By Jim Moyes
Although a few of the typical West Michigan Conference powerhouses of recent vintage have struggled somewhat at the start of this 2014 football season, nevertheless, this venerable conference conjures up many of my favorite Moyes’s Memories.
The 2014-15 season will mark, by my figures, the 82nd year this proud conference has been in existence. It dates all the way back to the depression in 1932.
Since the first WMC football game was played on September 23, 1932, this area has seen the coming and goings of a number of conferences.
The past eight decades have seen a mulitutde of leagues instituted, and then dropped, including the Southwest Michigan conference that included Muskegon and Muskegon Heights among their constituents from 1930-1958.
I remember the old Ken-Ne-Wa conference, Valley Coast, Lake Michigan Athletic Conference, Tri-River, and the ‘unforgettable’ conglomeration of the Waterways conference, with divisions ranging from all directions—- East, West, South, and Central, but no North division.
And currently there is the OK Conference where our locals have played in a variety of colorful divisions, such as Red, White, Green, Black and even Silver.
One of the more durable leagues over the years was the Seaway Conference, running from 1960 until eventually breaking apart in 1997.
Up until this season, Muskegon Catholic has only been a member of one conference in football over the years, the LMAC. MCC was a member from 1966 until the unfortunate breakup of this powerful league in 1984. After 30 years of scratching to find opponents, the Crusaders have joined forces with the Lakes 8, but even this conference is on somewhat shaky ground as a couple of schools have applied to go elsewhere.
There are many reasons why conferences have begun, and then disbanded over the years, but certainly a major explanation would be changes in an area’s population, leading to increases and/or decreases in school enrollment.
It is noteworthy that the enrollment in the eight-member West Michigan Conference has seen very little fluctuation in student enrollment for most of the past eight decades. The only shift in population occurred in the early 1960s, when a housing boom in the Reeths Puffer School District saw North Muskegon’s enrollment grow to such an extent that the Norsemen joined the newly established Seaway Conference at the start of the 1959-60 school year.
However, the enrollment at NM took a huge hit when Laketon Township students were no longer accepted at the northside school beginning in 1966. Fortunately for the Norsemen, all was forgiven and they were quickly accepted back into the WMC, where they have served continually for the past 48 years.
Charter members of this steady and reliable conference formed back in 1932 included Scottville, Hart, Shelby, Montague and Whitehall with North Muskegon, just beginning as a high school, waiting in the wings.
NM, with a team comprised of only ninth and 10th graders, played their first varsity game again Ravenna, losing 26-6. Future longtime Northside saloon keeper Joe Witham scored the first TD in NM history to give the Norse a shortlived 6-0 lead.
Norsemen coach Lyle McNitt was never noted for a propensity of throwing a multitude of passes during his career. Perhaps this game was the reason for his conservative future policy as Ravenna intercepted four passes, all returned for touchdowns. Strangely enough, this was the only varsity game played in the inaugural NM season.
Prior to the WMC, Hart, Scottville and Shelby were members of the MASEANNA League, a conference that began in time for the 1929 season while Whitehall and Montague came from the shortlived Muskegon County Athletic Association, comprised of Whitehall, Montague, Ravenna, Muskegon St. Marys and Holton.
Holton dropped football after playing just two games in the 1929 season. Ravenna would bide their time for decades before entering the WMC in 1969, while a reason never was given why Muskegon St. Mary, the 1929 Muskegon County champs, never joined the WMC.
Whitehall accompanied North Muskegon into the fledgling Seaway Conference at the start of the 1959-60 school year and remained in the Seaway until returning to the WMC in 1985.
Reed City (1957-64) and Manistee (1965-68) each made cameo appearances in the WMC, but neither school was able to capture an outright conference championship.
Oakridge High School was formed in the 1960s, joining the WMC in 1966, and the conference has witnessed nary a change the past 30 years.
