Editor’s Note: This is an older post from 2011 that has been updated in the sole instance of the series record through 2021, but remains otherwise unchanged. We are placing it back on the frontpage in 2022 ahead of the Michigan State-Michigan game as it remains a fan favorite here at The Only Colors.
Author's note: Yup, this is a long one. It gets a little sweary, but nothing too bad.
For those unfamiliar with our background, at different times MSU was known as M.A.C. (Michigan Agricultural College) and MSC (Michigan State College), as our size and mission grew.
This is only tangentially about football, but very much about the rivalry swirling about our game for Paul Bunyan. Many of you have probably heard of most of these claims before (they float around message boards, and are mostly up on Wikipedia), but I've attempted here to bring what'd I earlier heard and read as rumors into the realm of fact, or at least informed deduction, with some citation, quotes of reliable sources, and attempts at humor. Enjoy.
"So, what's the deal with you guys?"
It's been called an inferiority complex. It's been called jealousy. Mike Hart infamously labeled us "Little Brother." Michigan State University does not like the University of Michigan. But why?
Having two major institutions in the same state and conference is a good start, as closeness and familiarity almost always breed contempt (Notre Dame chops Indiana three ways, in addition to Indiana and Purdue, and Northwestern has typically never put the focus on athletics to really bother Illinois until recently). A football rivalry first dominated by one side before the second half of the 20th century, that then turned pretty close in more recent times (before the 2022 matchup, the record stands at 38-29-2 UM since the Paul Bunyan Trophy was established in 1953, 10-4 MSU since 2008), with several epic and controversial games in the past decade, has helped build animosity. The biggest cheating scandal in NCAA history, perpetuated with the knowledge and consent of U of M officials, held back MSU's basketball progress for at least a decade, hurt a great coach's legacy in Jud Heathcote, and only increased the dislike from MSU fans. And as Coach Dantonio and Mark Hollis have each remarked several times, you're either blue or green in this state.
But few of these criteria are unique to MSU-UM (except, I must emphasize, the MASSIVE, MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF CHEATING DONE BY THE FAB FIVE AND OTHER MEMBERS OF UM BASKETBALL IN THE '80s AND '90s). Rivalries are fairly common among college teams. Everyone has a rival; every school has a school (or three) they hate, at least in theory.
But I'd argue what I and scores of other Spartan fans feel towards University of Michigan Ann Arbor is something a little different. It's hate with a long history behind it, the type of history only the best of rivalries can claim, one that folds in and out of athletics, academia, and other bad blood*. A story with likable good guys and hate-able villains that takes the whole rivalry one step further for fans of the green and white (and black and bronze).
The University of Michigan, tried, for a long time, to wrap its hands around the neck of our university at nearly every turn, displaying the type of arrogance, elitism, and anti-competitive policies of subterfuge and sabotage that have made the university reviled throughout all of the Big Ten.
*For example, we don’t touch the KU-Mizzou rivalry, the aptly named Border War, which literally started during a conflict, the Civil War, when fights broke out between Missouri and Kansas over whether the state would be free or slave, when it joined the Union. Missouri, to my knowledge is one of the few universities that can claim it raided and set fire to its rival’s university town (Lawrence) during a major massacre (Though West Virginia University counters said claims, arguing that it too has set a university town on fire, while noting that said town is Morgantown)
Opposition to our very creation
Our story begins over a century and a half ago in the 1850s. The state of Michigan had a big problem: inferior agriculture. In 1837, a law was passed upgrading the state's premier university, which, of course, was the University of Michigan, to its current location in Ann Arbor. U of M, which was already eager, willing, and able to train the state's new lawyers, doctors, and theologians, also promised that, "there shall be a department of agriculture, with competent instructors..." that would study the theory, physiology, chemistry, and practice of farming and agriculture. (Kuhn, 1955 pg. 1)
As you might guess, over the following dozen years, the University of Michigan absolutely did not do this, at the very least not to the quantity or quality they promised. We can prove this, not only with oratorical record (Kuhn quotes E.H. Lothrup, the speaker at the first Michigan state fair, as pleading for an agricultural institution that would train hundreds of men each year, not just the 20 to 30 that the University of Michigan was graduating, in 1849), but with agricultural data and food production decisions at the time (Kuhn notes wheat yields had declined, railroads had threatened Michigan's livestock farmers with competition from the East, and that the lure of California and the American West might depopulate Michigan of its rural farmers unless things improved). (Kuhn, 1955 pg. 2)
Rising to this call for action was the Michigan State Agricultural Society. Several sources of revenue were sought, but each ran into roadblocks. Private funding wasn't available, the state government was too poor to assist, and the average taxpayer too poor to tax for the cash.
