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The Ferris Bulldog
by R. Lawrence Martin
(from the Ferris Heritage, Vol. 4 No. 3, Summer 1982)
The Ferris Bulldog comes from fairly recent Ferris history. Before that, the teams were called the "Spartans" by student papers and "Ferrisites" by the Big Rapids Pioneer. The latter name was unfortunate, as it was only a sound away from "parasites," so Ferris is indebted to Pioneer sports columnist "Jap" Williams, who first named the Bulldogs. It was in the 1930-31 basketball season, and the story of that whole memorable season is well worth repeating.
In December, 1930, Coach William T. McElwain faced a bright basketball season; about 60 men turned out for practice, including three lettermen from the preceding year, the best in the school's history, with the prospect of two more lettermen, joining later. The squad had been thinned to about 30 men, and practices were going well when disaster struck.
Captain Bob Shankland injured his ankle in practice and was expected to be out for a considerable period; then Glenn Grieve, George Babcock and Owen Nelson, also returning lettermen, were disqualified by the faculty because of a new eligibility rule. Coach McElwain now had only Fred Schnarr and Oscar Schwartz from the last year's team and an untried crew of new players. He drilled them well, especially on defense, and hoped for the best.
His team played hard, but lost the first four games, then took a break for the Christmas holiday.
After the Christmas break, Grieve and Nelson rejoined the team, but did not have time enough to prepare for the first game. Ferris lost the first game after Christmas, as it had the last before Christmas, by two points.
Coach McElwain scheduled several long, hard drills and prepared his team so well that they won not only the next game, but, with the help of Shankland and Babcock who joined the team in the middle of January, the next 12 games, finishing the regular season with 13 wins and 5 losses - one win better than the preceding season.
The term "Ferris Bulldogs" came from a column of Jap Williams' in the February 12, 1931 Pioneer. He asked what would happen if an irresistible force met an immovable object, then said that Coach McElwain believed the question might be solved when the "irresistible Central State Teachers College Bearcats met Ferris' immovable Bulldogs." He went on:"...it is discovered that the name (Bulldogs) has been applied to them because of demonstrated ability to hang on to their men and never let go..."
Needless to say, the immovable object won, and Williams was soon wishing for a team good enough to really test the Ferris men. He soon found it in a team from Los Angeles.
The reputation of the Ferris team had spread to the national Amateur Athletic Association, which invited Ferris to participate in its tournament in Kansas City the week of March 9, 1931. The college administration agreed to consider the trip if money could be raised.
The team needed between three and four hundred dollars to make the trip. Students and businessmen started soliciting funds, and the Colonial Theater planned a benefit show, the profits to go to the Ferris team. Everyone seemed to be behind the team. Businessmen gave dollars, students gave nickels and dimes and the fund grew to $424. The benefit show was cancelled because the money had been raised, and the only unhappy voices were from people who had not been approached for contributions.
Coach McElwain planned to take a team of eight men in two cars; he would drive one and student "Sonny" DeLore the other. They would start at 4:00 a.m. the morning of Saturday, March 7, drive all day, reach St. Louis on Saturday night, make the fairly short drive to Kansas City on Sunday, and have plenty of time to rest and prepare for the game on Monday night.
As it often does, the midwestern weather took a hand. After more than a month of unseasonably mild weather, the worst storm of the season hit unexpectedly on Saturday afternoon, and by Saturday night the team was snowbound in southern Illinois. They drove all day Sunday over snow covered, deserted roads, meeting only road crews, but they only covered 62 miles. McElwain, fearing that they would never get to the game on time, put the team on a train, while he and DeLore stayed with the cars, hoping to make Kansas City in time. They didn't make it - they arrived half an hour after the game ended.
They found that after a hard-fought game that saw Los Angeles Athletic Club ahead by only one point at half time and Ferris take the lead by one point in the second half, Ferris had lost 38-18. Most people thought that the coach would have turned the defeat into victory by suggesting variations in play, or changing the defense, but the Torch had a different idea: "...Coach McElwain has insisted upon the same attire for each game -- same gray suit, same amber-hued cravat, same shirt, same everything, even into underwear...During the early part of the game, said grey suit presided upon the bench supported by Rosenberg and Schnarr...but...something was lacking...The underwear was in Illinois."
After that the state Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Grand Rapids must have been anticlimactic. Weakened by a month of inactivity, Ferris lost to the Detroit Bruins 24-18. But they had still come back from defeat to surpass their previous best season in history, and that trip to Kansas City would be one they would never forget.
And the Bulldog name? It didn't catch on at once, at least not with the Torch. It continued to use the name "Spartans" into the next season, till October 7, 1931, when it finally adopted the name "Bulldogs." And Ferris teams have been the Bulldogs ever since.
To read more about Bulldog Sports history, visit the Athletic Hall of Fame.