In 1894, students from Saginaw East Side High School challenged students from Saginaw West Side High School to a game of football, starting the oldest intracity football rivalry in Michigan.
That rivalry officially came to an end in 2020. In its January meeting, the Michigan High School Athletic Association Executive Committee granted a waiver, allowing Saginaw High and Arthur Hill to form a co-op varsity football team in 2021.
“To approve of the co-op in these circumstances is extremely rare,” MHSAA communications director Geoff Kimmerly said. “It’s the first time I know of this happening for these specific sets of circumstances.”
To form a varsity co-op program, schools must fall under the 1,000 mark in combined enrollment. Saginaw High and Arthur Hill have a combined 2020-21 enrollment of 1,213 students.
“There were two very big factors that played into approving the co-op program,” Kimmerly said. “First, they’re merging in the next year or two anyway. Second, the Saginaw Valley League had significant support for this. The league was in full support.”
The merger ends a rivalry that began in 1894 and included 125 games, with Arthur Hill owning a 61-53-11 advantage. Arthur Hill won the final game of the rivalry, 46-19, in October.
It was also a rivalry that featured some of the greatest teams in Michigan high school history, including the 1973 Arthur Hill team that outscored opponents, 443-0, and the 1999 Saginaw High state championship team that included Charles Rogers, LaMarr Woodley and a pair of Super Bowl champions in Tory Humphrey and Ron Stanley.
“That history is still a part of us … it inspires us to do great things,” Saginaw athletic director Mit Foley said. “It inspires us. We want to get back to that greatness. All those great teams and great players … the Clifton Ryans, the LaMarr Woodleys, the Chuck Rogers … we want to get back to that.
“This is a big plus for us. We’re really excited. This will hopefully change the face of our athletic programs. There is a lot of excitement right now with the players, the coaches, the parents … right now there’s a lot of buzz about the program. We anticipate a higher level of participation. This is what the students have been hoping for.”
Both programs have struggled with numbers and success. Both teams were 1-6 in 2020. Saginaw High has not had a winning record since 2003 and has not reached the playoffs since 2002. Arthur Hill’s last winning record and playoff game came in 2008. Arthur Hill has not won a playoff game since reaching the Class AA state final in 1992, eventually losing to Detroit Catholic Central, 21-20.
“I’m a tradition person, so it’s sad … disappointing,” said Don Durrett, who coached the Saginaw High team to the 1999 state title. Durrett played for and graduated from Flint Northern High School, which has closed.
“Growing up here in Flint, we saw the same thing happen with our schools. It’s similar. It’s sad, and you hope that it never happens, but it’s the right decision. Times change. You have to deal with what’s going on in the world today. It’s time. It’s best for the kids. It’s best for the community.”
Last season, the schools formed a co-op junior varsity program that featured 23 players and finished 0-6.
“There was the fear for the league and for us that with two varsity teams, there wouldn’t be enough players and that could lead to forfeits during the season,” Kimmerly said. “Nobody wanted that. It’s better for the league to have a program that is strong and competitive. It was a situation that was concerning enough that the league was in favor of the co-op.”
Arthur Hill has won two state championships, 1973 and 1991, while Saginaw High has three state titles – 1907, 1944 and 1999.
While there is disappointment watching the rivalry end, Foley believes the benefits far outweigh what is lost.
“We now get to move into the next phase of our athletic program and development and growth as a district,” Foley said. “The students want this. They want to be competitive. They want the opportunity to earn scholarships.
“Our league is very competitive. The schools around us are very competitive. They have very strong programs, and we want to be among the great programs. We want our kids to have a chance to be compete. We want them to be safe. We want them to have fun.
“We know the power of these programs, what it does to transform the lives of students. This decision helps us do that.”
— to www.mlive.com