Michigan State Football: 28th Best Program Spanning 150 Years

McLain Moberg

When people think of Michigan State athletics, their minds rarely jump to football, unless you grew up in the Mark Dantonio era and even then probably not.

Usually, the Spartans are associated with basketball. They are known for the program head coach Tom Izzo helped build over multiple decades now.

Nearly a year ago, ESPN ranked the 50 best college football programs spanning 150 years.

For reference, here is the formula they created and used.

Dominance, 20% -- number of national championships.

Peak strength, 20% -- winning percentage for best 50 seasons in program history.

Since integration, 30% -- winning percentage over the past 50 seasons (1969-2018).

Early modern, 20% -- winning percentage over the middle 50 seasons (1919-1968). Mostly pre-integration and included some games against non-college teams.

Pre-modern, 10% -- winning percentage over the first 50 seasons (1869).

1918) *mostly pre-standardization of current rules and many games against non-college teams.


  • National championships below the FBS level count at 50%.
  • National championships before the poll era (1936) count at 50%.
  • Winning percentages when a team was not in Division I are reduced by 10%.

Michigan State was the 28th best college football program over that time.

"When the Spartans emerged on the national stage after World War II, they made their presence known in a hurry. Under head coach Biggie Munn, the Spartans won the national title in 1952, the year before the Big Ten let them in," said ESPN Stats & Information. "Under head coach Duffy Daugherty, they finished No. 1 again in 1965 and 1966, thanks to Daugherty's enlightened views toward integration. In recent years, under coach Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has re-established itself as a force within the Big Ten."

Clarence "Biggie" Munn (1947-1953)

Michigan State claims six national titles, winning two during the Munn era in 1951 and 1952.

Munn was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a head coach in 1959.

In 1951, the Spartans went undefeated and were considered the National Champions by an organization called Helms Athletic Foundation.

A year later, Michigan State was voted No. 1 in the AP and Coaches' polls for the first time in school history after they continued their undefeated streak from the previous season – going 9-0 in 1952.

Back to back champions, and Munn was the AFCA Coach of the Year.

MSU became a member of the Big Ten in 1953 and got off to a hot start. In their first year, the Spartans shared a conference title with Illinois and found themselves in the Rose Bowl.

They would go on to beat UCLA 28-20.

Duffy Daugherty (1954-1972)

Duffy Daugherty took over for Munn in December of 1953, following his decision to become the athletic director.

Daugherty would coach many years at Michigan State, eventually compiling an overall record of 109-69-5 – winning two national championships in 1965 and 1966.

In 1984, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

During the 1965 campaign, the Spartans finished 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. However, they were later upset by UCLA in the Rose Bowl 14-12. But because there wasn't a national championship game per se, MSU was named national champions by the National Football Foundation and the United Press International (UPI).

In 1966, Michigan State entered their final game 9-0 against the No. 1 team in Notre Dame (MSU was No. 2). It is often called "The Game of the Century" because it pitted the country's top teams against each other. Although it ended in a 10-10 tie and both universities were named co-champions for that particular season.

Daugherty's 19 seasons as the head coach of Michigan State football are the longest in school history.

George Perles (1983-1994)

In his time at Michigan State, Perles led them to two conference titles, a 1988 Rose Bowl victory, and seven bowl games.

The 1987 season would be the last outright Big Ten title Michigan State earned until 2013.

He finished his head coaching career 68-67-4 (53-42-2 Big Ten).

Mark Dantonio (2006-2019)

Mark Dantonio was hired in November of 2006 to serve as the new Michigan State head football coach.

One of the most successful eras in the program's history would ensue, leading the Spartans to three Big Ten titles, the school's fifth trip to the Rose Bowl, and a College Football Playoff appearance.

On September 21, 2019, Dantonio won his 110th game surpassing Duffy Daugherty as the winningest head coach in the program's history.

He ended his career in East Lansing with a record of 114-57 (132-74 overall).

Dantonio won three Big Ten Championships and six bowl games, which is more than any other coach at Michigan State, including his 12 bowl appearances.

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