With apologies to Dickens, A Tale Of Two Seasons, features everything a football fan could want in a rivalry. A story of redemption, murder, and friendship, within two key contests in this college football series.
MSU will face their least played Big Ten original member school this Saturday. The Spartans lead the all-time series, 26-18-2. In preparation for the 47th meeting, here’s a look back at two seasons between Illinois and Michigan State.
Birth Of A Rivalry
Despite about 60 years of gridiron history, 1955 was the first ever meeting between Illinois and Michigan State. Red Grange never galloped in East Lansing. The first game came three years into Michigan State’s membership in Big Ten football.
M.S.C. alumni were welcomed home to the newly named Michigan State University with a grand 100th year Centennial celebration parade. (The anniversary was recognized 48 years after the 1907 Semi Centennial. Read why in my previous column.)
Whispers of whether second year Head Coach Duffy Daugherty could fill the shoes of his predecessor, Biggie Munn, buzzed Macklin Stadium in a sold out Homecoming contest with the Illini. Two teams looking for redemption after sub-par 1954 seasons, both bringing 3-1 records into a game that each viewed as a must-win to compete for the Big Ten title.
The Spartans prevailed in a 21-7 victory, led by All-Everything Earl Morrall, who had completed five of eight passes for 136 yards, two touchdowns, one reception, one interception; he also kicked off, played stellar defense, and punted four times.
Michigan State was on their way to the 1956 Rose Bowl Championship, but the Illini helped them along the way by defeating the Michigan Wolverines, 25-6, later that season.
Death Of A President
On the final weekend of the 1963 regular season, the top two teams in the conference, Michigan State and Illinois, met to decide who would win the Big Ten Championship and represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. As clearly stated on the program cover and ticket stub the game was scheduled to be played on November 23, 1963. There would be no game that day.
24 hours prior to kick-off, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The news rocked the nation, and university officials were uncertain what to do about the upcoming schedule of games. Under what the Detroit Free Press called “a protesting wave of public opinion,” officials from Michigan State and Illinois announced on Saturday — less than three hours from the scheduled kick off — that the game would be postponed.
With the nation in mourning, the game was rescheduled for Thanksgiving Day, the following Thursday. What followed was described as a listless week of practice that proved to follow the Spartans on to the field. Illinois shut out the Spartans, 13-0, led by Dick Butkus on defense. The Illini forced seven Michigan State turnovers in the game and went on to win the 1964 Rose Bowl.
About ten years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dick Butkus at an autograph signing event. As a Michigan State collector, I don’t often seek out opponent signatures on my items. However, I made an exception for a most worthy opponent and had the Hall Of Famer sign my 1963 program. When I asked him about the game, he replied: “Bubba claims MSU would have won if the game had been played on Saturday. All I know is we won the Rose Bowl.”
If they couldn’t agree on that, or whether it “Tastes Great” or was “Less Filling”, at least I think this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.