The first Michigan-Michigan State game that I can consciously remember is from when I was eight years old.
There’s probably a lot of other Wolverines and Spartans fans who remember that one, too.
That year, 1990, Michigan entered the annual slugfest with its in-state rivals ranked No. 1 in the country. Trailing 28-21, Michigan scored with just a few seconds left, and in the pre-overtime NCAA football world, decided to go for two and the win.
Desmond Howard, a year before his Heisman Trophy win, beat Spartans cornerback Eddie Brown in man-to-man coverage and quarterback Elvis Grbac threw a strike to Howard’s No. 21 jersey. But Brown reached out, grabbed Howard’s foot and tripped him (something Brown surprisingly admitted to years later). When Howard stumbled to the turf in the endzone, the ball popped out. Michigan State escaped with a victory.
Somewhere in my house is the journal that I was required to keep for my third-grade class. My entry that week included a fairly detailed drawing of the play with the word “Cheaters!” written several times.
Suffice it to say, I was immersed in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.
Plenty of people will argue that Michigan’s biggest football rival is Ohio State. And based on the number of times that the two teams have battled for the conference title during the final week of the regular season, it would be hard to argue against that statement.
Others will tell you that the hostility in the Wolverines’ matchups with Notre Dame makes it Michigan’s real rivalry. That comes thanks in no small part to the fact that the Irish and Wolverines are the two winningest programs in college football history.
But when it comes right down to it, year in and year out, across every sport, it’s hard to ignore the animosity-fed battle lines drawn between Ann Arbor and East Lansing.
For those not hailing from the state of Michigan, it’s easy to see why Ohio State or Notre Dame might stand out more. There’s more hype for Ohio State, more tradition from Notre Dame.
But for those of us born and raised in The Wolverine State (not the Spartan State, mind you), it’s hard to ignore weekends like these.
Michigan fans look at Michigan State like a thorn in their sides. The Spartans dominated basketball for a few years, but the losses in football are more upsetting, because when Michigan State wins, it’s almost always an upset.
Michigan State fans think that Michigan fans are “arrogant.” Ask them, they won’t hesitate to tell you.
My roommate, Troy, would argue that “they say we’re cocky and think that we’re better than them – but that’s only because we are better than them and we do think that.”
I won’t go that far, but one loss in this football rivalry sets off more trash talk than just about any other sporting event you could name.
And while football is obviously in the spotlight this week, the rivalry – unlike other rivalries – is not just a gridiron rivalry.
In basketball, Michigan’s long-awaited victory last year reignited hostilities. For hockey matchups, Joe Louis Arena in Detroit constantly sells 18,000-plus tickets for those itching to see the Wolverine-Spartan duel. You name the sport, and the crowd will show up and bring their taunting lungs.
The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry definitely hinge on the pigskin.
But for Michigan-Michigan State, it could be horseshoes or shuffleboard and someone might riot at the end.
Obviously, though, you don’t need to be from Michigan to understand the enormity of the grudge match that will take place Saturday. Witnessing the Maize Rage guarding the Diag or Michigan State band members protecting their precious Sparty statue from attacks are more than enough for a non-Michigander to notice that this ain’t your friendly neighborhood game of catch.
Beating Notre Dame might mean more historically, and a win over Ohio State might wrap up a Big Ten title. But when it comes to playing the Spartans, there’s the kingship of an entire state on the line.
The winner on Saturday gets a year’s worth of insults to use.
The loser … well, the losers can always complain to their journals that the winners cheated.
– Chris Burke nearly broke his hand slamming it on the ground at the end of the 2001 Michigan-Michigan State game, but is better now and he can be reached at email@example.com.