by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Sports-related books are a lot like sports-related movies. Both heavily populate the marketplace, although only a handful of them ever make meaningful contributions to serious discussion. So, when any of them hit the mark, we’re usually moved to comment.

Thus, consider us “moved” by the recent work penned by Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter, and Jeff Passan, entitled Death to the BCS. And with the holiday season approaching, we’re suggesting that every college football fan do themselves a favor and pick up not only that book, but also another classic entitled Onward to Victory, Murray Sperber’s definitive study of big-time college sports and the origins of its disturbing underside. We’re hard-pressed to think of two more important pieces of sports journalism over the past thirty years.

Indeed, we believe both are must-reads for any fans who seek to understand the machinations of big-time college athletics. And we expect almost every reader will take from the books a new (and not necessarily positive) perspective about institutions most have probably held dear for all of their lives. Next week we’ll take a closer look at Wetzel’s, et al. new Death to the BCS book. But to put the bigger picture into proper context, and to understand the origins of the complex ecosystem of how money began to pull the levers in college sport (and, extrapolated several decades, up to the recent allegations at Auburn involving QB Cam Newton), we would suggest the readers first pick up Sperber’s Onward to Victory, written in 1998 and still available in many book stores, libraries, and online venues.

The recent revival of Michigan State’s football fortunes recalled several important passages from Sperber’s book, one of which outlined the Spartans’ rather dramatic rise to athletic prominence after World War II, and their important (if somewhat unintended) role in shaping the direction of college athletics.

As Sperber meticulously notes, there was hard evidence that the Spartans had done some not-so-subtle skirting of the rules to rise to prominence. Along with football coach and eventual AD Clarence “Biggie” Munn (right), the other key figure in MSU’s rise was school president John Hannah, one of the most influential administrators of the ’40s and early ’50s. As Sperber noted, Sport Magazine put things into perspective regarding MSU’s ascendancy in this passage from a December, 1953, story.

“The ingredients of Michigan State’s rise from an ‘also-ran’ in the football picture to a top national power include an athletic-minded college president; an aggressive, free-spending football-conscious alumni group; a head coach who is a sound fundamentalist; a staff of assistants who are talented and persuasive “salesmen”; a liberal academic policy...”

John Hannah was one of the first “Booster Presidents” who believed he could promote his school regionally and nationally through success in big-time college sports. Winning was the necessary formula, and to that end Hannah believed in looking in the other direction when his coaches, alumni, and administrators broke the rules. The NCAA’s Walter Byers termed Hannah’s overall strategy “athletic bootstrapping,” and considered Hannah a forerunner to many like-minded university leaders.

Hannah, who was appointed to his MSU post in 1941, immediately set about implementing his athletics vision in East Lansing. He announced that “football is a college’s show window,” and his intentions, according to Byers, were to “climb from the status of an instructional school for tradesmen and farmers to a nationally respected university.” Athletics, and football in particular, would be his vehicle.

Hannah’s actions spoke as loud as his words, as soon after his MSU appointment he used a major bequest to the school to permanently fund a large number of athletic scholarships. And by raising the capacity of the school’s football stadium from 14,000 to 51,000 on his watch, the Spartans, campaigning as an independent in those days, were a natural choice to fill the void in the Big Ten left by the University of Chicago’s eventual departure.

Michigan State was not welcomed to the Big Ten with open arms, however. Conference commissioner Tug Wilson began to get many complaints and charges that “unearned aid” was being funneled to athletes through the off-campus Spartan Foundation. Cutting corners was an art perfected by many Big Ten (and other) schools in the post-war era, but MSU was cheating on a much larger and better-organized scale than the others. Wilson, urged by nearby Michigan, accused Spartan officials of making no attempt to regulate the out-of-control boosters.

Throughout the Big Ten investigation, Hannah took the stance that he could not be held responsible for an outside “slush fund” that was funneling money to athletes, a stance which subjected him to claims of hypocrisy. MSU was given warnings by the Big Ten to behave itself, but the team of Hannah and Munn had perfected the art of skirting the rules, creating a template for other schools to use in the future with well-heeled boosters and similar “athletic foundations” that were leading a dual existence while acting as slush funds for the players.

Hannah’s new-found prominence, however, thrust him in 1951 to the forefront of a committee formed by the American Council on Education (ACE)—consisting of ten prominent college presidents, including Notre Dame’s Father John Cavanaugh and Yale’s A. Whitney Griswold—of which Hannah would be the chairman. Reforming the college athletics scene to help rid it of cheats was one important function of the committee, but Hannah’s position of influence in the group acted as a barrier to real reform. Specifically, Hannah was able to cut off Cavanaugh’s attempts to use regional accreditation agencies to downgrade colleges that were caught usurping the rules in sports.

Many speculated upon Hannah’s reasons for betraying the ACE reform initiative, but it basically came down to the fact that his Michigan State, for which he was still serving as president, could exist much more happily in the looser world of NCAA regulations than in an atmosphere of ACE reforms policed by the North Central Accrediting Agency, which in essence would be fitting the MSU athletics program and Spartan Foundation with a noose. The reforms eventually adopted by the NCAA only partially addressed the issues brought forth by ACE, creating a much watered-down version.

In retrospect, some of the ACE reforms seemed rather Draconian, among them no bowl games, and no spring football. But the bigger point was that an opportunity to effectively police college athletics had been lost forever, as the growing influence of college sport in the 1950s made revisiting the ACE plan a moot point in subsequent years. There was only one small window during time in which college sports could have had meaningful reform, and it was Michigan State’s John Hannah who helped to permanently close it.

Next week: “Death to the BCS”

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