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November is a month of traditions – Thanksgiving and the first colonists, harvests and breaking bread with others. It’s Native American heritage month, some families are winding down deer camp or attending a Thanksgiving Day parade. Football has been a long-standing Thanksgiving week tradition in Michigan from the Lion’s Thanksgiving Day game to the last regular season college football games to high school football championships.
I distinctly remember Thanksgiving, 1980. My oldest brother’s team, the Okemos Chieftains, were undefeated and headed to the Michigan High School Athletic Association state championship game at the Pontiac Silverdome. Our Thanksgiving Day afternoon was spent watching them practice in the snow at MSU’s Spartan Stadium in preparation for the Saturday game. For a child, the pomp and circumstance surrounding the game and the community’s general excitement were mesmerizing. This was a coming out party for a former farming-community-turned-suburb. We genuinely thought we were participating in a long-honored tradition. As it turns out, it was only five years old.
The Mythical Championships
College football is annually criticized for the various polls that rank teams and give them a chance at the “National Championship.” The Associated Press, Coaches poll, BCS, ESPN all have polls that jockey for headlines to declare which team is the champion. No playoff system exists, so ultimately a poll (albeit now run by a computer formula) picks the contestants for the championship game. High school football in Michigan followed the path of the Associated Press Poll for decades; however, no championship game was played. Press members simply voted a team the champion at the end of the regular season.
In early 20th century Michigan, football was a popular but nascent sport compared to baseball and basketball. Surprisingly, the early adopter of a statewide playoff system was high school basketball, holding statewide championship tournaments beginning in 1925.
But football is expensive. Communities like Kalkaska in Northern Michigan wanted the status of a football team but had to ease into the expense of the sport. In 1954, the yearbook optimistically announced the purchase of some uniforms in anticipation of fielding teams in future years (see image). Perhaps these expenses and the slow organization of various school teams resulted in Michigan only having “Mythical Champions” or those determined by a press poll for much of the 20th century. It was not until 1972, with the formation of the Michigan High School Coaches Association, that the idea of a state championship became a reality. In a 1975 newsletter, the association announced that the first state championships would be held that November in order to improve high school football. The games were held at Western and Central Michigan University football stadiums, as the new Pontiac Silverdome didn’t open until December of that year. In 1976, moved to the Pontiac Silverdome until 2002, when the finals moved to the new home of the Detroit Lions, Ford Field.
For more information on the history of the Michigan High School Athletic Association or Michigan High School Football, please visit these links:
The Michigan High School Athletic Association website: http://www.mhsaa.com
General Michigan high school football teams and records: http://michigan-football.com/
History of the mythical championships: http://bit.ly/sCIYVe
About the Author
Written by Mark Harvey, Archives of Michigan
State Archivist Archives of Michigan