“Little Brother” growing up? A look into Wolverine vs. Sparty football.

Written Ramblings by JS and DJ 

Tom Izzo hanging with the one and only ..

Tony Kornhieser from PTI once said that the University of Michigan only cares about accomplishing three tasks in a football season: beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten and sell out the Big House every single game. If you ask any Michigan fan … heck, any college football fan about their rival, the answer is unanimous.  Brady Hoke refers to them as “that school from Ohio.”  There is a close fourth item on the list that TK did not mention … Michigan can’t stand losing Michigan State.  Michigan leads the overall series 67-31-5.  That’s about 70% of the games.  Obviously not that close … but why do they care about the game with Sparty every year?  Or do they even care? This “rivalry” has always intrigued me because mathematically it doesn’t suggest to be one.  I bugged my buddy JS who pees maize (if I said yellow that would be rude) about his take on this subject.  I have my own view as an outsider.  Here we go …

1. Let’s start with the Michigan State side.  Does this matchup mean more for them than Michigan b/c historically they appear to be an inferior program.

JS: In general, I would have to say yes. Michigan State has always looked to be considered equals on the football playing field with Michigan for quite time. However they just can’t quite get it done. To me, I think the most telling story of this issue is when Nick Saban left Michigan State to go and try and resurrect then-mediocre LSU. Why leave Michigan State to go to LSU? While bringing LSU back to national prominence is a good story, a bigger and more grandiose story would have been if he had built Michigan State into a football juggernaut on par with Michigan. THAT would have been the turning point in the rivalry. When Bo Schembechler came to Michigan, he elevated the Michigan – Ohio State rivalry to new levels. Who has done that for Michigan State? No one*. That person should have been Nick Saban and instead he left because (no one from East Lansing wants to admit this) he believed LSU was the better job.

* Sorry to burst your bubble, State fans, but Mark Dantonio does not count. Has he beaten us the last three years? Yes. But ask yourself this – who hasn’t beaten us in the last three years? We also don’t count the 2000 win because of the blatant clock mismanagement that gave Smoker one miracle lob shot to TJ Ducket in the end zone. The time keeper would do the same thing to help MSU basketball steal a win and he subsequently got fired.

DJ:  How does a college football program get recognized by the media (not me) historically? Titles, coaches and great college players (e.g. Heisman winners).  Feilding Yost, Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr (yes, he did win an NC so he was good) vs. John L. Smith and Bobby Williams? Duffy Daughtrey actually won a couple of championships in East Lansing but the program was not able to build upon that foundation.  Schembechler’s foundation was continued by Carr. The fan base is just as loyal on the east side of Michigan.  They just haven’t had that one icon or an event attached to the program which makes it inferior and this shows in terms of recruiting and media coverage.  Nick Saban could have been that guy …

Sparty football is analogous to Texas A&M.  The Aggies – Longhorns rivalry is more than 100 years old.  However, Texas dominates both on the field and in terms of the media coverage. They have the iconic moments and titles … A&M did have one of those icons but couldn’t retain him.  Can you imagine if Bear Bryant stuck around College Station instead of heading over to Tuscaloosa?? Wouldn’t we be looking at that program the same way as Texas?  Abso-freaking-lutely.  Sure, one can say that about just any other school that Bryant would have vacated but it stings more for the Aggie fans b/c they are just as passionate about football as their peers who like to hook ‘em.

2.  None of the coaches at these schools ever had issues with each other ala Bo vs. Woody.  There were no significant fights between the players either ala Florida – Florida State in the ’90s.  Is this more of a “fan’s rivalry” rather than “on the field” between the student-athletes??  (I can’t believe I just used that term)

JS: I can’t believe you used that term, either. I wouldn’t call it a fan’s rivalry because it’s still an emotionally charged game on the field and the players do take it seriously. Haven’t you noticed the sweet Paul Bunyan trophy the winner gets? In all seriousness, though, I would say that there is an inferiority complex between the two schools that is felt by both the students and the players. Case in point – Jerel Worthy got the worst tattoo I’ve ever seen of a Spartan soldier standing on top of what he says is a wolverine and has a helmet with the block M on it. News flash – helmets with the block M = Missouri. Think about the tattoo, though – has any Michigan or Ohio State player gotten a tattoo to signify a win over the other team? No (not that I know of but I’m sure it’d make news like Worthy’s tattoo did). Michigan at one point went 4-0 against Michigan State but no senior went and got a tattoo on their body with a wolverine mauling a Spartan caricature. You only bring attention to yourselves if you’re trying to prove a point to someone with an act like that and it’s an act only brought upon by insecurity.  Having said all that, Worthy is actually a very good player and is a likely high round draft pick in the next NFL draft and he can do whatever he wants to do with his own body. There is also a notion of Michigan being an elitist university. The Michigan difference is widely mocked as Michigan arrogance. One of my favorite jokes MSU has is the following exchange:

What’s the difference between Michigan Stadium and a porcupine? The porcupine has 100,000 pricks on the outside.

