In the grand scheme of things, the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball have generally been strong over the past few years at Michigan State University. While the last basketball season and the final few years of the Dantonio era were a disappointment, the past 10-25 years of MSU sports have provided a lot of great moments.
But how does the Spartans’ success compare to other programs in the Big Ten? Certainly MSU basketball is the flagship program in the Big Ten, but that has not always been the case. In football, the Buckeyes reign supreme, but their program has also had its historical ups and downs.
In order to address this question, I decided to do some simple counting. I decided to count simple things like overall and conference wins. But, I also wanted to look at championships and post-season success. So, I counted accomplishments that usually earn a team a banner or trophy: Big Ten regular season titles, tournament titles, Final Fours, bowl wins, and National Championships.
Finally, I had to select a timeframe in which to conduct this accounting exercise. I could have gone back to the beginning of time, but MSU did not join the Big Ten until 1950. I could have started there as well, but 70 years seemed a bit too far.
I decided to make the somewhat arbitrary choice of starting at 1979. The main logic here is that this year marks the beginning of seeding in the NCAA basketball tournament. Prior to 1979, it was much harder to make the tournament, but much easier to make the Final Four if invited. 1979 is essentially the beginning of the modern era of college hoops.
As for football, I also started in 1979, just to be consistent with basketball. Counting back to the 1950s and 1960s would have added six football National Titles to MSU’s ledger. But skipping the decade of the 1970s, where the conference was unbalanced and embarrassingly weak overall is probably for the best. 1979 it is.
The simplest way to compare teams to each other is by raw winning percentages. So, Figure 1 below shows the overall and Big Ten conference winning percentages for all 14 Big Ten football programs back to 1979. For reference, the red bars are also labeled at the top with the total number of conference wins for each team.
In Figure 1, and in the ones to follow, I am only counting wins and accomplishments for Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers for the years when those teams were members of the Big Ten. So, for Penn State that means back to 1993. For Nebraska, it is back to 2011, and for Maryland and Rutgers, it is only back to 2015.
Over the past 40 years, Ohio State and Michigan are the clear top two football programs, which is not at all a surprise. Penn State comes in third in Big Ten win percentage, which also makes sense. But, after that, things get interesting.
In fourth place in Big Ten win percentage are the Iowa Hawkeyes, followed by the Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan State, who are neck-and-neck. Nebraska, based on win percentage, is just behind MSU. The top seven Big Ten football programs all have win percentages over .500 back to 1979.
The gap between the top seven and the eighth place team, the Purdue Boilermakers, is over 10 percentage points. Behind Purdue is Illinois, Northwestern, Minnesota, and Indiana, followed by the newly invited doormats of Maryland and Rutgers.
For me, the real surprise here is Iowa. While the Hawkeyes have had little high end success over the past 40 years, they have been remarkably consistent, which is how they find themselves so high on the list. As for MSU, it seems clear that over 40 years, the Spartans are in the same peer group as Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska (since 2011), which feels about right.
Figure 2 shows a similar set of data for Big Ten men’s basketball
This figure contains a few surprises. Based only on Big Ten win percentages, Maryland is technically in first place. That said, based on the very small sample size relative to the rest of the conference, I don’t feel that this number is very significant.
Purdue and Michigan State are essentially in a dead heat for second place in this metric. While it is not surprising to see MSU here, it is surprising that the Boilermakers also grade out so well. Much like Iowa football, this is a testament to the consistency of the program over 40 years.
In the next peer group are a cluster of four teams with winning percentages around 55 percent: Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan. Iowa and Wisconsin are a half step back from this group. There is a fairly large drop off down to Minnesota, and then the basement is occupied by Nebraska, Penn State, Rutgers, and Northwestern.
While this analysis gives a simple overview based on simple wins and losses, it does not account for accomplishments such as championships and post-season success. It seems likely that teams such as Iowa football and Purdue basketball might not score as well on these metrics.
Counting Trophies and Banners
Figure 3 below summarizes the key “banner worthy” accomplishments of each Big Ten team in football back to 1979. For each team, Figure 3 tallies the number of National Titles, Big Ten titles, and Division Titles (since 2011) including ties, just so some teams don’t feel left out. The top of each bar is also labeled with the number of bowl wins for each team since 1979.
Not surprisingly, it is the Ohio State Buckeyes who dominate this figure, with their two National Titles, 18 Big Ten titles, and nine division titles. It is also not surprising that the Michigan Wolverines are a clear second in this graph, followed by the Wisconsin Badgers in third.
Michigan State, however, finishes in fourth place, thanks to five Big Ten titles and three division titles. While these numbers pale in comparison to the accomplishments of, say, Tom Izzo, MSU has more Big Ten titles than Penn State (granted, with a few more attempts) and the same number as Iowa.
The Spartans trail Iowa and Penn State in bowl wins, which is also an important metric, but it seems clear that MSU belongs in a similar tier in the Big Ten pecking order as teams like Wisconsin, Penn State, and Iowa, all things considered.
After this top six, Northwestern and Illinois have experienced a little bit of success, while Purdue, Minnesota, and Indiana basically just try to win an occasional bowl game. As for the newcomers (Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers), a single division title for the Huskers is the only piece of hardware that they can claim.
On the basketball side, the Figure 4 below summarizes National Titles, Final Fours, regular season titles, and Big Ten Tournament titles (starting in 1998). Here I have labeled each bar with the total number of NCAA Tournament wins in that span.
This Figure highlights Michigan State’s dominance on the hardwood. Since 1979, the Spartans have accumulated an astonishing 29 total banners: 12 regular season titles, six tournament titles, nine Final Fours, and two National Championships.
