters,” says Perrin. “Most took the contest in the good humor that was intended, but some accused me of very serious crimes against nature and Spartanhood.”
But the new helmet logo did catch on, eventually. Perrin hit a home run, but no one realized that the ball had gone over the fence until decades later. It’s high time to credit this unsung hero . . . and to absolve him of his crime against Spartanhood.
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