Seeing that the Wolverines weren't going to solve the problem and that the state didn't have the money to start a new college on its own, the state made the first petition to the national Congress that would eventually result in the Morrill Act of 1862 being passed. (Kuhn, 1955 pg. 7)
But that wasn't for 12 more years. And here in 1850, they had a problem on their hands now. So the group and their allies included a clause in Michigan's second Constitution, which read simply: "The Legislature shall... as soon as practicable, provide for the establishment of an Agricultural School." The money wasn't there yet. But there was a gift of land of about 1,400 acres of so-called Salt Spring Lands for whatever institution chose to form the agricultural school. (Kuhn, pg. 5-6)
A floundering, cash-strapped ancestor to what is now Michigan State University, then based in Ypsilanti, jumped at this opportunity for land. So too did the University of Michigan, leaping into half-assed action like the roommate late on rent for four straight months, but promising that he'll get it to you this time bro. He promises. (Kuhn, 1955, pg. 7)
Both institutions sent proposals to the state legislature, who couldn't decide and took a wait-and-see approach. So each institution then set up competing agricultural programs, but the school in Ypsilanti didn't have the size, and the University in Ann Arbor lacked the staff, commitment, and audience to maintain their agricultural program, folding it after only a little over a year. (Kuhn, 1955, pg 7)
After these failed bids, it was pretty clear to the head honchos of Michigan agriculture that they needed an exclusive, separate agricultural institution to perform the function needed and guaranteed by the state constitution. (Kuhn 1955, pg 8)
Standing in the way was Michigan president and historical Wolverine shithead Henry P. Tappan, a man who made a career out of opposing any threat to his university's monolithic control of higher education in the state of Michigan (also, as it happens, a man far too cultured to take a stance on the slavery question, and, I kid you not, a man who basically said that people could not get intoxicated from drinking wine. That's a century-and-a-half old buttress holding up U of M's wine-and-cheese-crowd reputation, folks) Tappan was clear, when it came to an Agricultural College, it was in Ann Arbor, or nowhere. The State Legislature, under the watchful eye of "friend of MSU" John C. Holmes and his allies, was equally clear: "Fuck off, Wolverines." The Agricultural College of Michigan was established, separate from the U of M. (Kuhn, 1955 pg. 8-9)
But the college wasn't in the clear yet. Several provisions in the bill looked to kneecap the institution, some coming from self-interested state senators, some undoubtedly coming from Tappan's faction, the most painful of which was a change from Holmes' recommendation of authorizing the M.A.C. $25 with which to purchase each acre of land, to only authorizing $15 per acre, a reduction that drastically reduced the quality of land available. As Kuhn puts it, this was "dooming the college to commence in the forest," hardly suitable farmland for an agricultural institution! (Kuhn, 1955 pg. 10-11)
The second stipulation ordered that the College be established within 10 miles of Lansing, something that doesn't seem like a big deal now, but was considerably tougher when the land 10 miles outside of Lansing was a road-less, infrastructure-less wild, functionally ruled by undergrowth, bears, and six-foot-long mosquitoes that would often carry away small children . (Kuhn, 1955 pg 10)
But as tough as things were, what would eventually become MSU was established, and though it struggled and pushed its way through its first half a decade of existence, it had shown that it wasn't going to back down to Ann Arbor. All the school needed was a big break. And the opportunity for that break arrived, from the aforementioned Morrill Act, in 1862.
Attempted theft of our Morrill Grant, destruction of our independence
President Lincoln and the U.S. Congress recognized that the nation's various agricultural institutions, like M.A.C., needed the type of boost other public schools had gotten from the government. With this in mind, they passed the Morrill Act, which, as Kuhn writes, "...gave to agricultural colleges a promise of permanence which had been lacking previously." (Kuhn, 1955, pg 71)
The Morrill Act offered a massive grant of land, pretty good land, to one institution in each state. Given its purpose and the letter of the law, it was to be available for schools where "the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies... to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the agricultural arts..." M.A.C. administrators, teachers, and students, had to be ecstatic. That was them! It was right in the curriculum, the purpose, heck, the name! They were finally going to get some help and be able to do what they were established to do. (Kuhn, 1955, pg. 71-75)
As you might expect, the University of Michigan, now having pissed all over us for half a dozen years now, saw a clear opportunity for R. Kelly levels of degrading urination.
