Keep your enemies close
MSU—U-M rivalry goes beyond football, influences relationships
“Beat Michigan” shirts. Smack talk on social media. U-M’s block ‘M’ spray-painted green with “S-U” scrawled next to it.
A taxidermied wolverine in a maize and blue vest, hanging by a noose from the back of a van with license plate “ST8 VAN” along with a banner reading, “The only good Wolverine …” parked outside the Starbucks on Grand River Avenue.
There’s no mistaking it — it’s Michigan week.
But even with all the animosity, harsh words and pranks from both sides, many MSU students have family, friends and even significant others behind enemy lines.
International relations junior Ali Bazzi and his sister Amani Bazzi, a U-M student, have more than just a sibling rivalry.
Ali Bazzi said they grew up U-M fans wearing maize and blue gear as little kids since their dad was a fan, but Ali Bazzi chose to attend MSU instead.
“Now (my dad) is a die-hard Spartan since I went to MSU,” he said. “He switches it up every day, really.”
His father got them an MSU–U-M “house divided” flag, which they posed with outside their home in Dearborn Heights.
Ali Bazzi and Amani Bazzi’s younger siblings, a freshman in high school and an elementary student, have already shown preferences in the green-and-blue family.
“My high school sister is a die-hard Michigan fan and my little brother is 9 and is always talking crap about Michigan and wearing State gear,” Ali Bazzi said. “My sister (Amani Bazzi) will always tell me Michigan is better, but even she knows that they’re probably going to lose this year.”
A rough beginning
As Dantonio and athletic director Mark Hollis are prone to say, Michigan residents are either green or blue.
Spartans’ competitiveness is so intrinsic to the university that the original "Michigan State Fight Song" said, “smash right through that line of blue/watch the points keep growing,” instead of “go right through for MSU.” Also, “see their team is weakening” was once “Michigan is weakening.”
The rivalry between U-M and MSU is not just about a football game. The rivalry’s roots go back to MSU’s beginning in 1855 as an agricultural school that U-M wanted for their own.
There has been bad blood between the institutions since U-M failed on their 1837 promise to create a competent agriculture program. Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, MSU’s original name, was created in 1855 instead.
U-M tried several times to stop the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan from forming and over the next several years. U-M then tried to absorb the agricultural college as it grew and expanded its programs.
However, alumnus Jeff Hicks said he thinks the true sports rivalry began long after the agricultural battle.
“I think it’s been a rivalry ever since U-M voted to keep Michigan State from joining the Big Ten. I think that’s what started that level of friendly animosity,” he said.
Hicks is part of a Spartan legacy. His grandmother graduated from MSU in the ‘20s, his mother in the ‘60s, himself in the ‘90s and he has two nieces who attend MSU today.
“For those of us that grow up with (the rivalry), and have lived through it … our whole lives … it means that much more,” he said.
Elementary education sophomore Laura Krieber and U-M student Carter Lee began dating when Krieber was a freshman at MSU and Lee was still deciding where to attend college.
“I remember when I kind (of) went after him. I said, ‘you should come to Michigan State, it’s awesome,’” she said.
Little did Krieber know that Lee’s father graduated from U-M’s dental school and his heart had been set on U-M since he was a little kid.
The pair decided to give their romance a try despite going to rival schools. At tailgates and family events, each refuses to wear the other school’s colors.
Despite having a healthy perspective on the rivalry, Krieber said she does wish they went to the same school.
Krieber and Lee both said they were glad the rivalry gave them something to joke about, and Krieber said she bonds with Lee’s family in a strange way due to their rivalry.
“I’ll wear Michigan State shirts on purpose over to his house,” Krieber said. “If Carter comes here (for tailgating) and is wearing Michigan, I wouldn’t associate with him,” she said with a laugh.
Lee said the rivalry hasn’t put any strain on the relationship, but it does add excitement to it, despite U-M’s lacking football program.
“We’re having a little bit of a sub-par year. Hopefully we can pull off a little bit of an upset, but hopes aren’t too high,” he said.
Computer engineering sophomore Matt Boboltz and his father, Scott Boboltz are both Spartans, but his older brother and sister are U-M graduates.
“My sister went into English, and my brother went into language. So I think in that respect U-M might have been a better choice for them. We’re from Okemos as well, and they didn’t really want to stick around,” Matt Boboltz said.
Scott Boboltz said when his kids first decided to go to U-M, there was an initial moment of disappointment.
“At first it was a momentary letdown or whatever. … But U-M, aside from the sports, is an outstanding school,” he said. “Come game day, I’m totally green.”
Scott Boboltz said U-M is still a dangerous team and called the game a “pure rivalry.”
“As far as the disdain between students, I think it’s all in fun at the end of the day,” he said. “At least, I hope it is.”
Judi Cottrell is a U-M alumna with a daughter at MSU, media and information senior Nicole Cottrell.
“They (my kids) were raised right, she just chose to go to a different school,” Judi Cottrell said.
Judi Cottrell said she has baby pictures of Nicole Cottrell in U-M onesies.
“Yeah, that was kind of weird for her to support MSU. My philosophy was if you graduate and get a job it’ll be fine,” she said.
