Nov. 18, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
While riding in a rental car from Detroit Metropolitan Airport Friday afternoon, Gene McDermott spoke on a cell phone about how the Old Brass Spittoon came to be the rivalry trophy between the Michigan State and Indiana football teams.
The first conversation McDermott had about making the spittoon the object of contention with his Hoosier counterparts took place 61 years ago via telegram.
"We didn't have a phone and they didn't have a phone," the 86-year-old McDermott said with a laugh. "That was before communication got to the status it has now. Long before.
"Their telegram said, `We the students of Indiana University hereby accept your challenge.'"
When Michigan State and Indiana battle for possession of the Old Brass Spittoon for the 54th time on Saturday in Spartan Stadium, they'll also be playing for a time capsule.
McDermott, who lives in Allentown, Pa., will be attending his first Spittoon Game in about 20 years with former Michigan State College classmate Bill Cass.
"I'm looking forward to seeing it again," McDermott said.
If only that spittoon could talk.
McDermott was the junior class president in 1950 when legendary coach "Biggie" Munn's fourth Spartans' team had just beaten Notre Dame, 36-33, to improve to 5-1 and No. 13 in the Associated Press poll.
"Munn was afraid of a big letdown," McDermott said.
McDermott, and class secretary Virginia O'Brien, embarked on a search to find something that would ramp up school spirit for the clash with the 2-2-1 Hoosiers the way the Little Brown Jug did between Minnesota and Michigan.
They found the spittoon in an antique shop in Lansing.
"It had a few dents in it," McDermott said. "I guess guys would spit in the spittoon, and then kick it. It was probably kicked around a lot."
According to a note the previous owner left inside the spittoon, it was used at a trading post believed to be located in what is now East Lansing in the early 1800s. Since it was still in active use by residents of both states when IU was founded in 1820 and MSU was established in 1855, it seemed like an appropriate prize.
"The guy at the antique shop said people would come up from Indiana to trap, and fish and hunt in Michigan, and that trading post was a big place where they would go in those days," McDermott said. "Gals aren't too fond of spittoons and I think Ginny said, `Ickkk' when I said I was going to take it. (The dealer) cleaned it up on the outside, but I don't think he touched it on the inside. It was all black, probably from cigar butts and tobacco."
McDermott used $25 from the junior prom fund to buy the spittoon.
"We got hosed, I think, because it wasn't worth $25," he said. "I mean, it was used. It wasn't like it was brand new."
McDermott then wired the challenge to Bloomington, and the Indiana Student Senate accepted.
When McDermott went into the Hoosiers locker room to show coach Clyde B. Smith and the IU players what was at stake, the spittoon evoked a silent, ho-hum reaction. However, when he showed it off in the Michigan State locker room, Munn and the Spartans roared with approval, he said.
After Michigan State clobbered Indiana, 35-0, McDermott used a roommate's then 21-year-old Model A Ford to drive the spittoon onto the running track surrounding the field in Spartan Stadium at the time.
The Spartans went on to defeat Minnesota, 27-0, and Pittsburgh, 19-0, to finish with an 8-1 record and No. 8 ranking in the final AP poll.
With 8-2, and No. 12-ranked, Michigan State playing for a spot in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, the Spartans can only hope history repeats itself.