"Well, there's no way in hell we're going to get that Morrill money allocated to us," they correctly surmised, probably while stroking comically evil mustaches, "Unlesssssss..."
"A merger." They proposed. "We should merge M.A.C. into the U of M system."
They would transfer agricultural education to Ann Arbor, and the land from the Morrill land would be assigned to the University of Michigan. (Kuhn, 1955 pg 76-77)
"Why?" people asked.
"Shut up," they responded, trying to hide the places on their plan where they'd been doodling themselves carrying big bags of money. If they couldn't stop M.A.C. from getting established, and if they couldn't stop it from getting the Morrill money, they could steal it without doing much more work than lobbying legislators. Apparently, in the U of M administrator's version of the "The Little Red Hen," all of the farm animals who didn't do any work making the cake sneak in and gobble the cake all up, after the hen leaves the room.
The committee, probably rightfully seeing that merging the colleges was not cost-effective or educationally preferable, decided to award M.A.C. the land grant in 1863. This, of course, did not stop the University of Michigan from try, try, trying again and re-introducing the merger proposal on three more occasions in 1865, 1867, and 1869. Kuhn writes, "Even though they failed of passage, their following was numerous enough to defeat all proposed building appropriations" to M.A.C. If U of M could not stop our creation, or steal our land grant, they would do their damnedest to strangle our funding. The College's single residency hall was subject to such crowding that half of a new year's admissions applications were denied (think of how much USNWR would like us with that kind of rejection rate!) (Kuhn 1955, pg. 78)
But despite their best efforts (including actually trying to induce our school president into approving the merger with an offer "that his friends would try to find him [Abbott] a position in the University [of Michigan] if the merger succeeded," the type of "join us, and we can rule the galaxy together!" offer I only thought bad guys made in movies), they failed. In 1869, M.A.C. at last fought off the obstructionism and was finally appropriated funding for a new dormitory. (Kuhn, 1955 pg 78-81)
Attempted theft of our forestry program
There was a period of peace between the universities for a number of years, but like a kleptomaniac who just can't help himself, within half a century, they were back to old tricks. This one is probably less openly dickish than the other attempts by Michigan to steal our programs, as it at least pays some respect to us first, and admits that we're better than them at something, before trying to take credit for it. Due to its surrounding forests, in the early 1900's M.A.C.'s undergraduate forestry program was producing practical, effective, foresters, in sharp contrast to the theoretically skilled, but practically unprepared, graduates of graduate-level forestry programs at places like Cornell, Michigan or Yale. A U of M professor wrote a letter to the president of our forestry program complimenting it and its methods. (Widder 2005 pg 162-163)
Then, like clockwork, proposals were made that either one program or the other should drop its forestry program in the unification, either M.A.C. its undergraduate program, or U of M its graduate. (Widder 2005 pg. 164)
Prominent forest expert and Yale grad Gifford Pinchot weighed in on the side of U of M and argued M.A.C. should drop its undergraduate program, saying that moving forestry to the University of Michigan would be "an immense advantage to the progress of forestry in Michigan" and that moving forestry to M.A.C. would be "destructive." This move isn't as villainous as some other moves, particularly if, as proponents argued, such a move would have a net positive effect on American forestry knowledge. But, as it turned out, contra to the thinking of Mr. Pinchot, an undergraduate program was both feasible and effective, training good foresters as well as fulfilling the goals of our land grant background.
