Little Brother and the UM-MSU Rivalry

Editors Note: I decided to put this article out before Saturday's showdown in Ann Arbor; I wrote it in June 2008. It is a relevant article, I promise. Just because the 2008 University of Michigan football team is horrendous does not alter or somehow diminish the fact that Michigan has 1) dominated the Michigan State Spartans in their yearly rivalry and 2) raised a national football name for themselves above their East Lansing counterparts. However, I do understand the irony of dropping this article at a time when most of the Big 10 lines up to take body shots at the wounded Wolverines. I did state at the end of the article that MSU was favored this year and should beat UM.

How the University of Michigan bypassed the Spartans of Michigan State on the way to being the dominant college football team in the state of Michigan

On the speed limit insulting drive on I-96 from East Lansing to Ann Arbor, an Calvin_medium
observant driver is sure to notice a few speed traps, a lot of open fields, and a green fuel truck with a white smiley face somewhere near Fowlerville. This hour long drive offers little excitement, just like the "rivalry" between the college football teams residing in the two aforementioned cities.

Since Bo Schembechler began his reign as Michigan football coach in 1969, the Wolverines have easily surpassed the Spartans as the dominant college football program in the state of Michigan. The Wolverine program has become a national brand, recognized for its indomitable winged helmet and the numerous NFL players it produces, while the Spartans have struggled with slap-happy coaches, drugged up star players, and mediocre results. Wolverine RB Mike Hart infamously compared Michigan State to an annoying little brother who struggles a lot until you push him down. The Paul Bunyan Trophy has spent so much time in Ann Arbor that I hear Paul has decided to get a nice ranch over on Stadium Drive and settle down platonically with Babe the Blue Ox.

Statistics Since 1969






Bowl Appearances



Head-to-Head Matchup



But the question remains: the world did the University of Michigan cultivate a respected national reputation and a higher standard of football excellence than its East Lansing counterpart?


When Duffy Daugherty took the reigns at Michigan State, he was inheriting a program that had just posted a 35-2 record over the last 4 years with Biggie Munn. The Spartans were national champions under Munn and Daugherty had high expectations. After a disappointing first season, Daugherty delivered on those Duffy_daugherty_time_medium
expectations, carrying the Spartans to a couple of legendary seasons ('65, '66) and consistently solid records in an increasingly competitive Big 10. Daugherty, a smart and witty coach, took the socially progressive step of recruiting top African-American athletes from the South. George Webster, Bubba Smith, and Charlie "Mad Dog" Thornhill were tremendously physical athletes from the South, all recruited by Daugherty at a time when many Southern schools were ignoring African-American athletes. Most importantly, Daugherty pulverized the Wolverines in the 1960's, winning 70% of the rivalry games. East Lansing had the best damn college football program in the Mitten.

The Spartans began falling off at the end of the 1960's as other schools began following Daugherty's recruiting example and the Wolverines named a young Miami (OH) man named Bo Schembechler to be its head coach. In 1969, Schembechler took a moribund Michigan program and led them to the most famous upset in Michigan football history, a 24-12 victory over the #1 Buckeye's. Schembechler's media-created rivalry with Woody Hayes (they were close friends, a product of their Miami (OH) days) began a period where Michigan and Ohio State were the only two relevant programs in the Big 10, earning the Big 10 the nickname "Big 2, Little 8."


Woody and Bo outshone Michigan State and every other Big 10 team during the 1970's, a period where college football's popularity began to rocket. As Bo's sideline temper and powerful teams became entrenched in the national psyche, Michigan State struggled through unsuccessful no-name coaches and continued ass-thrashings by its Ann Arbor counterpart. Players like Anthony Carter and Rick Leach helped lead Michigan to a 17-3 record versus the Spartans during the 1970's and 1980's.

A concept that a number of Michigan State fans pointed out to me was the "Bo Schembechler" effect on the Big 10. Coaches in the Big 10 began to follow Bo's example of practicing plays over and over and playing an extremely physical style of football. The Big 10 began to look at Michigan (and Ohio State) as the Granddaddy's of the Big 10.


