Michigan State football: 15 greatest running backs in Spartans history

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Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State Spartans. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)


John Pingel

RB, (1936-38)

John Pingel is the first of three College Football Hall of Fame players to crack this all-time list. Pingel is also the only player to make this list who played with Michigan State before the Spartans joined the Big Ten in 1953.

Playing at Michigan State from 1936 to 1938, Pingel was elite at three facets of the game for the Spartans: passing, punting and running. Though he was used primarily as a halfback, Pingel was known for his ability to connect on the occasional aerial strike, as well as boot kicks to pin the opposition deep in their territory.

In 1937, Michigan State made its first-ever trip to a bowl game, thanks to a terrific junior season from Pingel. Though the Spartans would fall to the Auburn Tigers in the Orange Bowl, Pingel would bounce back with another All-American season for Michigan State in his senior season in 1938.

He was an incredibly reliable and consistent player, averaging over five yards per rushing attempt on the ground for the Spartans. As a passer, Pingel regularly completed over 50 percent of his attempts downfield. To do this in a run-heavy era is very impressive. He also led the nation in punting during his final collegiate season in 1938.

Pingel would be taken with the No. 7 overall pick in the 1939 NFL Draft by the in-state Detroit Lions. After just one professional season, Pingel elected to call it a career and hang up the spikes. He would go on to carve out a solid career in the advertising world as an executive.

In 1968, Pingel would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his contributions while at Michigan State. Though his numbers haven’t been able to hold up in the Spartans’ record books, being a two-time All-American and an inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame certainly make sure that he’ll never be forgotten in the Michigan State pantheon of elite running back talents.

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