The entire episode smacks of an arrogant attitude -- that if MSU is better than Michigan, Yale, and Cornell at a field of study, then something is wrong with the world. (Widder, 2005 pg 164)
Professor is part of U of M sleeper cell (not really ... maybe), is sort of traitor to MSU
W.J. Beal graduated with degrees from the University of Michigan and Harvard. He then proceeded to spend most of his career teaching botany at M.A.C. and generally did various cool-dude things, like setting up MSU's famous botanic garden, curating for our museum, and doing strong and important research in his field of study. He was also kind of a Benedict Arnold. (Widder 2005 pg 62)
One day in 1914, he must have heard his activation code phrase, because he proposed (again!) that M.A.C. be rolled up into the Michigan system to "spare the university [of Michigan] from duplicating courses offered at M.A.C." (Widder 2005 pg 70-71)
Nearly everyone, including the presidents of M.A.C. and U of M, said, "WTF guy?" A member of the State Agriculture Board noted that Beal had probably confused the college's mission as promoting and producing agricultural scientists (like, well, Beal) and not training farmers. Both were probably wrong, as the college existed to train both, and its independence was key to doing so. The two colleges wisely shot down Beal's bizarre proposal. (Widder 2005 pg 71-72)
Attempted theft of our engineering program
Of course, that didn't stop the Wolverines from trying to lift other fields. Yeah, this again. In this case, it's the Wolverines showing a slimy willingness to take advantage of misfortune at M.A.C.
In 1916, a fire (though zero evidence indicates involvement of a Michigan Man arsonist, I would not be surprised at this point) destroyed the college's engineering building and much of its engineering equipment. After failing in bids to acquire our engineering department in 1913 and 1915, Wolverines saw now as a good (and by good, I mean dickish) time to strike. (Kuhn, 1955 pg. 266-267)
Like Crassus sending his early fire brigades to burning Roman buildings, they were willing to "help" us in our time of pain. "Real shame about your engineering program," seemed to be the line, "We, uh, wouldn't mind taking it off your hands for you."
Then president of the college, Frank Kedzie, rallied the engineering students and faculty, some of whom had escaped from the still-smoldering remains of the old engineering building, and, in a moment of Churchillian swagger before Churchill was Churchill, is quoted by Kuhn to have said, "It is up to you men to keep a stiff upper lip. It lies with you as to whether or not the engineering department will live." (Kuhn, 1955 pg. 267)
Immediately, the students and teachers set about to utilizing other rooms in the campus to continue their instruction. Meanwhile, Kedzie contacted Lansing automaker Ransom E. Olds (winner of the 1916 cool name award), and basically said, "Remember that time we talked about you getting a building with your name on it? Now would be a real, real, good time to make that a reality." Olds' agreed and donated $100,000 to build a new engineering building. Kuhn writes, "Just as the construction of Williams Hall in 1869 ended a fight to move agriculture to the University [of Michigan], so the construction of Olds Hall in 1916 ended the fight to move engineering."
With this, our existence and independence was finally secured from the ambitions of our rivals. But what of our further prominence?
Lack of support for MSC to the Big Ten
In football, despite the great work of Biggie Munn, football was being held back. David Thomas writes that President of MSC John Hannah thought 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." (Thomas, 2007)
This could be fixed by joining the Big Ten (also known as the Western Conference), and when the University of Chicago dropped athletics to cut the Big Ten to the Big Nine, MSU had a chance to get in. (Thomas 2007)
Did U of M oppose this move on MSC's part? It's tricky. There seemed to be some support from the president of the university, Alexander Ruthven, who noted strategically in a letter to Hannah, that despite his support (or at least lack of opposition), "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." He was not as involved in athletic decisions like conference alignment.
Thomas notes another avenue of support from a Wolverine. "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.'" Though, Loree too, of course, was not the power behind the decision at U of M. (Thomas 2007)
As evidence of Michigan's typical role of obstructionist and saboteur, Thomas writes of the general undecurrent behind the anti-MSC vibe from U of M that undercut previous acts of support, "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," as well as President Hannah's later thoughts on the ordeal, "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." (Thomas 2007)
When Hannah wrote to then-Michigan Big Ten Faculty Representative Ralph Aigler to get an update on U of M's thoughts to MSC's admission status, he got the "Yeah, I don't think so" reply from Aigler: "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." (Thomas 2007)
So what about the vote? We obviously were ultimately admitted. But did Michigan vote for, or against, our application? Well, it's unclear here again. But I have a guess.
