Mike Hart stood at the podium. He was comfortable. He wore a sly grin on his face as he fielded questions about Michigan’s come-from-behind victory over Michigan State. It was November 3, 2007.
It was Hart’s last game against Michigan State as the starting running back. His class never lost to Michigan State. So when a reporter asked him how he felt about the Spartans effort in the game the response was classic Hart.
"I was just laughing. I thought it was funny. They got excited, it's good. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you're playing basketball and let him get the lead. Then you just come back and take it back."
Seizing the opportunity, the reporter asked him point blank. Do you think of Michigan State as your little brother? Hart didn’t hesitate. In fact, he barely let the reporter finish his question before he spoke.
He flashed a self-satisfied smile and laughed to himself, likely unaware of the firestorm he had just created. Now, ten years later the echoes of “Little Brother” still reverberate through the rivalry.
If Helen of Troy was the face that launched 1,000 ships, then Hart’s “Little Brother” was the insult that launched 1,000 chips, squarely on the shoulders of Michigan State fans everywhere.
Michigan’s animosity towards Dantonio started before the game. Many don’t know about what may have sparked Hart’s comments in the first place. The Wolverines had been upset by Appalachian State to open the season, and Dantonio made light of the historic loss after his first game as coach of the Spartans. When asked about Michigan’s loss, Dantonio paused, smiled and replied “Should we have a moment of silence?”
After the final seconds ticked off of the 2007 game in Spartan Stadium, Michigan players huddled on the field and took a “moment of silence” for Michigan State. When asked about it later in the week, Dantonio responded. Two days later, Mark Dantonio dumped a bucket of gasoline on the flames.
“They need to check themselves sometimes. Let’s just remember, pride comes before the fall. ... They want to mock us, I’m telling them, it’s not over. They want to print that crap all over their locker room, it’s not over and it’ll never be over here. It’s just starting.”
Dantonio kept his word, and Michigan State won seven of the next eight meetings. For good measure, Dantonio has thrown in additional material in the ongoing war of words between the two schools.
I had the opportunity to interview two former Michigan greats, wide receiver Mario Manningham and linebacker Prescott Burgess, about the rivalry and the Little Brother comments.
“Locker room talk is real,” Burgess said. “We used to call them little brother when I was there. But we never meant it as disrespect.
“We never said it publicly. You know your brother is always going to show up ready for a fight. We knew they wanted it. We didn’t want those guys passing us. And I never lost to Michigan State.”
Burgess played at Michigan from 2003-2006 and was part of the six game winning streak over Michigan State that ended in 2008. He recalled how Michigan went into Spartan Stadium as the underdog in 2005 when Michigan State was ranked No. 11 while Michigan remained unranked.
“I remember in 2006, their running back said something. And to a defense, we take that very seriously. Very seriously. They weren’t going to come into the Big House and not have to pay for those comments,” Burgess said.
Mario Manningham shared similar sentiments, but was more adamant about the confidence and swagger of the team in that era, and how they had each other’s backs.
“When you’ve got a group of guys, all on the same page,” Manningham said. “Man, they’re arrogant. Confident. Your squad. That’s how we carried it around the locker. That was our approach to them. So when Hart said what he said I backed him up. That’s how we felt about them. Proof was in the pudding. They were our younger brothers.”
Fortunately for Manningham, he had the stats to back up his confidence. Over his three year career at Michigan, Manningham caught five touchdowns against Michigan State including the 2007 game winning touchdown. In 2007, Manningham helped Michigan jump out to a 14-3 halftime lead.
In the third quarter, momentum shifted in the Spartans favor. Michigan trailed 24-14 with less than eight minutes remaining. Chad Henne was hobbled. Mike Hart was playing hurt. When Henne was forced to leave the game Ryan Mallett stepped in and was immediately sacked. The ball came loose and bounced on the turf. It landed squarely into the hands of Mike Hart, who scampered up the sidelines for a first down.
A potential game-ending disaster was averted. Michigan scored on that drive to close the gap to three points. After a three-and-out, Michigan got the ball back with four minutes remaining. That’s when Henne found Manningham.
“The defender didn’t even break or nothing. As soon as the ball was snapped he ran straight to the end zone,” Manningham said. “He knew what was going on. I was supposed to run a fade route, but I ran a stop-and-go route. I knew he was going to bail out.
“Chad put it right over my shoulder. I had to turn around and fade left when I caught it. Chad put it on the money. Great play. Great catch. Great ending.”
As the final seconds ticked off, many of the players on the field knew it was their last game against Michigan State but didn’t know it was the end of an era. Michigan State has had control of the rivalry since 2008, having won eight of the last ten meetings. To put that into perspective, Michigan State has won as many games in the rivalry in the last ten years than they did from 1970 to 2007.
Hart’s comments, while amusing at the time, marked the end of an era of dominance for the Wolverines against their in-state rival. Michigan State, despite a 3-9 finish last season, kept it close with Michigan the entire game.
Mark Dantonio knows how to get his team prepared to play its most important game of the year. For him, it’s never over. It’s only beginning. Jim Harbuagh and the Wolverines will have their hands full in The Big House Saturday evening.
Mike Hart, now the running backs coach at Indiana, declined to be interviewed for this story.