Michigan football had a consistent coach from 1969 until the mid 1990's in Schembechler. While Bo was building a nationally recognized program with tremendous marketing appeal (that very recognizable yellow swoosh on a blue background), the Spartans best hope became George Perles, a former Pittsburgh Steeler defensive coach brought in to recruit the Western Pennsylvania hotbed. Perles recruited studs like Percy Snow, Lorenzo White, and Andre Rison and gave Michigan State an image that fans could associate with Michigan State football. Perles won 4 out of 11 games versus Bo and returned some sizzle to the rivalry.

Contrast George Perles' recruiting coup (Rison was a top recruit at Flint Northwestern) and general the recent coaching reign of John L. Smith. Smith was brought from Louisville to bring excitement to the Spartans program. Smith trumpeted his fancy new offense (no fullback needed) and his motivational skill, only to be ridiculed for on-field embarrassments and off the field incidents. No one will forget the horrendous coaching in the 4th quarter of the loss to Notre Dame in 2006; up 3 touchdowns in the 4th quarter, Smith called risky passes instead of burning time off the clock and the Irish came back for a historic win. Smith also incurred ridicule for the perceived lack of discipline he instilled in his players and the time he slapped himself during a press conference. Needless to say, his reign is over at Michigan State.


The players to come out of Michigan and Michigan State have also helped build the reputation of the programs.High profile players like Tom Brady, Charles Woodson, and Steve Hutchinson have gone on to successful and lucrative NFL careers after excelling in Ann Arbor. In Tony_m_medium comparison, four of the best Spartans to come out of East Lansing in the last 20 years have become famous for matters completely unrelated to football. OL Tony Mandarich, the "Incredible Bulk" himself, burned out of the NFL amidst allegations of steroid use and attitude problems. Star WR Andre Rison tried to coin his own nickname ("Spiderman," it never caught on) and then had his mansion burned down by a member of the R&B group TLC. Jeff Smoker, MSU's all-time leading passer, was suspended in 2002 for his very well known cocaine habit and flamed out in the NFL. Finally, Charles Rogers, who was a tremendous all-around athlete (I watched him score 32 points against Waverly in the Class A state title basketball game, including three dunks), missed most of his first three seasons in the NFL due to injury and drug suspensions and was recently cut by the Detroit Lions.


The Wolverine-Spartan rivalry is at a crucial juncture. The Spartan's have lost the last 6 games and the losses have been heart wrenching; the Spartans led deep into the 4th quarter last year, only to lose on a late touchdown pass from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham. Even the few wins that the Spartans have pulled off in this rivalry are so clouded with controversy that Michigan fans almost refuse to recognize the validity of these Spartan victories. Watch Desmond Howard get tripped up to seal a Spartan victory ( and watch "Clockgate," when the East Lansing clock operator stopped the clock to allow a final play (

But MSU head coach Mark D'Antonio has come in and made similar moves to what his mentor, Jim Tressel, did at Ohio State. D'Antonio has not made excuses (like Bobby Williams did in 2002) or made a fool of himself like John L. Smith. He has taken a business-like approach to recruiting better in Michigan and mining the rich recruiting fields of Ohio, where D'Antonio coached for years. My father attends D'Antonio's booster club meetings and reports that D'Antonio is not a humorous guy, but is a detail oriented and serious coach. Judging from the recent history of the Spartans, D'Antonio's attitude is a welcome change.

As I've written before, the Spartans are favored in 2008 against the new look Wolverines. Michigan State returns a veteran quarterback and a star running back and there is no reason D'Antonio cannot make this an even rivalry. Michigan State has great facilities, an attractive campus, legendary players, and a solid coaching staff. During the fall, Saturday's revolve around Spartan football in East Lansing and the students are fervently supportive. But the stigma of being 2nd best in the Great Lake State is a hard thing to overcome, and D'Antonio has his work cut out for him. 5 star recruit James Jacksons recent decision to attend Ohio State over his hometown (Grand Ledge/East Lansing: close enough) Spartans nicely illustrates the struggle that Michigan State has with playing second banana to Michigan and Ohio State.

Will the "little brother" in this rivalry finally grow up and make this rivalry even? Until the Spartans can win some recruiting battles and capture the Paul Bunyan Trophy, Michigan will be a state dominated by Wolverine college football.

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