Partway through last week’s college hockey NCAA Tournament first-round game between Michigan and Wisconsin, I witnessed one of the most disturbing sights in all of college sports.
The P.A. announcer told the crowd that the Michigan State basketball team had beaten Duke by 10, 78-68. That wasn’t so disturbing, but I sat in the press box and watched as 6,000 Michigan and Wisconsin fans cheered at the top of their lungs. I never in my entire life thought that I would witness such a large group of mostly Michigan supporters cheer for the Spartans. But this weekend, while watching the Final Four, it happened again. My friends sat around and rooted for an all-Big Ten final.
Now, maybe there’s something that I don’t get. I’m not from Michigan, and I don’t have any friends who go to Michigan State. But when I came to Michigan and started rooting for the Wolverines, I bought into a system. I root for Michigan and whichever team is playing against Michigan State. I mean, this is the school that painted the ‘M’ green last week and, every year, sends students down to Ann Arbor to paint the rock white and green. This is the school that added an extra second to the football game my freshman year and the school that we … well, schooled in the overtime football game this season. This is a rivalry. And in my mind, there are really just a few reasons why we root for the Spartans — some of them are decently logical and some are pretty ridiculous.
1. If they are playing Ohio State. In my mind, the Buckeyes are even worse than the Spartans. There are a thousand reasons why this is true, including Jim Tressel’s sweater vest and the Buckeyes’ recruiting tactics. But that’s a topic for a whole different column. The fact is that Ohio State is really the evil empire, and, if the Green and White goes up against the Scarlet and Grey, my money’s not going to be on Red. I just can’t bring myself to do it. Note: this rule also applies to other inherently evil teams such as Duke and, in some cases, Notre Dame.
2. If your family — brothers, sisters, parents, friends, whoever — is from Lansing. To me, this is something I will never understand. My brother goes to Washington Jefferson College, a small school in western Pennsylvania. His school is Division III, but, earlier in the year, we played it in water polo. I don’t care very much about water polo, but the first thing I did when I saw that we won was call my brother and brag to him. And I’m sure that he would have done the same to me if the situation was reversed. But maybe things are different up here in Michigan. Like I said, I’m not from this state, and I’m not sure exactly how the thinking goes for the in-state rivalry. To me, having friends at State would make my hatred stronger. But not everyone appears to think like me.
3. If you are just a Spartans fan in a Maize and Blue uniform. Believe it or not, I do have friends like this, and it’s ridiculous. Maybe it’s because Michigan is a better school than State. Maybe you went to State for undergrad and now you’re here for some graduate work. Maybe you just thought Ann Arbor was a better town than Lansing — that’s understandable. But whatever the reason, God help you if you fall into this category.
4. To make the Big Ten look like a stronger conference. This is the logic that most people are floating around now, and, you know what, it’s illogical — at least this year. Since the beginning of the year, Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin have been ranked near the top of the polls, and all three of them were in the top-25. The problem with the Big Ten was never that the top three teams were bad; it’s that the rest of the teams are horrible. If you were rooting for the Big Ten to prove itself, then you should have been rooting for Minnesota to beat Iowa State and Iowa to take down Cincinnati. Both of those teams were crushed, and the Big Ten lost its credibility on the first weekend of the Tournament — not in the Final Four.
5. You’re rooting for a good game. It is acceptable to root for Michigan State when they are behind if, and only if, you then root for them to lose. I understand as well as anyone the desire to see a good game, be witness to a double overtime game or watch teams run up and down the floor like North Carolina and Michigan State did on Saturday. But let’s be clear here — this is only acceptable if your desire for them to lose supercedes your desire to see a good game. You must make a promise with whatever god you may believe in to only root for a good game if the Spartans are guaranteed to lose when it’s all said and done.
6. You picked them in your bracket. I shouldn’t even address this issue because, as a true Michigan fan, you really shouldn’t pick the Spartans to go far in any tournament pool. And if you do, it should be clear that your priorities always lie with Michigan before bracket supremacy. I will make one exception in this scenario. If by some stroke of luck, Michigan State winning will give you the only perfect bracket ever in the history of NCAA Tournament pools, you are excused. Otherwise, throw out your hopes for winning your pool and make sure you root against the Sparties.
7. It helps Michigan. It is true that there is the occasional situation when Michigan State helps the Wolverines — last year’s football game against Wisconsin comes to mind. The Spartans’ victory in November propelled us into the Rose Bowl, and for that I was undeniably grateful.
But that’s it. As far as I can tell, there is no other reason to even think about rooting for the Spartans. But feel free to root for whichever team you want tonight. Illinois doesn’t fall into the same rivalry category, and, thankfully, the Spartans are now out of it.
I hope that Michigan fans everywhere are cheering because of that.
Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.