She said since her daughter Nicole is in the Spartan Marching Band, she’ll go to MSU tailgates — but will wear maize and blue socks with her “MSU mom” sweatshirt.
Big trophy, little brother
It’s no secret that MSU’s football team is heavily favored against U-M this year. But that doesn’t change the air of excitement and anticipation that takes hold of Spartans during Michigan week.
It’s also no secret that the University of Michigan has, historically, not taken the rivalry as seriously. U-M student Lauren Haber said MSU is not a top priority for the maize and blue.
“I think if you’re an in-state student you consider (MSU) more of a rival, but overall I think we have bigger and better schools to worry about, definitely Ohio State or Notre Dame,” she said.
U-M’s team is currently 3-4, and 1-2 in the Big Ten. They were shut out by Notre Dame for the first time since a 1985 game against Iowa. Their 2014 season was the first time in the program’s history it lost every game in September. Last year, MSU held U-M to minus 48 rushing yards.
But it’s no secret that U-M students, alumni and fans like to remember the past.
The Paul Bunyan-Governor of Michigan Trophy was introduced as a rivalry trophy in 1953 when MSU joined the Big Ten against U-M’s wishes. In 1954, when U-M won the Paul Bunyan-Governor of Michigan Trophy, it was reportedly left on the field for a half hour before someone thought to go get it. The 4-foot tall trophy and its 5-foot tall base were left in a U-M locker room for the next two years and the university refused to engrave the scores for the ‘54 and ‘55 games, according to MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.
In 1956 it was reclaimed by MSU, which engraved the scores for U-M’s two wins, in addition to their own, and put it on display in Jenison Field House. The trophy stands there today, awaiting the outcome of Saturday’s matchup.
The first time U-M was reported to have celebrated winning the trophy was after a late-game comeback resulted in a Wolverine win in 2007. Then-running back Mike Hart coined the infamous “little brother” remark.
“I thought it was funny. They got excited. It’s good. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and you let him get the lead. Then you come back and take it from him,” Hart said in his infamous comment.
Head coach Mark Dantonio seemed to predict MSU’s following success when responding to Hart’s comments, reminding Michigan, “Pride comes before the fall.”
And some might say Hart doomed his successors — after the “Little Brother” game, MSU won four games against U-M in a row, meaning none of the graduating seniors in 2011 won a game against MSU.
In the past
Over the course of the 116-year and 106-game rivalry, both programs have had periods of domination.
In 1902, U-M destroyed State Agricultural College, as MSU was called at the time, in a disturbing 119-0 blowout. From 1916 to 1933 the agricultural college managed only 15 points against the Wolverines. U-M also enjoyed long win streaks in the ‘40s, ‘70s, ‘80s and early 2000s.
Michigan leads the series 68-33-5 all-time, 35-24-2 since MSU officially joined the Big Ten in 1949.
But MSU has not sat quietly. Since Mark Dantonio took control of the program in 2007, MSU has lost only twice to their cross-state rivals.
MSU Alumni Association president Scott Westerman graduated in 1978 in the middle of an era dominated by U-M and said he thinks the tides have turned.
“If you look at where the University of Michigan is now, they’ve had a lot of transition too in their program, so they’re trying to rebuild, just like we were trying to rebuild back then,” he said.
Westerman said he believes Dantonio’s recruiting process and consistency has solidified MSU’s dominance.
“It’s almost like we are sitting in the seat that Michigan was sitting in back when I was here, and it’s a pretty good seat to be sitting in,” he said.
Despite the intense feelings on both sides, Westerman said that the rivalry is a “one plus one equals four relationship.”
“Each of us bring our own strengths to the table and we need a strong University of Michigan and a strong Michigan State University within the state. The state is better because we have two strong institutions here,” he said.
Westerman’s wife, Colleen Westerman, was treated at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center with cisplatin, a drug developed at MSU.
Westerman said he believes the MSU–U-M rivalry shouldn’t be about tearing each other down, but about what the universities can do together to attack the world’s problems.
That isn’t to say, of course, that Westerman isn’t competitive.
“Do I want to win? Yeah! I want to win on Saturday. I want it to be a slam dunk victory too, but I don’t hate Michigan,” he said.
Westerman said he is excited for a new tradition — Alex’s Great State Race. ROTC members from MSU and U-M will run the game ball from Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor to Spartan Stadium in eight-mile increments. One ultramarathoner will run the entire 64 miles.
The race is inspired by the life of Alex Powell, a Lansing Catholic High School graduate who found out his senior year he had a rare and deadly form of cancer.
Despite this setback, Powell wanted to be a Spartan. The MSU Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities made that possible, but Powell passed away his freshman year.
His parents were so impressed by the RCPD, Westerman said, that they created the new tradition to raise funds for the center and U-M’s counterpart.
“It is symbolic for us of the path that our two great schools have taken, to become as wonderful as they really are, and also the accessibility that is the hallmark of what Michigan State University is all about,” he said.
Editor's note: This article incorrectly stated that Alex Powell graduated from Okemos High School. It has been corrected to say that he graduated from Lansing Catholic High School.