The Sibling Rivalry Heats Up - John U. Bacon The Sibling Rivalry Heats Up - John U. Bacon
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The Sibling Rivalry Heats Up

INTRO: This Saturday will mark the 112thmeeting between the Michigan and Michigan State football teams – but their rivalry started before that, and based on the rising animosity between the current coaches and players, it looks like it will be going strong well into the future. 

This Saturday, for the 112thtime, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University will fight over a football for 60 minutes. 

During the year’s other 364 days, the two schools’ coaches, players, and fan bases produce enough adolescent sniping and sophomoric stunts to fill a book— in fact, several. 

The trash talk started between the two schools before there were two schools. In 1855, after the University of Michigan lost its bid for the new agricultural college, a U-M professor warned the new school “cannot be more than a fifth-rate affair.” 

That proved false. Michigan State became not merely a good school, but a world-class research university.

But that didn’t stop Michigan’s legendary coach and athletic director, Fritz Crisler, from trying to block Michigan State from joining the Big Ten. When that failed, Michigan State started playing in the Big Ten in 1953, the same year the Governor created the Paul Bunyan trophy to go to the game’s winner. The Wolverines publicly pledged that if they won the trophy they would leave it on the field. 

No matter: Michigan lost, 14–6.

The Spartans got their revenge in 1973, after Michigan and Ohio State tied 10–10 to finish with identical, undefeated records. With no tie-breaker in place, the Big Ten left its Rose Bowl invitation to a vote of the athletic directors. When Michigan State athletic director Bert Smith explained to Spartan alumni why he cast his vote for Ohio State, he received thunderous applause.

After a relatively calm four decades, the pettiness picked up in 2007. When Appalachian State upset the Wolverines, Michigan State’s first-year coach Mark Dantonio sarcastically asked for “a moment of silence.” Michigan’s Mike Hart returned the favor by calling the Spartans “Little Brother.” The Wolverines won, 28-24. 

In 2013, former Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon hired a skywriter to spell “GO BLUE” over East Lansing— then lied about it, until records proved his department had paid for it. Before the Michigan State game that year a couple dozen Michigan players made a show of plunging a big tent spike into the Spartans’ field— only to get crushed, 35–11, and prompt Michigan coach Brady Hoke to apologize the next day.

Before last year’s game the Wolverines didn’t need any extra gunpowder to get ready, but the Spartans gave them some anyway. When the Wolverines took the field for warm-ups, Dantonio led his team in their ritual pre-game march down the field, interfering with a few Wolverines and grabbing one of the players’ headsets. Michigan’s Devin Bush Jr. responded by scuffing up the Spartans’ logo at midfield. 

Once again, it was on. A motivated Michigan squad won that day, 21-7.

If you added up all the slights and cheap shots between these two they would probably shake out about even— though the final tally would likely depend on who was doing the adding.

Unlike the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, with Michigan-Michigan State the fans are generally respectful toward each other. Almost everyone in the state has friends who went to both schools, creating a week of harmless ribbing.

But the respect stops with the spectators. The football players have harbored a genuine hate for each other going back at least seven decades—a noted contrast to the mutual respect between the schools’ basketball coaches and players.

The tension between the two current football coaches is sky high. 

The Spartans’ Mark Dantonio won a school-record eight of ten games against the Wolverines, but against Jim Harbaugh he’s 2-and-2. If Dantonio steps down after this season, as many believe he will, this weekend’s game would be the final tie-breaker between these two –and I’m certain they both know it. 

These two do not like each other. They do not respect each other. And if either one can run up 50 points on the other, I bet they’re going to do it.  

One of these years, both teams will simply shut up and play the game, to the end, without incident. But I don’t see that happening any time soon. 

This rivalry is alive and well.  
* * * * *

OVERTIME: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football debuted at #13 on the Publisher’s Weekly list of national bestsellers. That makes seven national bestsellers in a row, for which I can thank YOU!

After great events in Philadelphia on Wednesday and DC on Thursday, I’ll be in Williamsburg, VA, on Saturday. For more information on those events and many others ahead, check out

I’m also in ESPN’s celebration of 150 years of college football, The American Game, 11 one-hour episodes running on Tuesday nights, and The Greatest (mascots, innovations, etc.), which runs 30-minutes on Thursday nights.

Please follow me on Twitter! A fun way to swap witticisms — if we’re lucky! 44.6K followers and growing.


THE DOS EQUIS COLLEGE FOOTBALL FOOTBALL COLLEGE, on which I play the “professor” teaching ten classes on the sport. And yes, there IS a final exam! 12 questions to test your knowledge — and if you get a bunch right, they send you a certificate! Enjoy — and good luck!

We have plenty of excerpts, stories, and reviews out there, too, some listed below. Two more come out this week in The Wolverine print copy and the Ann Arbor Observer.

Let’s start with the EXCERPTS:

The first excerpt, “Hard to Beat the Cheaters,” on Michigan’s approach to recruiting, appeared in, Yahoo sport’s longform section.

The second, on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry (derived from two chapters titled “Bad Blood” and “Cavalry’s Coming”), ran in the famed

The most recent excerpt, on the roller coaster recruiting process of five-star defensive back Daxton Hill, appeared in Sam Webb’s excellent Michigan Insider Thursday night.


On the Big Ten Network with anchor Dave Revsine

In the Sporting News, with Bill Bender

With Jeff Arnold of


From Greg Dooley’s “Punching Back.”

And even Ohio State’s top football website, Eleven Warriors:

I’ve read everything John U. Bacon has ever written and I’ve never been bored or disappointed.

Sprinkling character profiles into the storyline of Wolverines’ 2018 campaign produces a quick and captivating read – even if your position in Michigan’s football orbit is as an Ohio State fan. 

Hope to see you down the road on the book tour!

Again, thanks for your support!


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1 Comment Leave a comment  

  • Norman Hamann November 15, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    I do not remember the moment of silence comment, but those are fightin’ words!
    Dantonio will be missed whether he leaves this year or next…..his sterling
    record has taken a hit since Harbaugh arrived, and he has needed a miracle and a monsoon
    to win the two games Michigan did not dominate both in Ann Arbor. The sounds of silence
    will be the farthest things that will be heard tomorrow in the Big House. Looking forward
    to being at the game.


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