Mystery Solved: The Spartan Who Named Michigan State University’s Spartans: Stephen George Scofes
After the second world war, Stephen George Scofes ran a restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, called ‘The Famous Grill’, where he became friends with coaches and athletes at Michigan State University. He came up with the nickname for MSU – the Spartans. Here is the story, as told to me.
Originally, MSU was established as Michigan Agricultural College, and then Michigan State College, before becoming MSU. With its tradition in agriculture, the College originally had a common nickname – the ‘Aggies’. But as the college transitioned to a more general-purpose university and became more serious about college sports, its promoters in the athletic department and the city began searching for a more promising nickname and mascot to represent the university.
George S. Alderton, the Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal, sponsored a contest to find a name to replace the Aggies. In today’s terminology, he crowd sourced a solution. It remains unclear who picked the winner of the contest, but the contest led to MSU ever so briefly being called the Michigan ‘Staters’. The name did not resonate well with many fans, including George Alderton. A local restauranteur, Stephen George Scofes, asked Alderton if he had seen his letter – his submission to the contest, which suggested the name ‘Spartans’. Alderton did not remember the letter, but thought it had promise and researched it with his colleagues.
Initially, in his columns, Alderton misspelled Spartans, using an ‘o’ for ‘Sportans’. Stephen Scofes corrected his spelling, and Alderton started to routinely use ‘Spartans’ in his columns. The name caught on, and the rest is history – or it should have been history but was, in fact, totally forgotten and clouded over time. Much later, neither Alderton or anyone else could remember the name of the person who came up with the Spartan name, which we now know was Stephen Scofes.*
Stephen’s son, George Stephen Scofes, himself of a serious age – 89 – today, told me the story of his father coming up with the Spartan name. This came up when I was driving him and our mutual friend, who introduced us, Dimitri Stathopoulos, to an MSU basketball game. Stephen came to the United States from an area near the town of Sparta, Greece. His son George, was born in the USA, but lived in Sparta from the age of two until the end of the second world war, when he moved back to the US at the age of seventeen. His friend Dimitri was also from Sparta. So the Spartan name did not pop out of thin air or the classics, but from real life.
Because Mr. Scofes had a restaurant, The Famous Grill, George’s father knew all the coaches and many of the athletes and sports writers that covered MSU. One of the great coaches, Biggie Munn, liked to bring his players in his restaurant, The Famous Grill and sit in The Big Ten Room. Munn became athletic director at MSU from 1953-71 and invited Stephen Scofes to award the annual ‘sportsmanship’ trophy to the football team.
The Scofes family remain closely attached to MSU, such as through the basketball trophy under the Scofes name, for example. And later, in the 1990s, when Nick Saban was the football coach at MSU, the coach argued that there were many awards for sportsmanship, so why not give an award to an academic who helps the players academically. Since then, Stephen’s son, George, and George’s son Stephen Scofes (that’s the traditional way Greek families recognize their family heritage) give an award to an MSU academic who helps the players, titled ‘The George Stephen Scofes Outstanding Faculty Award’ at MSU. There were twelve recipients in 2017.
For decades, the person who came up with the name that is central to MSU’s identity was forgotten in the folklore of the university. But the mystery is solved: He was Stephen George Scofes, arguably, the first Spartan.
*A published narrative of the naming of the Spartans is provided in Constantine S. Demos and Steven S. Demos, M.D. ((2008), The Tradition Continues: Spartan Football. East Lansing: Michigan State University Football Players Association, pages 56-57. Their version differs in important ways from my narrative, such as only alluding to the friendship of the Scofes brothers and Alderton, but with no acknowledgement of Stephen Scofes’ role. You will have to reach your own conclusion about who named the Spartans, but I find my interview with George Scofes, his son, to be most credible.