Skip navigation

Feature: How MSU Became A Member of the Big Ten Conference*

Michigan State University artistic image

            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 theDetroit 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?” thePontiac 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 application. He was the greatest single factor inside the conference in Michigan State’s election last December. For the first time in modern annals a campaign, athletic in nature, had been waged at the college president’s level. The fact shocked and jolted Big Ten athletic directors, who reside in and rule a little world of their own in dictatorial fashion. They did not take kindly to the encroachment on their authority. The campaign’s significance was all too clear to them, for it may mark the beginning of a trend.” Morrill, however, may have had other motives for supporting MSC. According to Denison, Morrill “had at one time been an alumni executive at Ohio State University where there was no love for the University of Michigan, and he had said frankly that the people at Minnesota were convinced that they would have better success in their traditional games with Michigan if Michigan State were in a position to compete with Michigan for athletes and athletic support.”

            Denison and University of Minnesota public relations head William L. Nunn convinced Minneapolis Star sports editor Charles Johnson that the Spartans should be admitted, and Johnson agreed to plead MSC’s case to his fellow Big Ten sportswriters. Johnson also suggested to Denison that Dean Lloyd C. Emmons, the chair of MSC’s Athletic Council, should meet with his Big Ten counterparts to advance the MSC cause. “Almost simultaneously,” Denison remembered, “we began to get favorable mention in sports pages all over the area.”

            On 25 May 1946, Hannah wrote to Aigler, summarizing MSC’s actions and expressing the hope that the University of Michigan would support Michigan’s State’s application for admission. “We have tried to be ethical and have not contacted the faculty advisers of the various universities. Some months ago I wrote to the presidents of each of them and received very favorable replies from all of them. Most of them were of course noncommittal, but at least three of the presidents indicated that their schools are enthusiastically favorable to our cause which of course means nothing.” Aigler’s reply told Hannah what had occurred at a Big Ten meeting held a week earlier:           

There was . . . no definite vote on your application. When the matter came before the Faculty Representatives, I made a statement to the effect that I hoped the Conference would see its way clear to elect Michigan State, but I did not press for a vote, realizing that the temper of the group was to approve the Directors’ recommendation [that no change be made in membership]. I thought it was better to leave the matter more or less in suspense. What, if anything, it may have had to do with the general attitude, I cannot say, but it was not uncommon to hear a remark to the effect that a man or woman ought not to remarry until a decent interval has elapsed after the spouse’s death. . . . After a little more time has gone by, one will be able to tell better what the long range disposition of the group is.


            To influence that disposition in a positive direction, Michigan State dropped one of its traditions, the Jenison Awards. Since 1942, the college had provided Spartan athletes with scholarships that covered tuition, fees, and books, funded by a bequest from longtime supporter Frederick Cowles Jenison, Although other conferences commonly offered athletic scholarships, the Big Ten frowned on the practice. On 29 May 1947, Hannah appeared at a Big Ten meeting in Highland Park, Illinois, to discuss the Jenison Awards. “We gave great thought to the plan before the awards were inaugurated,” Hannah explained. “We thought it preferable to be open and above board in our aid to athletes rather than to follow the methods we’d seen used elsewhere. There is convenience to point to the absence of scholarships as a sign of purity. These schools merely are dealing from the bottom of the deck. I think it better to list in the college catalog what you are doing. That is our method.” Nevertheless, MSC dropped the Jenison Awards.

            The Big Ten convened three days of meetings in December 1948 with conference members still undecided about whether to invite MSC to join. MSC assembled a ten-person delegation to attend, including Young, Munn, assistant athletic director Lyman Frimodig, track coach Karl Schlademan, tennis coach Frank Beaman, baseball coach John Kobs, wrestling coach Fendley Collins, and sports information director Fred Stabley. “What will be the vote?” asked Alderton in the Lansing State Journal. “If there is a vote taken and it’s favorable, you can be very sure that it will be announced as a unanimous one. There will be some kind words spoken. If there is a negative result (and we have no way of knowing if the case will actually be voted upon at all!) there will be no comment. The announcement will say that the conference did not ‘get around’ to Michigan State’s case, or that it was delayed for further consideration. The conference, unable to help the Spartans, will not embarrass them, either.”

