100 Years of High School Basketball Tournaments - 1916-2006

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
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Author: Erik Pedersen

The Michigan State Normal School Gymnasium in Ypsilanti was the site of the first basketball game to be held west of the Allegheny Mountains. Wilber Bowen, head of the newly established Physical Education major program at the Normal School, was the person responsible for bringing James Naismith and his Springfield College student basketball team to Ypsilanti to help celebrate the dedication of the new Michigan State Normal School gymnasium on May 18th, 1894. (See the Summer 2006 Ypsilanti Gleanings article on “Ypsilanti, Basketball’s Gateway to the West.”)

1916 to 2016: It seemed only fitting that Bowen, along with Michigan Normal College Department instructors Elmer Mitchell, W. T. Samson, and Lloyd Olds would be the ones to promote the first Michigan High School Basketball Tournament. Michigan High School Basketball will celebrate a very special anniversary on March 23 -25, 2016. Those dates will mark 100 years since the first Michigan High School Basketball Tournament was held on the Normal College Campus.

Tournament Participants: According to the March 10, 1916 Normal College News, an invitation to take part in the 1916 Michigan Tournament was sent out to three hundred high schools. It is interesting to note that only high schools with less than 200 students were invited. Even in the early 1900’s schools in Michigan were divided into classes based on school enrollment. Wilber Bowen was interested in getting the smaller high schools “educated in basketball.” Bowen felt that basketball was still a relatively new game and that not too many small schools knew much about it. He hoped to invite larger schools the next year.

The 1916 Michigan Normal College yearbook, Aurora, indicated that there was another reason for the Normal School to want to host a basketball tournament. The Normal College was primarily a teacher training school. Most of the students enrolled at the college were women. The college’s Men’s Union helped with organizing the tournament in hopes that it would attract more men to the school.

Entrance to the tournament was free. However, expenses related to transportation and room and board had to be provided by the participating schools. The Physical Education Department made it easier for schools to participate by making arrangements with local residents to provide food at 20 to 25 cents a meal and lodging at 25 cents a night for each player.

Students and faculty from the Normal College contributed to the success of the first tournament. In addition, local volunteers helped with different aspects of running the tournament. In keeping with Bowen’s mission to educate, tournament participants were able to attend sessions on conditioning, athletics in general and basketball. Emphasis was placed on providing opportunities to stimulate fellowship and good sportsmanship.

Tournament Requirements: For a school to take part in the tournament, Bowen established the following requirements:

• Principals of prospective high schools had to certify that enrollment did not exceed 200.

• No member on a team could be older than 21.

• No team member had graduated from a four-year high school.

• Team members had to be doing passing work.

• No team member could have entered school later than March 1, 1916.

The Normal College News noted that the splendid Normal College facilities were more than adequate for conducting a tournament. The facilities included four basketball courts that could all be used at the same time. By conducting one session of games on Thursday evening, three on Friday and two on Saturday they were able to conduct a double elimination tournament.

Tournament Results: Of the three hundred schools invited to participate in the tournament only 12 accepted. The teams were Marine City, Dundee, Milan, Mancelona, Farmington, Elkton, Royal Oak, Middleville, Lansing, Mount Clemens, Wayne and Saline. Marine City won the tournament after having to play Dundee in a playoff game. Both teams finished the regular schedule with a 5 and 1 record. Marine City won the playoff game 23 to 22. Milan, Mancelona, and Farmington tied for third.

The winning team was awarded a silver shield mounted on an oak base. Second prize was a silver cup and the third place team received a banner. Individual participation awards were given to all players and the first place winners were awarded medals. The Ypsilanti Press at the time felt the Normal College “went first class with the awards.”

The 1917 Tournament: As noted earlier, Bowen planned to include larger schools in 1917. However, based on the information in the March 23, 1917 Normal College News, it seems that schools with less than 200 students were again the only ones invited. That tournament attracted 21 schools and over 250 participants. The 1917 Normal College yearbook noted the tournament attracted so many players that the gymnasium and department offices were turned into a temporary dormitory. The 1917 tournament was won by Grayling. They easily defeated a team from Chelsea 42 to 9. Milan finished third. It appears that the same Grayling squad took part in the first University of Michigan tournament the following week.

It didn’t take long for other Michigan schools to begin conducting basketball tournaments. Northern Michigan Normal College in Marquette announced its plans to hold the first UP tournament on March 2, 1917. Not to be outdone, the University of Michigan held its first inter-scholastic basketball tournament on March 22, 23, and 24, 1917 in the Waterman Gymnasium. The tournament attracted over 39 schools and was open to any high school that wanted to participate. A majority of those schools were class A schools and had little effect on the Normal School class B tournament. It is interesting to note that the University of Michigan didn’t have a varsity basketball team until the following year when Elmer Mitchell became a faculty member there.

Related Information: The person on the Normal College faculty with the skills and knowledge of how to conduct tournaments was Lloyd Olds. One of Olds’ primary responsibilities was directing the school’s intramural program. Olds’ organizational abilities and ideas related to intramurals were emulated all over the country. Elmer Mitchell served as Olds’ assistant for a couple of years before becoming the director of intramurals at the University of Michigan. Olds also invented the zebra striped officials shirt that helped to distinguish players from officials.

