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1979 MSU Cheerleader Remembers National Championship

1979 MSU cheerleading team photo
Courtesy photo
The 1979 MSU cheerleading team won the national championship. Suzanne Leech is on the left at the top of this formation. Her twin sister Anne was also on the team.

In 1979, the MSU basketball team led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson won the national championship. On Saturday, that team will be reunited to celebrate the 40 years that have passed since winning that title.

While you probably remember that team, you might not remember another MSU national championship squad from that year. The Spartan cheerleaders also were the best in the country. They, too, will get back together on Saturday.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks via Skype with one of those national champion Spartan cheerleaders from 40 years ago, Suzanne Leech, about the experience.

SUZANNE LEECH: We were asked to submit a video, basically of our skills to a production company. The National Cheerleading Association and the NCAA was all part of this. We submitted our video in the fallof 1978, actually, and we just kind of almost forgot about it a little bit. At the end of December, we were notified that we were selected as one of the five college cheerleading teams to come to Provo, Utah to compete for the title.

It was an interesting way to compete because it was actually a TV show that was on CBS prior to cable TV. They filmed us, along with a whole variety of Hollywood stars, doing their little skits and songs and jokes, and we would do our competitions in between those acts. We just inserted a five minute show and they spliced all that together and then awarded a winner. So we were thrilled to be asked!

We started in December, determining what we were going to do, and then we actually went to Utah to compete in early March.

SCOTT POHL: Tell me about the routine. Was there a pyramid involved? If so, were you at the base of the pyramid where you at the top of the pyramid? What happened?

LEECH: Well, that was what we kind of specialized in. I guess you would say that was our thing, doing the mounts as high and as dangerous as we could possibly figure out how to do.

Half of our squad was men, and so we had a lot of strong bases, and the other half of course, the gals. Some of them were teeny tiny in those years, so we would get them up as high as we possibly could. It was a great fun. We were very careful, by the way, but we did have a few injuries here and there.

We did several mounts, actually three or four, during the competition. We also did a lot of partner work, which is more like spins and throws and tosses, the guys sort of tossing the girl around, and we did a pompom routine to disco music which was of course very popular then. We did the fight song at the end to a rousing ovation.

POHL: And you won the national championship!

LEECH: We did, we did! We actually even beat the incumbent team at the time, which was the cheerleaders from University of North Carolina. They were in the competition with us and had won the year before. They came in second.

I think, honestly, our pyramids were quite impressive, and no one else was really doing them quite to the same level that we were. I will tell you, it's a funny story...when we first were selected to be in this competition, we never had been in a competition before, and we really just wanted to not come in last. We did not want to embarrass ourselves and we had no idea what the competition was going to be like. So we just stretched ourselves and did anything and everything that we felt we could possibly do safely, and it turned out a lot better than we thought.

POHL: Do you remember any of the cheers from those days?

LEECH: Well you know, this was more of a “Let's Go State!” thing. We weren't cheering the whole time. We were building mounts and we wouldn't be saying anything necessarily during that time. There might have been some music or what have you but we would get to the top and then we would say “Let's Go State!” or something to that effect. It wasn't so much the cheers because when you think about it, in college, it’s a pretty big audience for being able to say very much. It's really more visual and not so much a lot of words. They just get lost.

POHL: This weekend, the national championship basketball team is getting back together for a reunion and I understand the cheerleading team is also getting together.

LEECH: We are! Every single one of us is coming, along with a guest or spouse or what have you. We're just going to be in East Lansing for the weekend and go to the game. Of course, they're giving us a little timeout, I think, to do the fight song, and I think we'll be doing it with the current cheerleading squad. It'll be fun. We're looking forward to it.

POHL: At the Final Four, did the cheerleading squad accompany the team and perform at the national championship game?

LEECH: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. And that was quite an experience, you know, for all of the Michigan State fans. We knew we had a good team but to reach the top was just incredible. It was just a very joyous time.

POHL: Did the cheerleading squad interact with the basketball team on a personal level?

LEECH: Yes, several of us kind of got to be pretty good friends, and when we see each other people recognize each other. It's a lot of fun. There were actually a couple folks that were dating, but, you know, it's a busy time. Everyone had their own things going on, but there were a few little dating situations.

POHL: Can you believe it's been 40 years?

LEECH: I really can't. It does not seem like it's been that long. It seems like yesterday really.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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