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Michigan State University

Feature: 100 Years of Spartan Football

Michigan State University artistic image


One hundred seasons ago, a group of players formed MSU's first recorded football team. They played four games, won one (against Lansing High School). MSU (then Michigan Agricultural College) lost to Kalamazoo College twice and tied Alma 0-0. The 1896 team had no established coach. From that modest beginning, the history of Spartan football has unfolded over the years with dramatic leaps forward. As the institution grew in the postwar period under President John Hannah, the football program made it to 'big time' competition. Shortly after entering the Big Ten conference, MSU boasted national and Rose Bowl championships. Amid phenomenal highs and lows since, the MSU story is packed with many heroes, with great achievement and brilliance, as well as heartbreaking moments.

Today we enter our second hundred years. Under the leadership of President McPherson and football coach Nick Saban, MSU football, one hopes, verges on a new upwards cycle. Alumni and fans seem to be responding to the call to rally behind the team and the new academic support center for athletes (see 'Last Word,' p. 32). 


With a 72,027 capacity, ranks as the country's 20th- largest college owned football stadium, and the fifth largest in the Big Ten. The original 14,000 seats in 1923 rose to 26,000 when Macklin Field was christened in 1935, to 51,000 in 1948, and to 76,000 in 1957. The 1994 renovations resulted in its present capacity.


The 1952 team was the only one in MSU history to be undefeated, untied and consensus No. 1 in the country. The 9-0-0 season earned 'National Coach of the Year' honors for Biggie Munn and keyed a remarkable 28-game winning streak from 1950-53.


Duffy Daugherty's 1965-66 teams each shared national championship honors, with only one loss and one tie. Leading the Spartans were All-Americans Bob Apisa, Clinton Jones, Bubba Smith, Gene Washington and George Webster. In the 1966 NFL draft, three of the first four picks were Spartans.


Irving Lankey composed the MAC (now Spartan) Fight Song. In 1913, Lankey was a 'yellmaster.' After back-to-back upsets of Michigan and Wisconsin, two teams with rousing fight songs, Lankey decided to begin composing an MAC Fight Song, which he completed in 1916.


Some four decades before MSU's first game as a Big Ten team, coach John Macklin led tiny MAC to upset Michigan and Wisconsin back to back--inspiring our fight song.


Duffy Daugherty and Biggie Munn were the two giants of MSU football in the John Hannah era. Biggie Munn amassed a 54-9-2 record from 1947-53, the most successful in history. From 1954-72 his successor Daugherty accumulated a career record of 109-69-5, including a Rose Bowl title in 1956 and co-national titles in 1965 and 1966.


Gridiron stars Kirk Gibson and Steve Garvey became baseball superstars. They met at Tiger Stadium during the 1984 World Series, when Gibby and San Diego Padre Garvey donned their old MSU football jerseys. Gibson led the Detroit Tigers to the World Championships. Both were the MVPs of their respective leagues. Today, Garvey is now in publishing, while Gibson is co-chair of the fundraising campaign to build MSU's academic support center for student-athletes.


MSU won the 1954 Rose Bowl featuring the 'Pony Backfield'--Leroy Bolden, Billy Wells, Evan Slonac and Tom Yewcic. The undersized but fleet foursome was central to Biggie Munn's famed 'multiple offense.'


MSU running back and Heisman finalist Lorenzo White, who led MSU to the 1988 Rose Bowl championship, is MSU's all- time leader in career rushing with 1,082 carries for 4,887 yards. He also leads in all-purpose yardage (5,152), total touchdowns (43), rushing touchdowns (43), and most rushing attempts (419) and rushing yards (2,066) in a season.


A then-record 5,000 alumni and fans joined the official MSU Alumni Association tour to the 1988 Rose Bowl. It was described by one writer as 'the largest non-military movement of people from East to West.' MSU's 20- 17 victory over Southern Cal marked the high point of George Perles' career as MSU head coach.


MSU's first mascot appeared in 1959, a paper-mache head sponsored by a fraternity. After many transformations, the Sparty mascot program was taken over by the Student Alumni Foundation, the student arm of the MSU Alumni Association, in 1989.


The name 'Spartans' was coined in 1926 by George Alderton, longtime sports information director and later sports editor of the the Lansing State Journal. The name caught on despite a student vote to change our nickname from 'Aggies' to 'Michigan Staters.'


Perhaps the most electrifying moment ever in Spartan Stadium was Levi Jackson's 88-yard touchdown run to upset No. 1-ranked Ohio State 16-13 in 1974. The run woke up echoes of Dick Panin's 88-yard TD run against Notre Dame in 1951.


MSU beat UCLA 17-14 in the 1956 Rose Bowl thanks to this 41-yard field goal kick by Dave 'Golden Toe' Kaiser with seven seconds left. Incredibly, this was Kaiser's first kick all season!


One of John Hannah's proteges, Jack Breslin excelled on the gridiron and as an administrator, overseeing the building of much of the present campus. The Breslin Student Events Center was named to honor his massive contributions.


Only three football jersey numbers have been retired at MSU--No. 78 for Don Coleman, No. 90 for George Webster, and No. 46 for John Hannah. Coleman was an All-American tackle in 1951, while Webster was an All-American defensive back in 1965 and 1966. Hannah never played football, but his influence on MSU football was colossal. He served MSU for 46 years-- hence the number--and literally spearheaded MSU's growth from cow college to megaversity while building the football program to national prominence under Munn and Daugherty. He had the foresight and vision to take MSU football to the bigtime as he engineered MSU's entry into the Big Ten.


The first undefeated team in MSU history is a group of youngsters who posed for a photo in 1886. They went undefeated because they played no games. Ten years later, MSU went 1-2-1 in its first recorded season.


This year, one hundred commemorative banners, each marking one season, will be displayed throughout the MSU campus and East Lansing. The banners are available to the public through a telephone auction. If interested, make your bid at 517-432-4098.


As MSU begins its second hundred years, head coach Nick Saban has already broken some traditions. When MSU beat Michigan 28-25 last year, it marked the first time ever a Spartan coach has defeated Michigan in his debut season. With the advent of the new academic support center for student-athletes, and under President McPherson's 'culture of compliance,' the expectations for MSU football in the future remains high.


100 Years of Michigan State Football, by Ken Hoffman and Larry Bielat--will be available in bookstores this September. It also includes a history of the marching band, cheerleaders, and other football related traditions. 

Author: Robert Bao

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