You are wrong. It’s 114,000 pricks thank you very much.

There are two extremely fury inducing chants that Michigan has for Michigan State – one is “safety school” and the other one is “if you can’t get into college, go to State.” The latter one can actually be sung to the tune of “if you’re happy and you know it clap you hands.” There is a prevailing thought that Michigan State is an inferior academic school that’s much easier to get into than Michigan. Well, it’s true (the easier to get into part, not really the academic part). I remember filling out the Michigan State college application form during lunch one day during my senior year. Was not the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do. However, this is a reality for high school seniors and when they have to “settle” for Michigan State, then there is growing resentment – the “I wasn’t good enough for you, huh? I’ll show you” sentiment kicks in and the resentment starts and builds from there. They will take any chance they get to get a shot in against Michigan in anything – sports and academic-wise. This is mainly manifested on the football field because it’s the most visible arena where these differences can be settled for the public to see.

It’s actually happening right now in Michigan State’s current recruiting class. Aaron Burbidge, a star wide receiver (and he will be very good in college) from Farmington Hills Harrison wanted to go to Michigan with two other teammates that were considered heavy MSU leans but committed to Michigan instead. However, it doesn’t look like he can get his grades up enough to get into Michigan so he chose Michigan State instead. Se’von Pittman is a stud defensive end from Ohio who also wanted to pledge to Michigan but Michigan had accepted enough defensive ends at the time and told him that there wasn’t a spot in this recruiting class for him. Now, I don’t believe he went to MSU to spite Michigan – I believe he chose MSU because there was more chance for earlier playing time, as well as the fear of going to OSU with possible sanctions coming aboard. These are, by far, the two highest rated recruits Michigan State has and none of them outright wanted to come to Michigan State.

Now, before I get angry emails, let me just say that I do not believe MSU is an academically inferior school. After being in the real world for four years now, I know that a degree is a degree and all that will do is get you in the door of a company – once you get there, it is a fair game for all, regardless of degrees (this is true for undergraduate degrees only).

DJ:  Ok, you didn’t want to play the academic card but I’ll bring it up.  I have been around Michigan fans a fair amount and they bring up the academics card when talking about this rivalry especially over the last three years.  I think this is mainly because these are the two best schools in the state.  They are probably the top two choices for most students in high school in state.  You would think this applies to other Big Ten states but it really doesn’t. Let’s say you are a 17 year old Junior in the Midwest who is interested in the whole college experience – solid academics, nice campus, great sports scene and preferably stay in state for economic reasons.  The Junior in Michigan actually has these schools as two choices. No other midwest state can really match these choices in my opinion (assuming they are interested in the criteria I laid out – also called the “ESPN factor” amongst high schoolers.)  If you are in Wisconsin, do you go to Wisconsin-Milwaukee?  If you are in Minnesota, do you go to Mankato State?  If you are in Illinois, do you go to Northwestern? … Uhh, if you want a decent sports program; yes go to Champaign.  Indiana comes close with Purdue and IU. Most of the fans from both schools know each other from high school.  That in turn becomes into a rivalry as they go through college. Think about the Rachel McAdams vs. Lindsey Lohan rivalry from Mean Girls after high school … Michigan vs. Michigan State.  I am not saying that this is a dominating theme but I think the state of Michigan is a little unique compared to others in the midwest.

Mike Hart: "The Big Brother?"

3. Ok, about that Mike Hart comment. He had this to say after a come from behind win against Sparty in 2007: “sometimes it’s just like when you’re playing your little brother in basketball. You let him get a lead and let him get excited, but then you take it back from him.”What is your take on “keeping the MSU program in check?” You just want to remind them once in a while about their place in history, don’t you?

JS: Gee – didn’t remember what he said at all. Yes, Mike Hart said something incredibly arrogant. You know what? I loved it. While I won’t consider myself the media per se, I do think the media is incredibly hypocritical. They want athletes to be candid and show emotion and not necessarily go all “coach speak” and politically correct and then when an athlete actually says something a little controversial they get crucified in the public. Some have been quick to remind me (**DJ**) that we haven’t beaten Michigan State in football ever since he made that comment. Well, that happened to coincide with arguable three of the worst Michigan teams in history, so that comes with a caveat. I am a firm believer that if you need bulletin board material to get up for a rivalry game then you shouldn’t be playing.

