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Bacon: The UM-MSU football rivalry has a long history, both on and off the field

two football players on a football field
Matt Radick / The State News
Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

This Saturday, for the 112th time, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University will fight over a football for 60 minutes.

During the year’s other 364 days, the two schools’ coaches, players, and fan bases produce enough adolescent sniping and sophomoric stunts to fill a book— in fact, several.

The trash talk started between the two schools before there were two schools. In 1855, after the University of Michigan lost its bid for the new agricultural college, a UM professor warned the new school “cannot be more than a fifth-rate affair.”

That proved false. Michigan State became not merely a good school, but a world-class research university.

Credit John U. Bacon

But that didn’t stop Michigan’s legendary coach and athletic director, Fritz Crisler, from trying to block Michigan State from joining the Big Ten. When that failed, Michigan State started playing in the Big Ten in 1953, the same year the Governor created the Paul Bunyan trophy to go to the game’s winner. The Wolverines publicly pledged that if they won the trophy they would leave it on the field.

No matter: Michigan lost, 14–6.

The Spartans got their revenge in 1973, after Michigan and Ohio State tied 10–10 to finish with identical, undefeated records. With no tie-breaker in place, the Big Ten left its Rose Bowl invitation to a vote of the athletic directors. When Michigan State athletic director Bert Smith explained to Spartan alumni why he cast his vote for Ohio State, he received thunderous applause.

After a relatively calm four decades, the pettiness picked up in 2007. When Appalachian State upset the Wolverines, Michigan State’s first-year coach Mark Dantonio sarcastically asked for “a moment of silence.” Michigan’s Mike Hart returned the favor by calling the Spartans “Little Brother.” The Wolverines won, 28-24.

In 2013, former Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon hired a skywriter to spell “GO BLUE” over East Lansing— then lied about it, until records proved his department had paid for it. Before the Michigan State game that year a couple dozen Michigan players made a show of plunging a big tent spike into the Spartans’ field— only to get crushed, 35–11, and prompt Michigan coach Brady Hoke to apologize the next day.

Before last year’s game the Wolverines didn’t need any extra gunpowder to get ready, but the Spartans gave them some anyway. When the Wolverines took the field for warm-ups, Dantonio led his team in their ritual pre-game march down the field, interfering with a few Wolverines and grabbing one of the players’ headsets. Michigan’s Devin Bush Jr. responded by scuffing up the Spartans’ logo at midfield.

Once again, it was on. A motivated Michigan squad won that day, 21-7.

If you added up all the slights and cheap shots between these two they would probably shake out about even— though the final tally would likely depend on who was doing the adding.

Unlike the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, with Michigan-Michigan State the fans are generally respectful toward each other. Almost everyone in the state has friends who went to both schools, creating a week of harmless ribbing.

But the respect stops with the spectators. The football players have harbored a genuine hate for each other going back at least seven decades—a noted contrast to the mutual respect between the schools’ basketball coaches and players.

The tension between the two current football coaches is sky high.

The Spartans’ Mark Dantonio won a school-record eight of ten games against the Wolverines, but against Jim Harbaugh he’s 2-and-2. If Dantonio steps down after this season, as many believe he will, this weekend’s game would be the final tie-breaker between these two – and I’m certain they both know it.

These two do not like each other. They do not respect each other. And if either one can run up 50 points on the other, I bet they’re going to do it.

One of these years, both teams will simply shut up and play the game, to the end, without incident. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.

This rivalry is alive and well.

John U. Bacon is the author of seven national bestsellers, most recently Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football.

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