A Lansing State Journal writer noted, "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." When the vote was announced and MSC was accepted (Hurray!) it was indeed announced as a 9-0 unanimous vote. I repeat, announced. Maybe it really was unanimous. But given Hannah's comments, evidence at the time, and the general swirl of rumors since, I'm inclined to believe that had Michigan been the swing vote or the vote was in favor of voting against us, the Wolverines almost certainly would have rejected us (Michigan's recent back stab of Nebraska in the AAU does nothing to damper this suspicion). The fact that they didn't want to be the only, or one of the few, no votes, combined with pressure from the Big Ten, probably meant even if they had wanted to vote no (or did vote no) it wouldn't show up in the news reports of the result, for reasons of face and faux unity. (Thomas 2007)
Opposition to our name change to Michigan State University
In 1954, MSC sent a request to the legislature requesting our name be changed to Michigan State University. The argument here was pretty simple: we'd been functionally operating as a university since the 1930s and most of the other land-grant institutions had already been granted university status. In fact, we'd tried twice before, in 1949 and 1951, and failed. But we'd grown since WWII and had the type of athletic and academic success that should have helped our reputation and sealed the name change. Doesn't seem like that big a deal, right? (Thomas 2008 pg 251-252)
Wrong. The University of Michigan freaked. The U of M board of regents met a month later and gave as reasons to why we shouldn't get to change our name to MSU (I shit you not): "A name change would confuse the identity of the institutions... it would be unconstitutional because both the University of Michigan and Michigan State College names were embedded in the Michigan constitution, and that it would lead to (Heck: U of M's favorite anti-competition excuse) duplication of programs." LOL, I mean, it reads like satire. (Thomas, 2008 pg 252)
It would be just a hilarious footnote in their regime of stabs at our legitimacy, except that their stupid, spiteful bitching delayed the name change for about half a year, until the Michigan Congress and government finally got done laughing their asses off at UM's crappy arguments and approved the name change in a landslide. (Thomas 2008, pg 252-258)
To sum it up
The story behind MSU-UM goes beyond the football field, or the basketball court, to something more raw. If Michigan had their way over the years, MSU would either not exist, be severely limited, or be a lobotomized satellite under their umbrella.
It's not all about the sports teams (though that certainly doesn't help matters). It isn't even about the obvious condescension. It's the century of open hostility and behind-the-scenes sabotage coming from Ann Arbor. The use of political levers and influence in an attempt to keep us down, as though education was a zero-sum game. Maybe this has happened to other schools, but here at MSU, no other program has as consistently, or systemically, tried to undermine our status as an educational institution and athletic program. In the past, they tried to crush my school under their boot heel and probably would have kept trying if we hadn't gotten too good, and too big, for them to pick on anymore.
All we originally wanted to do was fill a gap. Do the work U of M wasn't doing, educate the students U of M wasn't teaching. It's what we still do. And eventually, yes, we wanted to contribute to the fields that U of M was traditionally strong in too, and become well-rounded and nationally respected. And we've done that too. But we've had to do it with the University of Michigan throwing garbage and rocks at us, every step of the way.
And that's a shame, because the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, is, and always has been, a good enough school athletically, and academically, to not need to resort to this type of action. Your school is really good. You make and discover and teach valuable things. I just wish that could have been enough for you. We were probably always going to be rivals, but it could have been friendly, at least off the playing fields. I guess fair competition was always a little too risky for the Wolverines, so instead, they tried to pull the plug on, or take credit for, various Spartans' hard work, time after time. You don't get to try to bury something that's important to us and then expect us to shrug it off, though they'll probably never understand that.
So, yeah, it' s sort of personal. You thought we'd forget?
Fortunately, the story comes complete with a happy ending. They tried to kill us, but they couldn't. Spartans, so the legends go, don't die easily. We were too smart, too tough, too, well, good. And now, as the past half century has shown, we're done having to deal with the sort of nonsense chronicled in this piece. We're here to stay, free from this sort of petty sniping, political maneuvering, and constant second-guessing. So don't forget the heroes and villains of this piece. Hate, because for many reasons hate has been earned, but also, be happy. Be happy because we beat the odds and that means so many good things, for so many good people.
Ultimately, MSU is a success story. Our school has grown from its simple roots to a university where students can feasibly claim they receive an education among the best in the country, while still fulfilling its goals to serve a large cross-section of students from around the country, and the globe. That's pretty cool. And, hey, the sports aren't too bad either.
-Kuhn, Madison, 1955. 'Michigan State: The First Hundred Years 1985-1955' published by: Michigan State University Press
-Thomas, David. 2008. 'Michigan State College' published by: Michigan State University Press
-Thomas, David, 2007. 'How MSU became a member of the Big Ten Conference' MSU Alumni Association Magazine, http://alumni.msu.edu/magazine/article.cfm?id=1154
-Widder, Keith, 2005. 'Michigan Agricultural College', published by: Michigan State University Press