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Football marks 50 years in Big Ten

October 18, 2002

John Hannah was president, Ralph Young was athletics director and Michigan State was still a college.

The year was 1953 and the Spartans were beginning their first season of Big Ten football.

“I remember when we got into it,” said Frank “Muddy” Waters, a 1950 graduate and football head coach from 1980-82. “I was a student at the time.

“It was a very exciting time. It meant a great deal for Michigan State.”

MSU was admitted to the Big Ten by a 9-0 vote on Dec. 12, 1948. The Spartans met with all the conference’s regulations and officially were sworn in by May 1949.

Before joining the Big Ten the Spartans were independent of a conference.

But while sports such as men’s basketball joined conference play in 1950, the football team was forced to wait until 1953 because of scheduling conflicts.

So when MSU took the field against Northwestern this season on Sept. 28, it was the beginning of the Spartans’ 50th season of Big Ten football.

“I didn’t know that,” said George Perles, former head coach and athletics director . “Fiftieth year, wow.

“To be a part of the Big Ten for 50 years is some accomplishment.”

But for some, 50 years isn’t enough.

Don Coleman played for MSU from 1949-51 and is one of only two players to have his number (78) retired. But since the Spartans didn’t begin conference play until 1953, he never played in the Big Ten.

The Big Ten also missed out on MSU’s 1951 and ’52 national championships.

“I personally thought it was long overdue,” Coleman said. “But it was a marvelous thing that Michigan State was able to become a part of the Big Ten.”

If the Spartans wouldn’t have been denied by the conference, then known as the Western Conference, in 1924, Coleman and the championships would have their place in Big Ten history.

But it wasn’t until the University of Chicago canceled its football program and eventually removed itself from the conference in 1946 that Hannah saw a second chance for the Spartans.

“President Hannah always said the most important thing was the college of agriculture and football,” Perles said. “So everybody that’s a part of Michigan State should be appreciative of the agriculture program and football.

“Football is where we got the publicity that put MSU on the map.”

Some would even argue joining the Big Ten helped Michigan State become a university in 1955.

But regardless, thanks to Hannah’s efforts, the Spartans have been able to win six Big Ten Championships. And with Saturday’s game against Minnesota (6-1 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) marking MSU’s Homecoming, East Lansing can expect to see several of the former champions back on campus.

Conference makes postseason play possible

Before 1953, MSU only played in one bowl game, the 1938 Orange Bowl. That game ended in a 6-0 loss to Auburn and still stands as the lowest-scoring game in Orange Bowl history.

The Spartans didn’t return to a bowl game until the 1954 Rose Bowl. But as MSU’s national championships in ’51 and ’52 prove, it wasn’t because the squads weren’t good enough.

“We should have been playing in a bowl game every year,” said Henry Bullough, a starter for the ’52 squad. “But we weren’t eligible for the Rose Bowl until ’53.”

Unlike today, where a team only needs six wins to qualify for one of the 28 bowl games, a team had to win its conference to make a bowl appearance.

Fresh off two championships, the Spartans didn’t waste any time as they claimed the Big Ten title in their first year of play. The title brought MSU’s 17-year bowl drought to a close as the third-ranked squad defeated No. 5 UCLA 28-20 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The team ended the season 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the Big Ten.

Bullough, who played for two seasons and coached for 24 in the NFL, said he remembers every game and every play from his collegiate days.

“They had a great football team,” Bullough said of the UCLA Bruins. “They jumped up on us 14-0. But we blocked a punt just before the half and managed to put seven points on the board.

“Then in the second half we just controlled the ball and got the win.”

But another game in ’53 stands out to Bullough more than the Rose Bowl.

“The ’53 season is the year we lost one,” he said. “We lost to Purdue 6-0. We sure didn’t enjoy that one.

“That broke our 28-game winning streak. The seniors that played in ’53 only lost two games their whole career.”

Like Bullough, Coleman enjoyed a winning career that included a national championship as a senior in ’51. But unlike Bullough, he never played in a Rose Bowl.

“No doubt about it. I certainly would have loved to play in the Rose Bowl,” he said. “But at that time, Michigan State wasn’t a member of the Big Ten.”

Highlights of conference play

Winning the Rose Bowl in its first year of eligibility is certainly one of MSU’s best Big Ten moments.

But in 50 years of action, several other games also stand out as Spartan highlights.

MSU returned to the Rose Bowl in 1956, again defeating UCLA. That time it was a 10-point fourth quarter that helped the Spartans prevail 17-14.

The third time wasn’t a charm, as UCLA edged MSU 14-12 in 1966. The Spartans didn’t get a chance to redeem themselves in Pasadena until 1988.

“I think the Rose Bowl that we went to in 1988 stands out,” Perles said. “We didn’t stay in Pasadena. We were the first team to go down to Newport Beach and enjoy the environment.”

The Spartans defeated Southern California 20-17. The win gave No. 8 MSU its second victory against the No. 16 Trojans that season, as USC fell 27-13 in East Lansing for the season opener on Sept. 7, 1987.

“You never forget the good times,” Perles said. “I think we only threw the ball seven times. Lorenzo White had a great game.”

White was indeed the difference, rushing for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries.

The Spartans 26-24 defeat of Michigan last season also could be considered one of MSU’s greatest Big Ten memories. But no matter how good the games, Perles insists they can never equal the people.

“The things that are most memorable are the associations with the players,” he said. “I still keep in touch with a lot of the guys I played with and a lot of guys I coached.”

And this Saturday will provide former Spartan athletes and alumni a chance to reminisce.

“Homecoming is the time where you renew old acquaintances,” Coleman said. “You get a chance to enlarge on the stories of the past.

“It’s just something that really means a great deal to me.”

Hard times of late

But even Coleman admits this season has been hard to celebrate. Yet Spartan faithful remain optimistic and refuse to give up hope.

And with Saturday’s Homecoming, alumni like Bullough plan to give their full support and remember past glories.

“Victory was nothing,” he said of his playing days. “We automatically thought we were going to win. That was the main thing.

“Football hasn’t changed much. It’s still running. It’s still throwing. It’s still catching.”

That might be true, but Spartan football hasn’t seen the glory days since the ’50s and ’60s. Spanning from 1951-66, MSU captured six national championships and three of its six conference titles. The Spartans haven’t won the conference since Perles’ 1990 squad.

All that was supposed to change this season. In the preseason, critics pegged MSU as a Big Ten contender and even a dark horse national champion.

But the Spartans stumbled out of the gate and now are faced with the task of saving their season, rather than pursuing titles.

“I think there was a lot of hype. But there’s still a lot of season left,” Perles said. “I think they’ll pull themselves out.

“They’ve still got a chance (at the Big Ten title) with one loss.”

Eric McKinney can be reached at


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