I’ve been a Spartan for 21 years.
That’s not enough for some people.
I don’t hate Michigan as much as most Spartans.
That’s not enough for other people.
When a kid is growing up, it’s a pretty simple process for him to pick his sports teams – you go with the local team. There are outliers. Sometimes a guy likes a quarterback from another team, or a 40/40 guy from another. Perhaps it’s as simple as they like a team’s colors or the team was good enough to be on the nationally televised game more times than others (hence the widespread fandom of teams like the Packers and Steelers). But for the most part, if you’re born in Michigan you’re pulling for the Lions, and if you’re born in Philly your favorite team is the Flyers.
It’s a little more complicated when it comes to college sports.
College rivalries are what make sports great. Pro sports have the occasional huge rivalries – Red Sox/Yankees, Bears/Packers, any combination of teams in the NHL’s old Adams division (Rangers, Bruins, Canadians, Flyers, etc.) – but none of these compare to such regional college rivalries such as Michigan/Ohio State, Duke/North Carolina, or Oklahoma/Texas. Add in the fact that these teams play once or twice a year instead of 19 or 6, and in a lot of cases the games have national significance, and you’ll find that a lot of fans take far greater pride in their college teams than their pro ones.
The challenge comes in picking which team to pull for. Typically, loyalties are passed down in families for generations, so if your dad grew up an Alabama fan, you’re not going to pull for Auburn. But if you have no such loyalties (I imagine this is much more common in the north than in the south), you have to pick your own team. And in picking that team, you’re essentially answering a simple question.
Which team is better?
It’s generally an easy answer. Kansas has more fans than Kansas State, Texas over Texas A&M or Texas Tech, Oklahoma over Oklahoma State, etc. And in Michigan, it’s a simple answer: Michigan trumps Michigan State. Up until a recent string of success by the Spartans and struggles by the Wolverines, if your family didn’t have ties to Michigan State (typically because someone in that family went there), you were a Michigan fan.
So it was that I found myself pulling for Michigan from the time I was 11 until I went off to college at Michigan State.
During my first week at Michigan State, Michigan beat Virginia on a last-second touchdown. Surprisingly, the dorm room where I and several of my dorm mates were watching the game erupted in celebration. Clearly, some of us who had grown up as Michigan fans found ourselves going to school in East Lansing. Personally, I went into the first Michigan-Michigan State fan as an MSU fan having no clue who I was going to be rooting for. My mind was made up the minute Michigan came through that tunnel. I was a Spartan.
That was in 1995, which means that I’m currently in my 22nd year of Michigan State fandom. I’ve seen ups and downs. I have stuck with them through thick and thin, and never questioned my loyalty to the school or its teams.
But to some, all that matters was that I started out a Michigan fan.
I don’t know how it works in other states, but I imagine it’s not much different than here. Michigan fans spend the majority of their lives being the better team, and, as such, they spend a fair amount of time reminding Michigan State fans that they’re inferior. Recently, Michigan State has had a run of success that coincided with a downturn at Michigan, and the trash talk script was flipped. Now, when Michigan is back to “normal” and Michigan State is struggling, Michigan fans point out that Michigan State fans have stopped talking shit, as if our shit talk was somehow different than what we put up when Michigan was on top.
While the trash talk is fair – you don’t have much of a defense when your team is worse – Michigan State fans can and do respond with a simple question: when did you graduate?
And that’s where the problem lies. In the vast majority of situations, the answer is equally as simple: they didn’t go there.
A while back, I was at a bar, and I listened as a man went on an extended rant about the fact that, because of their recent success, Michigan State has suddenly acquired a fair amount of “bandwagon” fans, that they weren’t legitimate fans, and that Michigan would be back. I had to cut in. I pointed out that MSU was currently riding 8 years of “bandwagon” fans, while Michigan had previously ridden 50. He conceded the point. I had to ask if he went there. He hadn’t.
The fact is that if you pull for Michigan State, you probably went there. That’s not the case with Michigan. I’m guessing that in most rivalries, as in this one, the people who didn’t attend the Michigan are the people who are most prone to talk. And to take it further, the people who are most prone are those who didn’t attend college at all.
Is that elitist? Probably.
Is it true? Definitely.
And yet the proverbial “Wal-Mart” fans aren’t the only ones who talk.