And what a ride it has been for this highly respected eight-team league over the years! Since the inception of the state football playoffs in 1975, half of the WMC teams have had the experience of playing for a state championship, earning an impressive nine state championships.
So competiive has it been during this era that I think many of our readers will be surprised to know that Ravenna has won more more state championships over the years (4), than conference championships (3).
Although I go all the way back to 1948, when I was the ball boy for the North Muskegon Norsemen, and where I began my less than stellar career with the media as a cub reporter for the Muskegon Chronicle in 1956, my memories of this proud conference pale in comparison to one who was a charter performer of this league back in 1932 – Whitehall’s Rex Funnell.
And what great memories this still-spry, near centurion has of this great league. A short time ago, I had an enjoyable conversation with this former Whitehall legend who recently celebrated his 98th birthday at his Whitehall residence with numerous friends and relatives in attendance.
Rex Funnell was a starting halfback weighing in at a ‘robust’ 105 pounds for Whitehall in WMC’s inaugural season 82 years ago.
Unfortunately, Whitehall would drop football following Funnell’s senior year in 1932 and would not field another football team until the early 1940s.
Rex had a very quick response when I asked if he knew why Whitehall suddenly dropped football after the 1932 season: “They didn’t have any money.”
With the country in the midst of a deep recession, Funnell quickly remembered those years of hardship. “Nobody wanted to donate any money to keep the program going. In fact, nobody had any money,” recalled the former Viking running back from more than 80 years back.
When asked what he could recall from those days of yesteryear, Funnell’s initial response was “We were lucky if we had 17 or 18 guys on a team back in those days. Whitehall was a very small school as each class had less than 20 people.
“Practices were not much fun back then as they held our practices at a field next to the high school and the field was full of sand burrs,” said Funnell.
Each of the five original WMC members have seen prodigious progress over the years, not only with their many sucesses earned on the gridiron, but have witnessed some stunning developments with their facilities.
“We played our games in the outfield at Funnell Field (named after his father Ray Funnell) back in those days but, since it also served as a baseball field, we sometimes would be playing on the skin part of the infield.”
Whitehall wasn’t alone in playing on multipurpose baseball fields as Hart, Shelby and Montague did the same, recalled Funnell.
When asked about Scottville, Funnell took little time in remembering the Spartans facilities: “Scottville just had a bad field.”
As shoddy as those fields were back in the 1930s, interest in football was high as many of those small WMC villages also had independent teams that would share those fields with their high school teams. “And that’s just what they were – fields, out in the middle of nowhere,” recalled Rex.”
All five of the WMC charter members of this durable conference have since moved into their modern-day facilities that are all top notch.
Ravenna left their former home at Conklin Field following the 1976 season for their current location next to the high school. Oakridge has played all their home games at their current site on Wolf Lake Road since joining the WMC in 1966, while North Muskegon has always played at their current location for the past 80 years.
Fred Jacks Field, the home of the Norsemen, however, has made numerous renovations over the years, including moving the home field stands from the west to the east side for the start of the 1956 season.
It was not until after World War II came to an end before any of the WMC schools played under the arcs, with all games kicking off shortly after school would let out on Friday afternoons.
One of Rex’s teammates on those early Viking teams was his brother Raymond. Interestingly enough, the two brothers, although inseparable friends, never shared the same household during their high school days.
“Raymond was quite sickly at birth so our grandparents took him in to take care of him, and he stayed with them all through high school. He started school when he was 5, but he refused to go to class until I went along,” said Rex. “That’s the reason why I started school when I was only 4 and was just 16 years of age when I graduated in 1933.”
In a longtime rivalry that has encompassed more then 100 games between Whitehall and Montague, this heated battle took on a unique twist some 80 years back.
When I inquired of Funnell if the rivalry was as intense then as it is now, Funnell quickly responded: “Oh yeah! I can remember one time when Don Jeager (Montague football player) who they nicknamed “Sandbag Don” was dating a Whitehall girl.
