For all the brouhaha about righteousness written into its fight song, the University of Michigan has had a penchant for being timid of its fellow research university a mere 67 miles northwest.
At a time when Michigan State College had been operating functionally as a university for a few decades, that school in Ann Arbor tried to use its legislator friends to block it from adding university to its name.
Among its list of reasons: people would get the two confused.
It wasn’t the first time U-M tried to undercut advances by MSU and a rivalry borne out of two strong institutions emerging as national powers quickly became unique.
Though the two predominant learning institutions have clashed back in forth since 1855, when the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan (which eventually became MSU) was first established on the outskirts of Lansing, Dr. David J. Young thinks the relationship between these two schools did not become one of the most famous rivalries in academia until nearly a century later.
Young, who practices internal medicine in Holland, Michigan, grew up in East Lansing and spent years researching the topic. The doctor and part-time historian discussed just how the relationship between the two schools is tied with the long-standing, adversarial relationship between former MSU President John Hannah and U-M law professor Ralph Aigler once Michigan State College found its way into the Big Ten, in his two books, "Arrogance and Scheming in the Big Ten" and "The Student and His Professor."
However at an academic level, Young was told by former U-M president James Duderstadt there’s been a long-standing mutual respect among the academicians of both schools dating back over 100 years.
For U-M graduate and MSU football broadcaster George Blaha, however, the sentiment between the two schools couldn’t be more polarizing.
“It’s been, in my opinion, like the Hatfields and McCoys ever since then,” Blaha said. “There are friendly rivalries and there are rivalries where there are strong feelings, and this would be the strong feelings-type of rivalry.”
Young thinks in order to grip the full narrative of the rivalry, one must look at it from all angles and in all contexts.
In the beginning
While the hatred seems to ooze from the amount of points hung on the scoreboard, it was the ever developing school in East Lansing that seemed to be a nagging thorn in U-M’s determination to be a leader.
All the distaste, the pettiness, the sheer disrespect between the two. It began with the inception of MSU.
U-M started to establish itself as the research and higher education institution in the state by the mid-1800s and was looking to expand as more students entered the school.
“The University of Michigan looks at themselves as a national school,” Young said. “They do not look at themselves — at least back then — as a being a state school.”
The farmers of the state were looking for a place at the table of academia, hoping to find a spot where farmers could practice and learn needed skills. In 1850, the Constitution of Michigan called for the creation of an agricultural school. U-M moved to have it located in Ann Arbor. However U-M’s idea of an agricultural school clashed with what the farmers were looking for.
“Henry Tappan, U-M’s President from 1852 to 1863, believed that agricultural instruction rightfully belonged with his idea of a university, but he had a more limited view of an agricultural department rather than a school, and did not favor having a model farm connected with the university,” Brian Williams, bicentennial archivist at U-M said via email.
The idea to have U-M acquire the agricultural program was tossed aside and the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was established in 1855. Tappan, Young said, was still upset after the creation of the agricultural school because he believed agricultural research rightfully belonged to U-M. And thus, the seeds were sown.
An emerging university
The agricultural school began to form into its own and U-M couldn’t ignore East Lansing any longer.
“As the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan grew, the University of Michigan kept a wary eye on it as other disciplines and fields of study were added,” Williams said. “The U-M perspective in the late 19th century was that the agricultural college should stick to practical education and leave engineering and scientific instruction to the university. There were even various efforts to move parts of the curriculum at the agricultural college back to the university.”
The budding rivalry, however, edged toward the gridiron. Even in the early 1900s, money for a university could be made through football.
And a winning football team meant a playable football team for the small amount of schools with teams. A playable football team meant money for a university.
The twisted web between these two schools would tangle even more in 1898 when they played their first ever game: U-M trounced the College 39-0. The series went heavily in U-M’s favor until the Aggies won their first game against U-M in 1913.
“The University of Michigan had always viewed this as being a series,” Young said. “Not a rivalry, but a series. A long running series. Michigan State, from day one, essentially viewed this as a rivalry.”
MSU, then Michigan Agricultural College, seeking relevance by beating the athletically superior Wolverines, ramped up its approach — one that included physically beating the Wolverines all over the field under coach John Macklin.
The dirty physical play from Macklin’s team spawned letters from U-M’s president complaining about the violent tactics M.A.C. used to secure victory. U-M also complained about M.A.C.’s recruiting tactics, which included monetary rewards in the form of athletic scholarships, something U-M saw counter to the purity of amateur athletics.
But the football rivalry grew, much to the U-M community’s dismay.
“It was popular among the people of the state, taxpayers, and they wanted it. So the politicians really forced it,” Young said. “As far as Michigan was concerned, they could have dumped it. They didn’t care about playing Michigan State. They were a nuisance. They didn’t play fairly.”
