Column: How Football Helped Build MSU

During his long tenure, Michigan State's president John Hannah used the sport in his strategy to develop a world-class university
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Every university has its giants, of course, but those schools born around the Civil War needed bigger men than most to carve these campuses out of forests, then build them to rival the world’s greatest institutions – and to do it all in mere decades.

The list of icons includes the University of Chicago’s President William Rainey Harper and Amos Alonzo Stagg, who put their new school on the map; Michigan’s James B. Angell and Fielding Yost, who made Michigan what it is today; Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne, who made Notre Dame famous, and Father Ted Hesburgh, who made it great.

At Michigan State, that man is John A. Hannah.

Born in Grand Rapids in 1902, he was a proud graduate of Michigan Agricultural College in 1923, earning a degree in poultry science. He rose to become the school’s vice president, whose job description included serving as the state’s secretary of agriculture. He married the president’s daughter, then succeeded him as president in 1941.

Hannah’s timing was unusually good, with the G.I. Bill opening the doors for 2.2 million returning veterans nationwide, and the state’s auto industry entering its golden era, generating unprecedented wealth for the state’s citizens, who dreamed bigger dreams for their children. Seemingly unrelated, the University of Chicago’s football team dropped out of the Big Ten in 1939.

Hannah cleverly exploited all three opportunities.

Back when state schools were actually funded by the state, Hannah knew he needed more help from Lansing, which had long favored the flagship university in Ann Arbor. So, while UM’s President Harlan Hatcher rolled up to the capital in a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car, the unassuming Hannah hopped in his pickup truck for the trip up Michigan Avenue to the statehouse – and got more money each time from his old friends in the legislature.

When Hannah gathered enough funds for a new dorm, he built a beautiful brick building with green trim, filled it with former GIs, then took their tuition and built the next dorm – and kept doing it, for decades. At the same time, he lobbied hard to take Chicago’s place in the Big Ten. He had to, because Michigan’s coach and athletic director Fritz Crisler, a proud Chicago alumnus who had played for Stagg, didn’t want to see the Spartans replace his Maroons.

In 1947, President Hannah fought back by hiring Clarence “Biggie” Munn, who had been Crisler’s former captain at Minnesota, and his former assistant at Michigan. To gain stature, the next year Michigan State started an annual rivalry with Notre Dame, which was only too happy to help the upstart Spartans stick it to their mutual enemy, Michigan.

When the Spartans finished both 1951 and 1952 as undefeated national champions, nobody could deny they could play football in the Big Ten. The Spartans enjoyed their greatest success during Hannah’s last two decades, claiming four more national titles and a 14-4-2 record against Michigan.

Hannah attended every Spartan football game, home and away, for years. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” even published a piece on his streak. He recognized the central role the Spartans’ success played in raising the profile of the former cow college, which in turn helped attract more state funding, more skilled students, and more first-rate professors to East Lansing – following a familiar formula.

Hannah’s strategy transformed the humble Michigan Agricultural College of just 6,000 students into the 40,000-student Michigan State University, a major research center good enough to be admitted to the prestigious Association of American Universities – and he did it all in about two decades, arguably the fastest growth in the history of higher education.

Perhaps most impressive, what President Hannah built has endured, surviving Michigan’s turbulent economy, the Big Three’s troubles, and the Spartan football team’s sporadic performance. In the 43 years since Hannah retired, they have won only five Big Ten titles and no national crowns – but the stature of the university he built continued to grow.

In President Hannah’s penultimate State of the University address, on Feb. 12, 1968, he stated: “The university is an integral part of a social system that has given more opportunity, more freedom and more hope to more people than any other system.”

President Hannah greatly increased all three through improved state funding, the G.I. Bill – and football.

Michigan State University would not be half of what it is without him – or the Spartans.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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