The Old School, Revisited

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | December 06, 2013

The little girl walking between us held our hands as we crossed a footbridge over the river. Tree leaves were colored red and gold and hues of yellow and orange and a few floated down to the water after light gusts of wind.

“This is pretty, daddy,” she said.

Ten-year-old children are rarely wrong with their assessments of the world. The Red Cedar River gurgled gently beneath our feet on a clear October afternoon up in Michigan and the sky was a blue that might have been as clear as the air has ever been since the internal combustion engine started running.

Red Cedar River

Red Cedar River

A stadium rose before us against the sky and thousands of people were gathering in tents and around vehicle tailgates at its perimeter. Band music came down the river and we hurried toward friends who had been absent from our lives for years.

“This is your college, right, Mama?”

“Yes, baby. Daddy’s, too.”

We had been gone, however, for twenty-five years. But I had a rationale for this behavior. My explanation was that the four years out of the century that it had been my good fortune to attend Michigan State University could not be surpassed. We had protested a war, listened to great music and lectures, discovered books and teachers and new cultures that led us to think, and we were perfectly immobilized by the first warm days of spring and green sprigs of grass from beneath the snow.

I did not want to jeopardize those memories by returning to discover they had been distorted by my youthful naïveté. I worried about urban expansion intruding on the campus, encountering undergrads that planned to walk from receiving their diplomas to luxury car dealerships, even a decline of respect for tradition, more pavement, and disaffected students.

Spartan Stadium

Spartan Stadium

I was wrong, terribly wrong, and lost a quarter century connection to one of America’s greatest institutions, consistently and unpretentiously doing the work that improves lives.

MSU is an acronym popping up everywhere on the Internet in recent weeks because of the unexpected accomplishments of its football team, and the perennial emergence of basketball power. The football team, though, is to be met in another stadium in Indiana by Ohio State University, a place of learning that asserts its exceptionalism by beginning its title with the article, “The.” The Ohio State University’s arrival at the conference championship game was anticipated but the journey of the Spartan squad to excellence has not been readily apparent to even sports bookies. The benefit of this development, though, accrues to more than just the coach and players.

Although the argument is generally sound that collegiate athletics are over-emphasized to the detriment of academics and research, the less acknowledged fact is that sports are the best method for delivering a university’s brand. When a team excels, the broader institution benefits. We are all attracted by achievement and seek its association. My curiosity about MSU began as a teenager when I saw the flickering gray images of a football game on our old box Zenith TV. The Spartans had played mighty Notre Dame to a 10-10 tie. East Lansing was less than an hour distant and I had never been there but I suddenly knew where I was going.

A backstory was invisible on that TV screen. A young man from Texas stood in the midst of the game and seemed to change the outcome with his great strength. Bubba Smith had been a legend in Texas high school football and had met with the University of Texas coach Darrel Royal about playing for the Longhorns. Royal supposedly told Bubba, “Son, I’d love to have you but it’s just too soon for Texas.”

Bubba - A Texas Legend Gone North

Bubba – A Texas Legend Gone North

No such concern was expressed by MSU coach Duffy Daugherty, and an African-American teenager from the piney woods of East Texas began a football career in East Lansing alongside George Webster and Gene Washington, two more of the black players who both later joined Smith in the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1966, when MSU shared the national championship, the team had two black captains. The University of Texas did not offer a scholarship to a black football player until 1970. MSU’s first black football player, Gideon Smith, earned a varsity letter in 1913.

A small percentage of us do not make good sports fans. We prefer to play more than watch and cheer and we wonder how there are places where multi-million dollar weight rooms are considerably more important than classrooms. But we also know the value of sports to inspire and illuminate human potential, even to hint at what might be achieved by nations operating with a commonality of purpose for a greater good.

Silly overstatement? Maybe, unless you consider what happened at Jenison Field House set close by the banks of the Red Cedar. A half-century ago, MSU hosted what became known as “The Game of Change.” Mississippi State University had qualified to play in the NCAA tournament but Jim Crow laws in Mississippi were preventing the basketball team from playing schools that had integrated their rosters. They were scheduled to meet Loyola, which had four black players. The Mississippi coach snuck his team out of state and traveled to East Lansing with his all-white squad. Loyola defeated the Bulldogs from Starkville by ten points and went on to win the national championship in 1963, but men of principle and honor had helped to clarify who we really might be as a people.

Loyola's National Championship Team 1963

Loyola’s National Championship Team 1963

Michigan State’s current athletic director Mark Hollis saw the historical and marketing value in commemorating the “Game of Change” and facilitated a game between the Spartans and the historically black Tuskegee University. A plaque was unveiled outside the old field house as part of the ceremonies to memorialize an event that today prompts as much pride as the 1979 season in the same building when Earvin Johnson led a national championship basketball season for MSU.