I am all about keeping “that program” in check. I want to win every single game against them and crush their hopes every year. I do want the games to be close and exciting but ultimately I want a win and I don’t care if that comes by blowout or by a field goal. That win is now even more important with the divisional record aspect of the Big Ten.

DJ: Sure … Michigan State football might be analogous to a little brother but guess what? Kalin Lucas could have said the same thing when he stuck a dagger at the buzzer in Ann Arbor two years ago. Drew Neitzel could have said the same thing after dominating Tommy Amaker’s group for four straight seasons even though they had solid recruits (Daniel Horton, Lester Abrams). This sibling rivalry is even more intriguing to me b/c of the basketball angle. Pre-Izzo and 1998, both of these schools had similar basketball programs. If you factor the last 15 years, it is not even close. Tom Izzo is that icon that Sparty lacks in their football program. I’ll stop before I make this into a basketball conversation as usual.

4. MSU convincingly has won the last three years. They have also been very consistent under D’Antonio during that time. His hatred for Michigan has deeper roots b/c he coached defense at The Ohio State for a few years. Do you think that has taken this rivalry a different route after he got to East Lansing … or you just think it is Rich Rod’s genius recruiting/schemes that set Michigan back? Where do you see this matchup heading over the next few years?

JS: I think it’s a combination of both. With everything that I’ve said so far that may seem demeaning and arrogant, I will say this – D’Antonio is a good coach and he’s coached up a lot of his players. He doesn’t have the superstar players in every recruiting class like schools around him, but he gets a lot out of his players and he should get credit for that. I do actually think that there is a good chance that Michigan State can beat us this weekend simply because their defense (may be overrated at number one in the country) is legit and Michigan hasn’t played a defense anywhere close to how good MSU’s is. I hate beating a dead horse, but Michigan hasn’t exactly been up to par these last three years. We tried a new strategy that’s never been tried before – play without a defense. It did not work. So you’ll forgive me when I take their win streak with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, a win is a win and they deserve all the credit in the world for beating us.

Depending on whether or not D’Antonio stays at MSU or not, I think the rivalry will be more and more heated because, as you said, he has extra incentive to hate Michigan because of his Ohio roots. Michigan is digging itself out of the mess that Rich Rod left it in and will be more competitive in future games. The one thing that might sway the rivalry is recruiting. Michigan is dominating Michigan State in recruiting. Consider that Michigan State has just come off a 11-2 season and Michigan just finished 7-6. Michigan State returns virtually their entire staff that have good connections already established in the Midwest while a completely new Michigan staff has had to repair broken lines of communication with high school coaches. UM is hauling in a top 5 recruiting class, on par with Texas, Alabama and LSU, while Michigan State hasn’t cracked anyone’s top 25 lists yet (although it’s still early). If they can keep recruiting and the coaches perform well, then I definitely think Michigan will turn the tide back in their favor. I do think it will take a couple of years before that happens, but it will.

DJ: Recruiting is still the kicker. Michigan still gets the media coverage mostly for negative reasons over the last couple years. D’Antonio needs to stick around and MSU needs to continue their 8-9 win seasons consistently. Bowl wins on a national level will get them some more coverage and help with the recruiting. He seems to be a smart guy and understands their place in the conference right now. I think he gets it b/c of Ohio State background. But the key for them is to maintain consistency and not lose momentum.

5. Do you consider this a rivalry?

JS: Yes. Unequivocally yes. It’s helping that Michigan head coach Brady Hoke is treating it like it’s a bowl game and is making sure everyone stays focused and gets up for it. I do think it’s the third ranked rivalry (behind Ohio State and Notre Dame) but there is palpable hatred between these two teams and fan bases. It makes it a fun one to watch and it helps with recruiting. I think one of the reasons that Michigan State fans do not like Michigan/think we’re arrogant is because there is a strong percentage of Michigan fans that do not consider this a rivalry and that infuriates Michigan State fans. I am not of that percentage. I do love the Michigan/Michigan State rivalry and will continue to treat it as such.

DJ: There are different levels of a rivalry in college sports. This is not in par with the Red River rivalry or the Iron Bowl or Army-Navy. But there is a different type of animosity between these fans. Just because mathematically you are losing most of the time does not mean the games are not close. Texas won over 65% of the games against the Aggies but it is still a cherished part of the sport.

The game still matters, not just the result. The emotional energy between these fans on Saturday will be different than most of the other games. This rivalry is a big part of Big Ten and the state of Michigan b/c the fans give a crap regardless of the records. We can have this whole discussion about MSU vs. UM basketball with the roles reversed completely. But that’s for another day …

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