91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

UM and MSU now have something in common, big upset losses

John U. Bacon

March Madness is upon us, and it’s a little madder than usual. In the first week, eight teams hit buzzer-beaters. But the real shocker, the one that sent brackets to office trashcans across the country, wasn’t even close.

Michigan State had been a top ten team most of the season, and number one for six weeks. They won the Big Ten tournament with fantastic passing and shooting, arguably the most unselfish team Tom Izzo has ever coached.  

A lot of us were surprised when the Spartans didn’t get one of the four number-one seeds, but they got the best “second seed,” and were considered the unofficial “fifth one-seed.” Nationwide, the Spartans were the second most popular pick to win it all, behind only top-ranked Kansas.

In the first round, the Spartans faced a school called Middle Tennessee State – which isn’t even a state. I looked it up. The 15th-seeded Blue Raiders took the lead early, and the Spartans caught up, finally going down, 81-90.   

It was a stunner of historic proportions. While no one-seeds have ever lost to a 16-seed, this was the next closest thing. Many are already calling it the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history, and they’re probably right.

To Izzo’s credit, he handled the loss with characteristic class, saying, “They really deserved to beat us. The better team won today.”

This might – might – end a feud that started in the 1850s, before Michigan State was even a university. Contrary to popular belief, the University of Michigan badly wanted the state to put its new agricultural school in Ann Arbor, too. When Michigan lost out to East Lansing, one Michigan professor sniffed that the new school, “cannot be more than a fifth-rate affair.” Thus, the insults started before the second sibling was even born.

After John Hannah became Michigan State’s President in 1941, he leveraged the GI Bill, the Big Three automakers, and the Spartans’ football success to grow from 6,000 students to 40,000 in less than three decades. Michigan athletic director Fritz Crisler wanted to keep the Spartans out of the Big Ten, but the Spartans’ national success made any resistance futile.

In 1953, Michigan governor Soapy Williams created the “Paul Bunyan Trophy” to go to the winner of the instate rivalry. Crisler promised if Michigan won, they’d leave the trophy on the field. The Spartans solved the problem by winning that game, 14-6 – and 13 more in two decades.

When Michigan tied Ohio State for the Big Ten title in 1973, the league broke the tie with a vote of athletic directors. Michigan State athletic director Bert Smith voted for the Buckeyes –something Bo Schembechler never forgot. In 21 games, he beat the Spartans 17 times.

Finally, in 2007, Michigan’s football team suffered an epic loss to Appalachian State, which is considered the greatest upset in football history. When a reporter told Spartan football coach Mark Dantonio the news, he sarcastically replied, “Should we have a moment of silence?”

After the Wolverines beat the Spartans later that fall, Michigan’s Michael Hart responded in kind, calling the Spartans “Little Brother.” Since that game, Michigan has beaten the Spartans just once, against seven losses.

But now that Michigan State’s basketball team has suffered arguably the worst defeat in NCAA tournament history, is it all even now? After the game, Senator David Knezek tweeted: “Can we agree as a state to never speak of these two events ever again?”

The odds of that are less than both teams losing to, say, Middle Appalachian State. But then, you never know.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.