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Former MSU president used football to build an academic powerhouse

Jim Ellis and the Spartans beat Notre Dame, 35-0, on Nov. 10, 1951 in Spartan Stadium. They went on to an undefeated season and a national championship.

Every university has got its giants, of course. But those schools born around the Civil War needed bigger men than most to carve these campuses out of forests and fields, then build them to rival the world’s greatest institutions. And they did it all in just a few decades.

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

Hannah was a proud graduate of Michigan Agricultural College in 1923, earning a degree in poultry science. Eighteen years later, he became the school’s president – at the ripe age of 39.

Hannah’s timing couldn’t be better.

The G.I. Bill opened the doors for 2.2 million returning veterans nationwide. The auto industry was booming, inspiring the state’s citizens to dream bigger dreams for their children.  And, 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 always favored the flagship university in Ann Arbor.

So, while University of Michigan President Harlan Hatcher rolled up to the capital in a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car, the unassuming Hannah hopped in his pickup truck to drive up Michigan Avenue to see his old friends in the statehouse — and that's how he got more funds for his school every time he did.

Once Hannah put together enough money for a new dorm, he built a beautiful brick building with green trim, filled it with former GIs, then used their tuition to build the next dorm—and he kept doing it, for decades.

At the same time, he lobbied hard to replace the University of Chicago in the Big Ten. He had to, because Michigan’s athletic director, Fritz Crisler, was a proud Chicago alumnus, who lobbied just as hard to keep the Spartans out.

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. The next year, Michigan State started an annual rivalry with Notre Dame. The Irish were only too happy to help the upstart Spartans stick it to their mutual enemy, Michigan.

When the Spartans finished both 1951 and 1952 seasons as undefeated national champions, nobody could deny they were ready to start playing in the Big Ten the next season. The Spartans enjoyed their greatest success during Hannah’s next two decades, claiming four more national titles and a 14-4-2 record against the team in Ann Arbor.

Hannah attended every single Spartan football game, home and away, throughout his tenure.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not even wrote about his streak.

Hannah recognized the central role the Spartans’ success played in raising the profile of the former cow college. That helped attract more state funding, more skilled students, and more first-rate professors.

Hannah’s three-pronged strategy transformed the 6,000 student Michigan Agricultural College into the 40,000-student Michigan State University.

He had built 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, which might represent the fastest growth in the history of higher education.

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 45 seasons since Hannah retired, the Spartans have won only five Big Ten titles and no national crowns – but the academic empire he created is as strong as ever.

At Hannah’s State of the University address, on February 12, 1968, he said, “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 state funding, the G.I. Bill — and football.

Michigan State University simply would not be what it is without President Hannah – or his beloved football team.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.