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Situated on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Muskegon High School joined the nation’s gridiron elite in the fall of 2005, with a 36-20 win over cross town rival Muskegon Reeths-Puffer. The triumph represented the school’s 700th varsity football victory. Entering the 2010 season, the Big Reds rank No. 1 in the state of Michigan in all-time football victories, and in the top ten in the United States with a 746-261-43 record.
Early Years (1895-1919)
MHS football dates to 1895. While the team dropped their first contest to Ferris Business College of Muskegon, they rebounded to end the year with a 3-2 record. A pair of victories over coastal rival Grand Haven allowed the school to proclaim themselves “Champions of Muskegon and Ottawa Counties.” It was the first of many titles to come. The team suffered only one losing season in the first ten years of gridiron action. Among the highlights was the school’s first undefeated squad in 1904. Coached by a local attorney, Robert E. Walker, the team posted an 8-0-0 mark.
However, according to local lore, Muskegon did not become a true football powerhouse until coach Robert Zuppke arrived on the scene in 1906. In four seasons at the helm, Zuppke’s squads posted a 29-4-2 record. His efforts while at Muskegon were also instrumental in the development of a wooded parcel of land into Hackley Field. The tract has served as home to the football team since 1907. Zuppke later became a coaching legend at University of Illinois, leading the Illini to four national championships in twenty-nine years at the helm.
Muskegon’s 1912 squad earned national recognition with a 216-0 drubbing of Hastings High School in the season opener. The score established a new prep record for most points scored in a contest. That 1912 squad compiled 499 points on the year, yet could not finish the season undefeated. A 13-12 loss to rival Grand Rapids Central in the season finale was blamed on overconfidence.
Jacks and Redmond (1920-1946)
From 1920 to 1946, Muskegon compiled an astonishing 195-33-15 under the guidance of legendary coaches J. Francis Jacks and C. Leo Redmond. A 1912 graduate of Muskegon, Jacks returned to coach the squad in the fall of 1920. Under his guidance, his alma mater won their first mythical state championship. In 1921, Muskegon repeated as mythical champs with a team that registered eight victories. Among the players on the squad were future University of Michigan stars William “Flop” Flora and Bennie Oosterbaan. Oosterbaan, only a sophomore in 1921, would lead the team to a third title in the fall of 1923. Following the sudden death of Coach Jacks in the spring of 1925, Muskegon hired Redmond, a star center at Western Normal College (now Western Michigan University) to guide the team’s fortunes. Redmond’s squads didn’t miss a beat, earning mythical crowns in 1926, 1927 and 1928.
The 1927 squad rates among the finest turned out by the school. Led by all state players Bill McCall, Mart Westerman, and John VanWesten, the team tallied 445 points, while allowing only a single touchdown in ten games. Victories included a 27-0 win over Chicago powerhouse John Marshall and a 45-0 triumph over Kenosha (Wisconsin). McCall went on to a stellar athletic career at Dartmouth, while Westerman lettered in football at Purdue.
During Redmond’s twenty-two years at the helm, the Big Reds posted a 156-29-13 mark against some of the finest squads from Michigan and the Midwest. Without a gridiron playoff system in place, the team racked up a total of seven mythical state crowns.
In hindsight, a pair of defeats kept Muskegon from two additional titles during the Redmond era. Only a 18-0 mid-season loss to 1931 mythical champion Grand Rapids Union kept Muskegon from a perfect record. In 1945, Muskegon faced rival Muskegon Heights in a season ending showdown of the undefeated. The Tigers (coached by Oscar E. “Okie” Johnson, a former teammate of Redmond during his college days at Western) earned the state crown with a 7-6 victory in what many consider the greatest prep gridiron match in Michigan history.
The Post-Redmond Years (1947-1984)
Redmond was succeeded by Harry Potter, his longtime assistant coach and a former teammate at Western. Potter’s squads posted a 57-24-8 mark over the span of ten seasons. His 1951 team, led by future Michigan State All American and National Football League quarterback Earl Morrall, added another mythical state crown to the school’s storied trophy cases.
Hard times hit the school system between 1958 and 1963. Cutbacks to the music, art and athletic programs followed a millage defeat in the spring of 1958. Paired with the addition of numerous high schools in the suburbs of Muskegon, the team salvaged only two winning seasons during the six year span.
The arrival of Roger Chiaverini in the fall of 1964 helped to sway the team’s fortunes. Under his direction, the Big Reds posted undefeated seasons in 1964 and 1965. Chiaverini’s replacement, Larry Harp, brought home the team’s twelfth mythical state title in the fall of 1971.
The team suffered four subpar seasons in the 1980’s. In the 115 year history of gridiron competition, the record books show only fifteen losing seasons.
Return to Glory (1985-Present)
Muskegon’s return to glory has occurred under the direction of head coach Dave Taylor. Taylor led the team to their first playoff appearance in 1985, and Michigan High School Athletic Association Class A playoff championships in 1986 and 1989. Tony Annese, current coach at Grand Rapids Junior College, added MHSAA Division 2 titles in 2004, 2006 and 2008 to bring their total to seventeen state championships.
Our Guest Blogger
Ron Pesch, an IT worker, has written for Michigan History Magazine, MLive and other publications. He is an historian for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, a board member of the International Buster Keaton Society and a die-hard high school sports fan. He graduated from Muskegon High School and Western Michigan University.