Historians know century-old stories about Greeks, democracy and Western Civilization, but one story that most do not know is about how a Greek immigrant family forever changed the history of college sports with one simple feat: nicknaming the Michigan State University Spartans.
The story’s origins trace back to 1925. At the time, the school’s name changed from Michigan Agricultural College to Michigan State College, and the public was asked to suggest replacements for the former “Aggies” nickname.
In March of 1926, an on-campus group collected the suggestions and selected the nickname “Staters,” which beat names like the Bearcats, Statesmen, Bob Cats, Pioneers and Fawns. Needless to say, the options were not exactly strong.
Despite the public’s majority support for the new name, they would not have the final say in the matter.
George Alderton, a local sports editor for the Lansing State Journal from 1923 to 1962, disliked the nickname and refused to use it in his publication.
Fortunately for Alderton — and Michigan State — he knew a man named Stephen George Scofes.
Scofes and his brothers were all born near Sparta, Greece but immigrated to the United States. In the 1920s they ran a restaurant in Lansing, Michigan called The Coffee Cup and were friends with Alderton, who visited regularly.
One day when Alderton stopped by for breakfast, the Greek immigrant restaurant owner gave him the suggestion for the elusive nickname that would be appropriate for the university. That nickname has since lasted the test of time, and since this era Michigan State sports teams, alumni groups and clubs have gone by the name… The Spartans.
The late Scofes’ son George explains the story in a video interview with MSU’s Quello Center, describing the dialogue that took place when Alderton came to his dad’s restaurant to discuss the name.
“One day [Alderton] comes in with all these names, and my dad says, ‘I sent you a letter and I told you what to name them,'” Scofes said. “[Alderton] says ‘I didn’t get your letter. Well, anyway, what’d you say?’ so [my dad] told him ‘Spartans. The Spartans were the warriors…’ and this and all that kind of stuff.”
Finally sold on the name, Alderton took to the paper to announce the new idea, but he did not credit his friend Stephen.
On April 13, 1926, he wrote: “Out of a clear sky a nick name has descended upon the Michigan State college athletic camp. ‘Spartans’ is the sobriquet that will… be attached the wearer of the Green and White in the field of intercollegiate sports competition.”
Alderton is often credited with creating the Spartans’ nickname, but George Scofes said that the sports editor even spelled the name wrong at first until his father Stephen corrected it.
“[Alderton] showed it to [my dad] and he had spelled it ‘S-P-O-R-‘ — the Sportans — and my dad told him, ‘You gotta take care of it. That’s not the right spelling,'” Scofes said. “And that’s when they became the Spartans.”
Stephen George Scofes died in 1972, but his story has been passed down over the generations, first to his son George, now 89, and then to his grandson Steve, 57.
As if naming the college team were not enough, the Scofes family has been historically tied to the Spartans in other ways, too.
In 1931, the family opened the Famous Grill, a restaurant that would become known for its fried chicken from the franchise “Chicken in the Rough.” The grill served as a hotspot for MSU athletics, hosting numerous events over the course of decades.
Two MSU athletic awards also carry the Scofes family name: the Stephen G. Scofes Inspirational Player Award and the George Scofes Outstanding Faculty Award.
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