MSU leads all Big Ten teams in all basketball categories except for National Titles, where there is a tie with Indiana, who holds down second place in this chart (and who also did win a National Title in 1976, just a few years before the cut-off).
Ohio State basketball claims the third highest number of banners, followed by Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Purdue, notably, has 10 regular season Big Ten titles in this span, which is good for a second place tie with rival Indiana. But, Purdue can claim only one Big Ten Tournament Title and last made the Final Four in 1980.
As for the Wolverines, Michigan has only half of the number of Big Ten regular season titles as Indiana and Purdue, but their five Final Fours (good for second place) help to improve their standings. That said, I decided not to discount vacated games during the semi-pro phase in Ann Arbor in the 1990s, so the actual number of banners in the rafters and official record book may vary.
After the top seven Big Ten teams, there is a pretty steep drop off. Iowa and Minnesota have a few banners, Maryland shared the title in 2020, and Penn State, Northwestern, and Rutgers are just happy if they win a Tournament game. Nebraska, on the other hand, is arguably in a tier by itself, still trying to even join the club of a single Tournament win.
While the analysis over a 40 year span gives a good sense of consistency and achievement, teams certainly have their ups and downs. As a final bit of analysis, I was curious to see what the data would look like if I divided it roughly in half and focused on the 1980s and 1990s separate from the results since 2000.
That is so last century
Figures 5 and 6 below presents the same winning percentage data shown in Figures 1 and 2 above, but it only includes data from 1979 to 1999 only. Figure 6 then shows the “banners and trophy” data for the same period of time. Here I combine the football and basketball data for brevity, and Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers are not included, obviously.
As for football, the 20th century trends are similar to the overall trends, with a few notable exceptions. First, Michigan was slightly better than Ohio State in the 1980s and 1990s overall, both in terms of win percentage and achievements. Michigan seems to have had the strongest football program in the final two decades of last century.
Second, Wisconsin was notably below average in win percentages, but made a charge in the mid 1990s to collect some hardware for the trophy case. For those that do not remember the 20th century, the Badgers were a bottom feeder until Barry Alvarez arrived in 1990 and turned the athletic department around.
As for MSU, while the football program seemed a bit mediocre in the 1980s and 90s, the Spartans still managed to finish essentially in fifth place, and certainly no worse than sixth place based on both win percentages and achievements. Only Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa are clearly ahead, with Wisconsin and Penn State right there with MSU.
As for basketball, it is clear that the late 20th century belonged to the state of Indiana, but the state of Michigan accomplished plenty as well. The Indiana Hoosiers clearly had the best two decades, based both on winning percentage and banners, and Purdue looks to have second place locked down as well, thanks to a strong win percentage and 10 Big Ten titles.
Third place is a tougher call, as MSU hung more banners, but the Spartans had some lean years as well, which is evident from the middling win percentage and slightly lower number of NCAA Tournament wins. Michigan’s semi-pro teams were a bit more efficient win-wise, had more Final Fours, but had fewer Big Ten titles. Illinois boasts the third best win percentage, but lacks banners in general.
The same data starting from the year 2000 up to and including the spring of 2021 is shown below in Figures 7 and 8.
On the football side of the coin, the 21st century is clearly when the Ohio State Buckeyes overtook the rest of the conference and when Wisconsin rose to become the overall second best football program. They are the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams based on these two figures.
As for third place, it is debatable. Based on win percentages, Michigan is in third place, but the Wolverines’ lack of title and bowl wins suggest that Penn State or even Iowa might be a better candidate. Then again, Michigan State’s seven bowl wins, three division titles, and three Big Ten titles also provide a case for the third best program.
In hoops, the answer is more clear. Michigan State is the clear cream of the crop in 21st century Big Ten basketball, owning both the best win percentage and dominating in banners. Second place appears to be a dead heat between Ohio State and Wisconsin who both were below average until the turn of the century. Illinois and Michigan exist in a third tier a half step below the teams in red.
What is notable here is the fall from grace by the two Indiana schools. Purdue is still strong in win percentages, but trails significantly in titles and post-season achievement. The Hoosiers have fallen even farther. The Hoosiers are no better than the seventh best Big Ten team over the past 20 years, depending on how much weight is given to Maryland’s strong win percentage in the short time that they have been a Big Ten member.
As a final note, I would like to point out one interesting trend. I made the observation above that Iowa football and Purdue basketball both have enjoyed a surprising level of consistency. Those two programs happen to have have one very important thing in common: coaching continuity.
Much like MSU basketball, both programs have had only two head coaches over the span of several decades: Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz for Iowa football and Gene Keady and Matt Painter for Purdue basketball. While both programs have struggled to win championships or have high-level post-season success, they are always a tough out and rarely have a losing record.
In contrast, we can compare the success of the Hawkeyes and Boilermakers to the struggles of programs like Minnesota (in both sports) and Nebraska football, who have a history of firing coaches after a few mediocre seasons in hopes of finding the next great coach who will take their program to “the next level,” which is a strategy that never seems to work. These programs seem to have made great the enemy of good.
In fairness, these observations are just anecdotal, and cause and effect is unclear. Are Purdue and Iowa successful because of coaching continuity, or do they have continuity because they are reasonably successful? Some patience from the athletic director is necessary, but too much patience can lead to stagnation and an acceptance of mediocrity.
Obviously, the better option is to have both continuity and the high level of success enjoyed by Coach Tom Izzo and (to some extent) Coach Mark Dantonio. Will we be able to add Coach Mel Tucker to that list over the next 5-10 years? Only time will tell. As always, I remain optimistic.
That is all for today. As always, enjoy, and Go Green.