Let me begin by firmly stating I don’t actually hate any specific athlete, coach, fan or person affiliated with Michigan State University, even Mark Dantonio. I wish them no harm and hope they are at least decent when Michigan beats them. Good competition, steel sharpens steel, and all that.
Also, I realize the word hate is a strong word and I might get caught using it once or twice in this piece, but just know I use it with the utmost respect. Rivalries are a unique thing - hate blends with respect and appreciation and need and interest and disinterest. And the Michigan State fan base’s closeness geographically makes this rivalry more potent to me than anything related to Ohio State, even though that other game usually carries higher implications.
I grew up on the western shore of the great state of Michigan. Every person I know from the state who is a Michigan fan is friends and/or relatives with many Spartan fans. I know. It’s terrible.
My step father hailed from Charlotte, a small rural town southwest of East Lansing. Having grown up with some pretty good Spartan success on the gridiron and watching homegrown Magic Johnson dominate the basketball world, he was a Spartan through and through. He constantly but subtly reminded me which program had the historically better basketball program. I hated that, but the Fab Five was a good comeback for a time. (Thank god John Beilein has made Michigan basketball relevant again, there were some SILENT years between the Fab and Coach B.) One of my best friends growing up was part of a family with several generations of Spartan alumni; my oldest friend went there too along with many others I know.
The year 2007 brought us the “Little Brother” comments from Mike Hart, which have taken on a life of their own and given fans around the country a mostly accurate, occasionally inaccurate summation of Michigan-Michigan State. Little Brother is as much about Michigan-Michigan State, though, as it is about this particular decade in its history: Mark Dantonio’s gruff, angry persona and “we don’t get no respect” - Rodney Dangerfield turned into a football coach, as it were - and on the other side RichRod, then Hoke, and now Harbaugh.
Harbaugh represents a stark change from the previous two coaches, and that is best represented through this rivalry. The 2015 game was a Michigan State victory, but even a bitter loss like that one was an opportunity to show Michigan’s renewed toughness. Harbaugh has brought the Big Brother back into the rivalry - he’s recruiting Michigan and Ohio, brought on some underrated three-stars of his own, and kept the locker room material to a minimum. Big Brother is motivated again, and Little Brother has been forced to find a new act.
During the Lloyd Carr transition, Mark Dantonio was laying the building blocks for his future success. He landed Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham, Greg Jones and Kirk Cousins from Michigan and Ohio, then in 2008 he had six of the top fifteen from the state of Michigan and found a gem in Keshawn Martin as a two-star wide receiver who went on to the NFL. By 2009 he got the number one running back in the state in Edwin Baker and nine of the top sixteen recruits in Michigan.
Brady Hoke had more success recruiting Michigan players than RichRod, with a great recruiting year in 2012, but by 2014, people had realized Hoke was in over his head and the program was still floundering. There was the Apology in 2014, as well, which Michigan fans have tried to forget just as much as the game in 2015. It was, in a way, easy to be a successful little brother back then.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot. It feels like Michigan State is floundering, trying to forget their recent past, although we’ll see how long that floundering truly lasts. The Spartan fan base can’t deal with losing to Michigan every year and that is - in my humble opinion - what’s about to happen. Harbaugh erased the physicality gap between the two programs in one year. By year two he had the advantage in talent as well as coaching.
Personally, I see this game as a win for Michigan for the foreseeable future, with a comfy -10 spread for the Maize and Blue from now until MAC’s cows come home. This game almost never covers the spread but the point is that Michigan is on top - Big Brother is on top. I’m already seeing some cracks in the MSU fan base’s confidence after the last year of on- and off-field struggles, and Michigan has a chance to keep the pressure on with a win tomorrow.
And, good. Michigan has a few things to get even on. The Apology, all of Dantonio’s wins over the Wolverines, 2015 in particular, and all of the smack talk by the Green and White crowd. Expect to hear both sides quoting “Pride comes before the fall” whenever they can, and that, for those of us in the state of Michigan, is the real way to describe this rivalry. It’s about pride for both sides. Being brothers - well, I guess you can’t pick your brothers, so maybe we are. Sometimes you’re just stuck in the same home state, and it’s best to duke it out once in a while.