M.A.C. kept up its winning ways under the coaching tenures of Jim Crowley and Charlie Bachman. Under Crowley, the Michigan State Board authorized money for student athletes to help pay for school and continued doing so under Bachman. The success under Bachman included a four game winning streak over U-M. It propelled M.A.C. to seek its place among the academic and athletically gifted conference that later became the Big Ten.
“By that time, the State Board of Agriculture was getting pretty cocky,” Young said of M.A.C.’s success under Bachman. “They were confident cheepers. We’re at this next level in terms of athletics and what have you, it’s very expensive to be an independent and going all over the country. … We’d like to play against Big Ten competition, we’ve beaten the University of Michigan four years straight, we think we’re ready for it.”
Enter John Hannah and Ralph Aigler.
A push for the Big Ten
Long before MSU ever joined the Big Ten and M.A.C. became MSU, the school may have never reached the stature it is today without Hannah and his finesse.
Hannah grew up on the state’s west side. He was a prodigy who started attending college at 16 and eventually transferred to U-M to pursue a degree in law. It was there that he first met Aigler, as his pupil.
Law practice never became Hannah’s niche. A year into school at U-M, he transferred to M.A.C. to pursue a degree in agriculture. In his time in East Lansing, he quickly rose through the college’s ranks. By 1934, Hannah became a continuing education representative and the right-hand man to then-president Robert Shaw.
“He very quickly developed a reputation for being a cracker jack, a manager and a person who people could work with,” Young said.
By the time Hannah took over as MSC’s president in 1941, his college’s athletic program was continuing to grow as a national power.
As their athletic prowess grew, MSC grew tired of playing opponents across the nation and longed to be in a more legitimate athletic conference. When the University of Chicago resigned from the Big Ten in 1946, Hannah saw his chance. He lobbied hard to get MSC into the conference. He traveled to all of the league’s schools to convince its constituents MSC was worthy. But Aigler, seen by and far as the most powerful faculty representative in the Big Ten, found MSC far from the standards of the conference.
And Aigler would be damned if Hannah got in. Thus tensions grew.
“They were not wanted,” Young said of MSC’s early attempts to join the conference. “They had discovered, and Hannah had a suspicion, there was somebody in the Big Ten spreading bad words about Michigan State. As it turns out, he felt it was Ralph Aigler, who realized was his professor at one time. That’s really how it all got started.”
Young argues it’s U-M’s political finagling with MSC’s admission to the Big Ten that cemented the rivalry once and for all.
Hannah got his way in 1948 and MSC unanimously joins the Big Ten — on the condition it ratifies its athletic scholarship policy. Still, Hannah would shortly became a proponent for athletic scholarships again and the relationship between the two soured once more.
“Once it became evident (Aigler and then-U-M athletic director Fritz Crisler) couldn’t stop Michigan State from joining, they then decided they were going to find a way to discipline them and make sure they behave themselves because they clearly don’t have an administration that will keep them in line,” Young said.
The yearly custody battle of the Paul Bunyan Trophy was introduced in 1953, despite reluctance from U-M. It became the physical token of a rivalry Ann Arbor had no wish to acknowledge.
“Michigan did not want a trophy to raise the stature of the relationship between the two schools athletically, especially on the football field,” Young said.
The rivalry as we know it
In its centennial year of existence, MSC finally earned university status from state legislatures, despite strong reluctance, and lobbying efforts, from U-M. Names like Morrill State University were tossed around by U-M sympathetics. Anything to remove the juxtaposition of “Michigan” from “University.” Nothing worked. In 1964, the Michigan State University for Agriculture and Applied Science became formally known as Michigan State University.
“The University of Michigan fought that legally during two legislative sessions and ultimately they were crushed,” Young said. “It was almost an embarrassment, but they spent a lot of dollars fighting Michigan State on this matter.”
The rise of U-M coach Bo Schembechler in 1969 brought dominance and national spotlight back to Ann Arbor until the turn of the century. Since then, U-M has dominated the series 32-16.
Except for the occasional upset, it wasn’t until the era of Mark Dantonio that MSU competed with its in-state rival for national attention.
“In recent years, probably starting with the Mark Dantonio era these games have been fist fights,” Blaha said. “There’s not much to choose from between these two teams. They always seem to be epic struggles and great games.”
No longer are the days the schools try to undermine their legitimacy, and no longer do the university officials quarrel. But students, alumni and Michiganders alike all rejoice in a symbolic matchup that was once true disdain. Saturday’s matchup is the first between MSU and U-M that will kick off at night. Under the lights. On national television.
Emotions will run high between for the rivals.
“Night games are exciting,” Blaha said. “The whole country is watching other games throughout the day and they get home at night and watch the game that’s supposed to be on at night coast-to-coast. Everybody is going to get a chance to see that game, but I think this rivalry is such a big rivalry that it doesn’t need a night game to boost the excitement. It’s already huge for everybody in our state, everybody who’s a Spartan and everybody who’s a Wolverine.”