“One of the Whitehall fans took exception with this and he snuck behind Jeager and hit him over the head with a sandbag, knocking him out, the day before our game with Montague. That’s why they called him Sandbag Don,” chuckled Funnell.
The Vikings won that contest 19-14 with Funnell contributing to the victory by hauling in a TD pass from Red Powell.
Although the Vikings have been very competitive over the years in basketball, baseball, and track, the same cannot be said for the Vikings in football.
The Vikings’ only two outright WMC football titles over the many years were won in 1998-99 when Whitehall was quarterbacked by current Major League baseball outfielder Nate McLouth.
Although it has been nearly 30 years since the Norse captured their last outright league crown in 1986, North Muskegon is still the clear leader in conference championships earned with 22 titles and 4 ties.
Oakridge, although only a member since 1966 trails the Norse with 15 titles while sharing another six. Montague closely follows the Eagles with a mark of 13 and 4. Shelby won the first (1932) and the last (2013), but has only been able to sandwich four others first-place laurels over more than eight decades.
Hart has been in sole possession of six league titles, but has to go all that way back to 1951 when they were able to boast of a league crown when both NM and Whitehall were part of the WMC.
Scottville, a charter member since 1932, has only been able to muster conference honors in 1963 and 1965, when NM, Whitehall, Oakridge, and Ravenna were not a part of the WMC.
With the Vikings off to a very good start in this current campaign, perhaps there is hope for Rex Funnell’s alma mater to capture their third title.
Following his graduation from Whitehall High in 1933, Funnell served his country in the service in WWII before holding the fort for years in Whitehall as a local barber.
Funnell continued to stay close to Whitehall athletics over the years by serving as the PA announcer for Viking football before retiring from those duties before the 1980 season.
When Rex first began working the PA back in the 1950s, there were very few, if any, enclosed press boxes. “We would have a long cord hooked up and we would follow the game on the sidelines and announce from the field,” remembered Funnell.
One of the many players Rex called from his press box perch over the many years was his son, King. How proud Rex was to see young King inducted into the Whitehall Hall of Fame this year.
There has been considerable growth for this venerable conference over the years, a growth perhaps most evident in the size of the players.
When Hart and Shelby squared off in early November of 1932 to decide who would earn the conference laurels in that inaugural season, Coach Jasper Olendorf’s Hart squad ‘boasted’ of a team that averaged a ‘hefty’ 148 pounds per man.
When I asked how many 275-pound tackles played back in his era, Funnell was quick to point out, “None … if a player weighed 175 pounds back in my day he was pretty damn big.”
There were other coaches from that 1932 season other than Olendorf who became well known for their achievements.
North Muskegon’s Lyle McNitt boasted of an undefeated, untied, and unscored upon team in 1941 and would join the 1942 team coached by my father, Paul Moyes, as the third team in any sport inducted into the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame.
How nice it was that the citizens of Montague had not forgotten Eldred Townsend’s contributions over the years when they named the current football stadium in Townsend’s honor.
Shelby head coach Ivon Tillotson, while a successful coach in his own right, fathered a pair of sons who made sports headlines over the years.
After moving to Ludington, Tillotson’s oldest son, Pete, was a star for the University of Michigan in basketball in the 1950s and was a charter member in the Mason County Sports Hall of Fame.
I best remember Pete’s ‘little’ brother, Van, for catching the winning touchdown pass against my North Muskegon team in the opening game of the 1961 season. Talk about a matchup nightmare! The 6-foot-6 Tillotson was on the receiving end of a TD pass as time ran out that handed the 1961 Norsemen their only loss of the season.
Matched up with defending the towering Tillotson as a defensive back was my younger brother, Tom, who was but 5-foot-4. The joy of earlier seeing Tom score the only Norse TD earlier in the contest quickly dissipated.
So many memories … may this league never change and provide us another 82 years of fond memories.