The rain pounded onto the field, creating puddles of ankle-deep mud. But it would take a lot more than that to slow down Michigan State University’s juggernaut of a fullback. He ran the ball 35 yards and dove into the mucky end zone for a touchdown.
After the victory, it’s said that the coach looked at the running back, Frank Waters, and uttered: “You’re a real mudder son. We’re going to call you Muddy.”
The name “Muddy” would eventually become synonymous with both Hillsdale College and college football coaching for decades to come.
After graduating from MSU, Waters started his coaching career at Walled Lake High School.
Two years later, he received a call from his college position coach who had recently taken on the head coaching job at Hillsdale. He was looking to retire, but he had a problem: He wanted to leave the “Dales” in good hands.
Waters accepted the job at Hillsdale and skyrocketed the college’s presence in the athletic world.
From 1953 to 1957 Waters’ team went undefeated, racking up a total of 34 straight wins and 7 straight NAIA Championships, setting the mark at the time for the most consecutive wins ever in college football. Hillsdale would keep this record for Division II football until Grand Valley State University topped it in the early 2000’s. Coincidentally, it was the Chargers that were able to squash GVSU’s 48-game winning streak in 2009.
Jim Larkin, now 75 years old, was a linebacker for the 1957 team and would eventually become one of Waters’ assistant coaches at Hillsdale. He remembers Waters as respectful, humble, “especially excellent” with parents, and “extremely caring.”
This care for his players resulted in him turning down an invitation to play in the 1955 Tangerine Bowl hosted in Florida because black players were prohibited from playing.
“That was the kind of guy he was,” Larkin said. “When he found out my dad died, he was up on his boat on Lake Superior. He got right in his car and drove all the way down to see me.”
Waters helped Larkin as well as many of his other players get coaching jobs after graduating. Many of his former players would then send their best athletes to Hillsdale.
“Half of our team was from New York because that’s where they all went to coach,” Larkin laughed.
John Cervini, Hillsdale’s vice president of institutional advancement, was one of these Long Islanders who traveled to Hillsdale for football.
“He was a father figure for a lot of the guys,” said Cervini, who played offensive right tackle. “He was a real master of psychology. He could really motivate his players and that’s one of the reasons he was successful.”
Cervini recalls that Waters had a great love for his boat, his four boys, and badminton.
“He loved to play badminton, and he was a very good at it. A lot of the fellas played him,” Cervini said with a smile. “He and his assistant Dan Goldsmith used to love to torment the players in matches. They used to run us ragged.”
Waters, who was also Hillsdale’s Athletic Director, made his mark on the college in another significant way in 1968 as one of the main forces spearheading the college mascot name change. The college mascot changed from the ambiguous ‘Dales’ to the Hillsdale Chargers.
In 1974, after nearly 20 years of coaching the Chargers, Waters left his 138 – 47‑5 Hillsdale record to start a football program at Saginaw Valley State University, taking Larkin with him as an assistant coach.
“We started from scratch. There was no tradition, nothing. We had to build everything. Our office was one of the dorm suites” Larkin said. “My recruits called it ‘Corn U’ because there wasn’t a football field yet, just corn fields.”
After only five seasons of the football program’s birth, Waters led the Saginaw Cardinals to the GLIAC Championship title.
His success at Saginaw caught the attention of Michigan State University who offered him the position of head coach.
He served as MSU’s coach for three seasons starting in 1980. His teams were not as successful, but that could be attributed to the university’s probation at the time — they were not allowed any football scholarships.
The losing record, however, had no effect on the team’s admiration for their head coach.
After Waters’ last game leading the Spartans, a game which ended in a 24 – 18 loss to the University of Iowa, the players carried him off the field on their shoulders.
“His players carried him off the field like they just won a championship. It was such an emblematic gesture of the man he was,” said Brad Monastiere, Hillsdale’s sports media director.
In 2000, Waters was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“Coaches from the Big 10 and three or four NFL hall of famers were being inducted at the same time, and I think Hillsdale had the largest contingent of people there,” Cervini said. “About 1,000 people were at the ceremony and half the group was from Hillsdale, which was an indication of the loyalty and affection his players had for him.”
In 1997, the Jackson Citizen Patriot wrote an article featuring Waters. He told the paper: “I wish I could go back to coaching and do it for another 30 or 40 years. I love working with young people.”
Muddy passed away at the age of 83 from heart failure, but his name lives on. This phenomena is especially apparent every fall when the Hillsdale football team charges onto Frank “Muddy” Waters Stadium.
“It’s great to come back and see that honor,” Larkin said. “It is a tremendous honor and it’s well-deserved. Hillsdale’s a very special place. Hillsdale doesn’t forget you.”
The name “Muddy” comes to head football coach Keith Otterbein’s mind when he thinks about his own legacy.
“To be in the same role as guys like Muddy and Dick Lowry is kind of humbling for me. They’ve had a great influence on many players over the course of many years,” Otterbein said. “The guys that I know that played for Muddy — they talk mostly about the relationship they had with him, not necessarily all the wins they had. It shows it’s not just about winning football games. When it comes to coaching college football, you have to do what you can to win, win the right way, and develop relationships with the players. Thirty, 40 years from now I hope they have the same kind of strong feelings [for me] that the guys that played for Muddy have.”