Michigan is a world-class educational institution. Anyone who argues otherwise – no matter where they went to school – is an idiot. But Michigan State, while not on the same level, has some top-notch programs, several quite literally ranked first in the nation. Despite that fact, people here believe that if you were accepted at both Michigan and Michigan State, there is absolutely no reason you would attend Michigan State.
This is not hyperbole. I have heard it said with my own ears, I have listened to the argument. Ignore the cost, ignore whether or not a given program might be better at Michigan State than at Michigan, ignore whether you prefer Michigan State’s campus to Michigan’s. If you get accepted to both schools, you have no reason to go to Michigan State.
It is that mindset that has many believing that if you go to Michigan State, it’s because you couldn’t get into Michigan. I’ve heard it, I’ve had to fight it, and I’ve had to explain that I decided I didn’t want to go to a school that kept putting me on the waitlist and chose the one that wanted me. But every Michigan graduate believes that Michigan State grads couldn’t get into their school, and thus was deserving of their derision.
My first year out of college, I worked at an accounting firm that sponsored recruiting events at local college campuses. It was a great way to pump up your work hours and help your standing in the firm. One of these recruiting events took place on the Michigan campus, and we encountered a kid who made a snide comment about Michigan State and then said, “I don’t really have a reason for looking down on Michigan State, I just do.” My buddy looked at me thinking I was going to murder the kid. I just smiled and nodded (also, I’m pretty dumb, but I’m smart enough to murder a potential hire).
That’s a learned response. What’s the point in arguing with someone who looks down on you?
And yet it’s said we have an inferiority complex.
We’ve watched a Hall of Fame coach walk away after coaching the team to its best record in a decade and go on to win 5 national championships.
I’ve listened as a friend asked when we’d get fed up with our basketball coach failing to deliver another national title. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He’s taken our school to 19 consecutive tournaments, seven Final Fours and a national championship. Apparently that’s not enough.
We’ve listened to announcers refer to the Spartans as “Michigan” at least once in every single game the Spartans have played.
We watched as our football coach went to a full-day on-air tour of ESPN and had his name mispronounced while answering repeated questions about our rival’s new coach. Mark Dantonio – or Mark D’Antonio if you asked the Wall Street Journal – would lead the Spartans to the Big 10 title and the College Football Playoff, but all the network wanted to talk about was Jim Harbaugh.
We’ve seen the coach named as “Mike” Dantonio on the cover of Sports Illustrated after he’d led the team to the College Football Playoff.
We’ve seen Tom Izzo’s name listed as “Tim” on a headline announcing he’d been elected to the Hall of Fame.
We’ve seen Denzel Valentine credited as “Denzel Washington” on an AP tweet announcing he was their national player of the year.
We’ve watched as our school won ESPN’s college football play of the year, and had it presented to Mark Dantonio…and the Michigan fan whose stunned reaction was immortalized shortly after the play took place.
And yet we have an inferiority complex.
It has become somewhat common for Michigan State fans to post “Still a Spartan” on Facebook after losses. I don’t know why. It’s as though there’s some belief that after a tough loss we’re going to abandon our school, and we need to announce that we’re going to remain loyal. As though now that we’ve approached the mountaintop we can’t handle a little bit of adversity.
We’ve lived through Bobby Williams.
We’ve lived through John L. Smith.
We’ve had to hear about Spartan Bob for 15 years.
We’ll survive 38-0.
We’ll survive Middle Tennessee State.
We will survive if we go from the College Football Playoff to missing a bowl game.
But the thing is, I don’t hate Michigan as much as other Michigan State fans. Maybe it’s because I started out as a Michigan fan. Maybe it’s because I want to see teams from our state succeed. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to be the sort of person who roots against a given team. I make an exception for pretty much any team from Ohio (hey, if you chant “Detroit’s bankrupt” when your team is losing to the Tigers, I want a lifetime of misery for your fanbase), but generally speaking, it strikes me as small. Or maybe it’s because I have friends who are Michigan fans and I don’t want them to think I’m being petty.
Maybe I should want Michigan to lose.
Recently, I went to McDonald’s, who’s running a promotion where their cups have various Michigan slogans or references on them. My cup read The Big House. I sent a pic of the cup to a fellow Spartan who knows of my lack of disdain for the Wolverines. His response? “I thought you rooted for UM.”
I can’t win.
I don’t hate Michigan with every fiber of my being, and that’s not good enough for some people. And I didn’t start out as a Spartan fan, so that’s not good enough for others.
But I’m still a Spartan, and I’ll always be one. That’s good enough for me.