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How Sparty series, Land Grant Trophy came to be

Photo by Penn State Athletics: PSU players with the Land Grant Trophy in 2016

With Penn State set to play Michigan State this week, let’s take a look back at how this series and the Land Grant Trophy came to be. The following story is something I wrote for the Altoona Mirror in 2008 and includes some great historical details from former Michigan State coach George Perles. It was Perles who designed the infamous Land Grant Trophy, which has become fodder for fans to poke fun at given its odd and unwieldy look.

Editor’s note: George Perles, also a former Steelers assistant coach who helped the team win four Super Bowls in the 1970s, died on Jan. 20 this year.

Perles tells story of PSU-Michigan State series and the Land Grant Trophy

UNIVERSITY PARK — The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry always dominates the final day of the Big Ten season, but not this year.

“They’re second fiddle to us,” said former Michigan State coach George Perles, who first suggested having the Spartans close every season against Penn State.

Perles wanted to manufacture a rivalry when Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions entered the Big Ten, so the two schools have battled for the Land Grant Trophy every year since 1993. Perles even designed the trophy, which features PSU’s Old Main and Michigan State’s Beaumont Tower.

It turns out being one of those somewhat silly trophy games most years, but for the first time, this season both teams are playing for the Big Ten championship.

Perles was an assistant coach on the Steelers’ four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s and a two-time Big Ten champ coaching at Michigan State. He couldn’t be more proud of the rivalry he created, especially this year.

“It’s all worth it to have that last game, to have the big crowds and to compete with Joe every year,” Perles said. “He is the gentleman of all gentlemen in the coaching profession.

“I’m honored to have him as a great friend. He’s as good as there ever was at coaching that game.”

Perles also expressed his pride for the job done by second-year Spartan coach Mark Dantonio, whose team is 9-2 overall, 6-1 in the Big Ten and can win at least a share of the conference title by beating Penn State.

“We’ve got a good one in the head football coach and his staff,” Perles said. “The kids are playing, I would say in some instances, over their heads because he’s still building the program. But it’s good to have a championship game coming like this.”

Perles coached the Spartans from 1983-94, winning the Big Ten in ’87 and ’90, and is now a member of the Michigan State Board of Trustees. He was on the MSU coaching staff at the same time as Paterno’s brother, George, in the late 1960s.

JoePa still appreciates the gesture made by Perles to reach out and create the year-end game.

“He said, ‘Why don’t we lock our game in?'” Paterno said. “And I said, ‘George, I think that would be great’ because Michigan State has a great Pennsylvania background. Some of the best players they’ve ever had were Pennsylvania kids.”

Perles had known Paterno for years by that point.

“He used to come to training camp when I was with the Steelers, and that’s when I got to know him a little bit,” Perles said. “And then of course when they got in the Big Ten, Michigan State and myself were very supportive of welcoming them. It was a great break for the whole conference.”

Perles will be on hand for Saturday’s game and plans to stop and chat with Paterno in the press box. Perles is 74 and has been retired from coaching for 14 years, while Paterno will turn 82 next month and has no plans of calling it quits.

“Totally amazed how he does it,” Perles said. “Only Joe.”

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More on the series from Perles:

“Joe and I came up with the land grant. We’re the first land-grant school, Penn State’s the second land-grant school, so we came up with the Land Grant Trophy.”

Playing each other the final game of the regular season “was very important to us because we had had trouble with the last game,” Perles said. “The hunting season is starting, and we went through quite a few teams [to close with]. But Penn State, it doesn’t matter what’s going on, they’re going to fill up the stadium because they’re such a draw.”

Michigan State has had its share of tough times since Perles retired and is on its fourth head coach in 14 years.

“Everybody wants to win, and football carries the load for most every school,” said Perles, also CEO of the Motor City Bowl. “Without that high attendance and without that revenue, 25 different sports suffer. So there’s a lot of pressure when things aren’t going well.”

Things have gone well so far for Dantonio, who impressed a lot of people in his debut season a year ago as the Spartans went 7-6. This year they’ve been one of the nation’s biggest surprises.

Michigan State has had a reputation for playing undisciplined football and collapsing when things started going badly. Dantonio has changed that.

“The kids are playing hard, they’re not making silly mistakes with turnovers, they’re not getting those 15-yard penalties hitting people out of bounds,” Perles said. “The discipline is there. He doesn’t stand for any monkeying around. He’s a disciplinarian, and those things have all contributed to one heck of a season.”

Perles enjoyed one heck of a decade during his time with the Steelers in the ’70s. He was defensive line coach from 1972-76, defensive coordinator in ’77 and assistant head coach under Chuck Knoll from ’78-81.

“That was something special,” he said of his time in Pittsburgh.

Perles rattled off a slew of legendary Steelers names before saying, “We just had the best players, number one. Number two, we had the best coach in Chuck Knoll. He was fantastic. And we had the best owners in the Rooneys. You put those three together, it means championships.”

One other thing Perles recalls about his time with the Steelers was the Pittsburghese language.

“I loved it,” he said. “I love that they red up the house. I love that they get a shower, they don’t take a shower. I love the accent. They’re great people. Those Pittsburgh people were born and raised with football in their blood.”

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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