Plaque Outside Jenison Field House

Plaque Outside Jenison Field House

Hollis, whose business acumen also created the “Carrier Classic” basketball games, has an insight on what works at his university. He led the effort to bring football coach Mark Dantonio back to MSU. The stern-faced Dantonio does not trifle with inadequate preparation or partial effort. He talks about graduation rates almost as much as he does pass routes. There are tricks in his playbook and a belief that the mundane repetition of practice and execution can lead to greatness and his psychology has taken MSU back to national prominence in football.

Which matters because more people will learn about Michigan State University. And they will ask questions. What makes the president of MSU, Lou Anna K. Simon, refuse the offer of a “significant salary increase” for the past five years? Simon and her husband are members of the Clifton R. Wharton Donor Recognition Society, which honors donors of more than $2.5 million.

Madam President - Lou Anna K. Simon

Madam President – Lou Anna K. Simon

Maybe people watching the game will hear about how Athletic Director Mark Hollis and his wife Nancy gave the university $1 million for academic scholarships and arts programming. Or they might learn about basketball coach Tom Izzo and his wife Lupe’s $1 million dollar gift to the university, the institution that provided a diminutive free throw shooter from the Upper Peninsula a path to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Hollises

The Hollises

Possibly, someone will talk about the day a University of Michigan fan spent several thousand dollars to have a skywriter leave the message, “Go Blue” floating above Spartan Stadium and how Scott Westerman, the Executive Director of the Alumni Association, took to social media and turned the blue into green as a fund-raising challenge to fight cancer. More than forty thousand dollars were raised for ovarian cancer research in the state.

Blue Turns to Green

Blue Turns to Green

There is considerably more that those of us who are prideful would like to share. We think it is significant that the Department of Energy has chosen our university for a $730 million dollar facility to conduct rare isotope research; The Institute for Scientific Information lists 27 MSU researchers among the top 250 “highly cited” scientists in the world; the Journal of Product Innovations Management ranks MSU third in the world for effective technology transfer from invention to marketplace; MSU is among the top five universities in the U.S. for sustainability practices; was chosen by the Carnegie Foundation as one of the nation’s first “community engaged universities,” U.S. News and World Report picked the elementary and secondary education programs as the best in the country for the 19th successive year as are the graduate programs in nuclear physics and the College of Natural Science along with the undergraduate discipline in supply chain logistics. There are far too many accolades to mention.

We also have a football team.

And one of its achievements this year is to bring attention to what has been happening at Michigan State. The sons and daughters of auto workers and teachers and waiters and bank tellers and carpenters and truck drivers are able to matriculate at a university that has given them an opportunity beyond the reach of their parents. In return, those students have completed research that expands our understanding of the universe, become doctors, actors, written great literature, and engaged in countless other important endeavors.

The three greatest living writers in America, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, and Thomas McGuane, all took their undergraduate degrees from Michigan State. Harrison, whose books are likely to be as eternal as Mark Twain’s and Ernest Hemingway’s, has been guided in his work by his simple proclamation, “I seek the substantial in life.” I have concluded in my own retrospection that is what drew him, the son of an agricultural agent in Northern Michigan, to East Lansing. There is a crucible at the old school and minds issue from it with capabilities not previously even contemplated.

I was not yet a published writer that autumn day we escorted our daughter to her first MSU football game but I was falling back in love with the campus after a long separation. Our daughter went to an MSU homecoming later as a teenager and concluded she was going to leave Texas. She had been given special encouragement in her decision from the late governor of Texas Ann Richards. Amanda Noelle spent two of her four years in East Lansing as a resident advisor and after graduation began her career as an academic recruiter, convincing other Texas young people to attend MSU.

Her mother, the little red-haired farm girl who has stood beside me and also stood me up every time I faltered since we met one spring day on campus, has become a kind of international MSU brand and stepmom on social media. She is a friendly shoulder for homesick Spartan students and offers as much friendship as advice. Known as the Crazy MSU Lady, she maintains a constant flow of information about the university, its programs, students, and alumni. She still falls into my arms but these days it is sometimes because she loses her balance while standing on top of a table at a sports bar as she screams and cheers for Sparty on TV.

I mostly just stay out of their way, except when I am caught up in these big moments. And then I can’t help myself, either.

I get a bit proud.

4 Comments for this entry

  • Shaw

    Excellent piece my friend. MSU is a special place to me too, as you know. All of the historical accomplishments, on and off the field, that you mention just make even more special. It is so cool how perfect strangers, from any end of the cultural spectrum, can become friends in seconds when they share that their common love for MSU. Thanks “Dood.”

  • Jim

    Thanks, Captain Locke. I hear you are going to the game. Have a blast. It will pretty crazy at Third Base, too.

  • Mike Jasper

    “The three greatest living writers in America, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, and Thomas McGuane, all took their undergraduate degrees from Michigan State.”

    What? Edward Albee died?

    Great article, Jim.


  • Jim

    You think Edward Albee is in league with Jim Harrison? I scoff. Where you been hidin’, Jasbo?

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