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Sixty Miles of Separation

  • Author:
    David J. Young
  • Published:
    Fall 2016

The Wolverines never wanted it to become a rivalry.


But 118 years later, the gridiron matchup between University of Michigan (U-M) and Michigan State University reigns as one of the most passionate annual clashes in U.S. college football.

How did “the series,” as it was originally known, become the rivalry we know today?

Turn back the clock. In 1898, MSU (then known as The State Agricultural College) challenged U-M on its Ann Arbor-based gridiron, Regents Field.  


With its longer history in football, U-M pushed the then-Aggies of State around in the early years. But by 1911, one of the then Michigan Agricultural College’s (MAC) earliest football coaches, John Macklin, cooked up a recipe for success—attract talented athletes and sign some of the toughest young men around to show some muscle and finally defeat the Wolverines.  


Macklin enjoyed five straight winning seasons and two victories over U-M’s hugely successful Fielding Yost  program—before quitting after five years on the sidelines. That devastated MAC fans, who could hardly forget U-M’s early dominance on the field.


The Macklin years also raised questions at U-M about whether MAC’s athletes were true amateurs, as defined by the nascent NCAA. For the next 30 years, the colleges would debate that tangled matter, while U-M tried to keep the series low-key.  Michigan State College  (MSC) as it was known then, soon had a resurgence under Coach Jim Crowley, one of Notre Dame’s famed “Four Horsemen.”


He’d been hired in 1929 on a recommendation from Notre Dame’s even more famous coach, Knute Rockne. With financial help from the Michigan State Board, college loan support for student athletes, and recruiting practices that some thought dubious, Crowley’s Spartans quickly became winners.  


When “Sleepy Jim Crowley” departed three years later, his successor, Charlie Bachman, kept winning with Crowley’s recruits. Bachman even ran up a four-game winning streak over the struggling Wolverines during the mid-1930s, even though rumors continued to swirl about improprieties—while U-M still tried to keep the series subdued.  


But whatever the games were called, series or rivalry, they were hotly contested every year, even as MSC was being forced by contract to compete against its rival only in Ann Arbor and always the first weekend of the gridiron season—Scrimmage Game Saturday. Any other date, after all, might elevate the contest to a higher level of significance—a matter most Wolverines vehemently opposed!


Meanwhile, the Spartans were becoming a national football power. Legendary Michigan State president John Hannah, in January of 1947, hired Clarence “Biggie” Munn, a brilliant line coach under U-M Coach Herbert “Fritz” Crisler, to take the Spartans to the next level of competition. Munn quickly molded one of the best programs in the country.  


Fortunately, just prior to Munn’s arrival, a historic moment occurred. In 1946, the University of Chicago exited the Big Ten in large part due to an inability to compete with its brethren.


Quickly seeing his chance, John Hannah applied for membership in the exclusive club. Not once, but three times. Each time Michigan State was rebuffed. Those lingering questions about amateur status played a role in the matter. U-M athletic officials confidentially politicked among their conference colleagues to keep the Spartans out until they disbanded various financial aid practices, which they continued to see as contrary to conference and NCAA policy.  


But even after the Spartans were admitted to the prestigious Big Ten fraternity in 1949, U-M stubbornly viewed its relationship with Michigan State as an obligatory series mandated by politicians and taxpayers.  


The problem for U-M was that Coach Munn’s Spartans dominated play not only against the Wolverines but just about every other school the college faced during the early 50s.

Michigan State claimed a 28-game winning streak and a national championship title. In ’53, during its first official season of conference play, the Spartans earned the Big Ten crown and a Rose Bowl victory.  


When Munn retired, Hall-of-Fame Coach Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty continued his winning strategy over the next decade. The era’s Spartan program was so strong that many called State a “football factory.”


Could anyone call it a series any longer? Some at U-M did. Despite the Spartans long ascendancy under Munn and Daugherty, many influential Wolverines still wanted nothing to do with boosting the game to a bona-fide rivalry.


Maybe a trophy would make a difference. Just prior to the Spartans’ inaugural season in Big Ten football competition, Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, a Michigan Law School graduate, proposed a Paul Bunyan Trophy to commemorate the annual backyard brawl between the two large state-sponsored universities.


Michigan State publicly supported the notion. U-M privately balked. The governor, popular politician that he was, eventually won out over reluctant U-M officials.


The year of Paul’s debut, Michigan State won and housed the awkward, somewhat unsightly lumberjack in a glass case at Jenison Fieldhouse. The following year, the victorious Wolverines placed the trophy in a broom closet adjacent to its locker room in Michigan Stadium. Paul Bunyan slumbered, collecting dust, until the following year when Coach Daugherty and his Spartans transported the mythical logger back to East Lansing.   


Six decades later, U-M and Michigan State players fervently compete for the right to parade the ungainly trophy around the stadium battlefield and to proudly display Paul on campus for the next 12 months.


Still there have been times when some thought the rivalry had gone dormant. After Daugherty’s long run, the Wolverines enjoyed their own run under Coach Glen “Bo” Schembechler, who held sway through the 80s, followed by his successors in the 90s, though MSU competed well year to year and earned a few hard-fought victories.  


The series became a rivalry for good in 2006, when Michigan State hired Mark Dantonio. Building on the intermittent success of his predecessors, Coach Dantonio honed his stable of three star recruits, bypassed by others, into members of one of the nation’s winningest football programs.  


There’s no doubt. U-M vs. Michigan State was a rivalry of the first order.


Looking back at the rivalry through all the years, U-M has dominated in some periods, Michigan State in others. Now every year, fans on both sides of the 50-yard line cheer, awaiting the decision on who claims braggers’ rights for the next 12 months.


In 2014, the battlefield changed again. U-M, struggling to find a coach to regain its successful tradition—especially against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State—lured then-San Francisco 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh home. The one-time feisty Wolverine quarterback boasts a Schembechler pedigree.


Harbaugh surprised few by molding a winner during his first six weeks on the sidelines.  

Run the clock to October 17, 2015. With only 10 seconds left on the U-M scoreboard, Harbaugh’s Wolverines were about to pull off a stunner— a victory over the powerful Spartans after years of dominance under Dantonio.


But as befits any emotionally charged competition, the unexpected ensued. A mishandled snap from center, a failed fumbled punt, a helter-skelter run for the end zone—and the rest is history.