Elmer Mitchell: Another key individual assisting Wilber Bowen in planning the 1916 tournament was Elmer Mitchell. Mitchell coached the 1915 and 1916 Normal College varsity basketball teams. His two-year record was 27 wins and 6 losses. He then went on to coach for the University of Michigan where he had a two-year record of 24 wins and 16 losses. Mitchell served as the first basketball coach for both schools. While at the University of Michigan he is given credit for helping to develop the format for planning state basketball tournaments for many years. When being interviewed by Will Snyder for an Ypsilanti Press article on the 60 year anniversary of Michigan High School Basketball Tournaments, Mitchell gave credit to Wilber Bowen, the Normal College at Ypsilanti and the University of Michigan for developing high school athletics to the level that they had attained at that time.

Student Coaches: It was mentioned above that it wasn’t until 1915 that Elmer Mitchell was appointed as the first basketball coach for the Michigan Normal College and 1917 for the University of Michigan. This was not unusual. During the 1890’s and early 1900’s many college and university athletic teams were coached by students. Student coaches were usually seniors with athletic experience. As the popularity and importance of athletics grew, more qualified and experienced coaches other than students were appointed.

Charles Forsyth: Taking part in the 1916 tournament as a player on the Milan team was Charles Forsyth. Forsyth would become instrumental in Michigan sports when he later became the Director for Michigan High School Athletics.

Ruth Boughner Interview: The 100 year anniversary of Michigan high school basketball probably would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for a June 24, 1980 interview with Ms. Ruth Boughner. While collecting information for the history of a physical education course, I interviewed Ms. Boughner who taught at the Normal College from 1920 to 1952. During that interview Ms. Boughner mentioned how Wilber Bowen and the physical education department faculty organized and conducted the first Michigan State High School Basketball tournament. That interview took place 36 years ago and the information obtained that day has helped recall a significant date in Michigan High School Athletics.

Centennial Basketball Celebration: Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Michael Paciorek, of the Eastern Michigan University Athletic Department Compliance Office, a celebration of the first Michigan High School Basketball Tournament was realized. On Saturday, February 20, 2016, six of the twelve high schools that originally took part in the 1916 tournament returned to the Eastern Michigan University campus. The schools taking part in this event were Farmington, Lansing, Marine City, Milan, Saline, and Wayne.

Recognition of the six schools returning to help celebrate this occasion was given during half time of the Eastern Michigan University and Toledo University basketball game. A representative from each school received a commemorative plaque noting the centennial. The Eastern Michigan Department of Health Promotion and Human Performance provided the recognition plaques for the participating high schools. The Marine City representative provided an unexpected surprise. He brought the original first place trophy awarded to them 100 years ago and a photo of the 1916 basketball team.

Others who helped celebrate the occasion were: Heather Lyke, EMU Athletic Director; Greg Steiner, Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations; Ron Pesch, Michigan High School Athletic Association Historian; Alexis Braun Marks, EMU Archives; Don McLean, Assistant Director for Development; and Julie Jahn, Associate Professor HPHP.

(Acknowledgements: 1: Much descriptive detail was obtained from The Normal College News of March 10, 1916, March 24, 1916, March 23, 1917, and the Ypsilanti Press of March 26, 1976. 2: General background and biographical information was obtained from, A History of Physical Education at Eastern Michigan University from 1852 to 1996 by Dr. Erik J. Pedersen. 3: A special thank you to Alexis Braun Marks, in the EMU Archives, for locating and copying several pertinent Normal College Newspaper articles related to the early Normal School Basketball Tournaments. 4: A special thank you to Ron Pesch, MHSAA Historian, who was willing to share information about the early years of Michigan High School basketball history.)

(Erik Pedersen is an Emeritus Professor of Physical Education at Eastern Michigan University.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Michigan State Normal College Gymnasium.

Photo 2: Wilber Bowen was the person responsible for bringing basketball teams to Ypsilanti to help celebrate the dedication of the new Michigan State Normal School gymnasium.

Photo 3: The person on the Normal College faculty with the skills and knowledge of how to conduct tournaments was Lloyd Olds.

Photo 4: Elmer Mitchell served as Lloyd Olds’ assistant before becoming the director of intramurals at the University of Michigan.

Photo 5: Recognition Ceremony from Left to Right: Dr. Michael Paciorek, Professor EMU Compliance; Dr. Erik Pedersen, Professor EMU Emeritus; Terrance Porter Farmington High School; Julius Edwards, Lansing Eastern High School; Chris Ming, Marine City High School; Chris Pope, Milan High School; Kirk Evenson, Saline High School; Greg Ambrose, Wayne Memorial High School; Christian Spears, Deputy Director of Athletics EMU.

Photo 6: Marine City beat Dundee in the playoff game 23 to 22.

Photo 7: The 1916 tournament plaque was won by Marine City.