            The media seemed to be in the Spartans’ corner. Detroit Free Press writer Lyall Smith wrote, “The Free Press has learned that State is the only school being considered for membership to the most elite athletic conference in the land. A simple 5-4 majority is all that is needed to decide the issue. The Spartans have not overplayed their hand. They made a formal written application to join the conference two years ago. They have made no other direct overtures and actually have leaned over backward to avoid any accusation of pressing for a decision in their favor.” The Pontiac Press argued, “State has become one of the biggest and most important universities in the nation. Under President John Hannah, the East Lansing institution has acquired a new stature and a new breadth. Physically the plant has expanded. . . . It is difficult to think of any reason for refusing State admission. She has the faculty, the students and the plant. She has a new football stadium and while it isn’t equal in size to many in the Big Nine, it is adequate. Michigan State is a big, fine outstanding college in the United States and in the Midwest. She is every bit as deserving as others. Merely because her importance is comparatively recent is no objection.” Even legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice joined the cause. Referring to the possibility of MSC’s admission, he wrote, “And why not? Michigan State today 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 built. Beaten only by Michigan and Notre Dame, Michigan State has known one of its best seasons this fall. It has a better team than several members of the Big Nine.”

            On 12 December 1948, the Michigan State News blared in an unusual Sunday edition, “State Makes Big 10.” As Alderton had predicted, the vote for admission was announced as nine schools in favor, none opposed, and Big Ten commissioner Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson indeed had “kind words” for Michigan State: “I am very happy. MSC is a fine institution. We are happy to have them with us.”

            More than 6,000 students—including some men in coats and ties—took to the streets, parading through the campus and downtown East Lansing after the decision was announced. One of the triumphant procession’s first stops was President Hannah’s home. “We have waited for this . . . for so many, many years,” Hannah told the crowd. According to longtime Michigan State faculty member Roland Pierson, quite a few faculty members joined in the celebration: “We had an enormous number of young faculty just beginning their academic careers. Many looked so young that it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between teacher and student.” Despite the decision’s importance on the MSC campus, however, Wilson gave it only part of a paragraph in his 496-page history of the Big Ten, merely listing it among the other conference highlights of 1948.

            Hannah downplayed his role in convincing the Big Ten to eventually extend an invitation to MSC to join but instead credited the people and the institution: “Munn’s teams were well coached and he was respected by all who knew him. Ralph Young and his entire staff kept our athletic programs on a high plane. Certainly the quality of the university and its athletic programs were main factors in our invitation into the Big Ten. This was an important step forward for Michigan State, not only athletically, but academically.” Deflecting praise by Detroit Free Press editor Malcolm Bingay, Hannah wrote, “Michigan State College is what it is today and where it is today only because a great many persons have worked hard in her behalf. The institution is larger than any one of us. To my mind, the greatest benefactor of Michigan State was the unknown genius who first established the tradition of service to the public on this campus, knowing that an institution of this kind can grow and succeed only so long as it serves the best interests of those who support it with their tax dollars.”

            Hannah frequently argued that sports were important to a university and that if entrance into the Big Ten enhanced the athletic program, the entire university community would benefit. “I have always thought that a sound athletic program was good for a university,” he later wrote. “It is good for the athletes, if they are full-time, bona fide students who must maintain satisfactory standards of scholarship and performance. Athletics unify a university 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.”

            * Excerpted with permission from David A. Thomas’ John Hannah And The Creation of A World University, 1926-1969 (MSU Press, 2007), to be published in December.  (For more information about the Big Ten conference, see the editor’s column.)

            David A. Thomas owns David Thomas Communications, in East Lansing. His articles have appeared in many publications, including Michigan History, Travel/Holiday, The Detroit News, and Business Mexico.

            You can pre-order a copy of  David A. Thomas’ John Hannah And The Creation of A World University, 1926-1969 (MSU Press, 2007) by calling 517-355-9543, ext. 101.  The book will be published in February 2008.  The retail price is $39.95, but members of the MSU Alumni Association receive a 30 percent discount.  For information about the MSU Press, visit

Author: Robert Bao