The Wolverines over the past 20 years have followed a convenient trajectory for a developing sports fan. At the extreme edge of my consciousness sits Lloyd Carr and his 1997 national championship (I was 3 years old). As a child, I enjoyed double-digit win seasons, only to be crushed by repeated losses in the Rose Bowl. As a young man, I endured Rich Rod, Brady Hoke in college, and was rewarded with Harbaugh as a young professional.
Around the time I began to understand what I was watching, Carr was run out of town and the dark years began. Saturdays became weekly lessons in humility. From 2008, Michigan’s first losing season since 1967, until the glorious and highly anticipated return of Jim Harbaugh, there were hot –and-cold moments. Rich Rod was a disaster, officially the worst coach in Michigan history. Brady Hoke pulled off 11 wins in his first season, and worsened quickly. The two combined for just one win over Ohio State and the Spartans, both under Hoke. Hoke also led the Wolverines to their first bowl appearance since Carr’s retirement — a nice consolation. From 1974 to 2008, Michigan never missed a bowl game. From 2008-15, they made just four.
Now, all this seems like the whining of an overprivileged fan of a blue-chip team, but being conditioned to write off what I knew was formerly known as “The Game”, and reading about the Ten Years War like it was ancient, out-of-reach history was painful. My Wolverine fandom knew Ohio State only as an overlord, not a true rival.
All of this was not nearly as painful, however, as the ridicule of my green-blooded peers. After years of defeat (my favorite of which in 2004, Braylen Edwards in 4OT, WOW!) they had something to laugh about — five straight victories from 2008-12.
With the return of Harbaugh came the return of Bo and his kick-butt philosophy of integrity and hard work. Coach Schembechler was, as far as I know from tales of my father, the greatest coach to mentor young men, ever. “Those who stay will be champions” served as a motto in our household, motivating completion of everything from chores to arduous swim seasons. Harbaugh also meant the return of real rivalries, not annual predetermined contests used as an excuse for Facebook trolling.
The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry was instrumental in my competitive development. Paul Bunyan rendered my beloved participation trophies worthless. Facing my mostly Spartan-grad family in church the Sunday after beatings to offer handshakes and smiles was humbling, and aggravating, and that 2004 Braylon Edwards catch was nearly as amazing as 2015’s botched punt was devastating. Nearly.
Now, Michigan has risen back into the class of its rivals, even if the Buckeyes continue to win “The Game”, at least it isn’t preordained. The program is on the brink of breaking back into the top ranks of college football, now easily distinguished as the College Football Playoff.
The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry game is one of my favorite days of the year. Every season since 1898, the entire state of Michigan turns inward and engages in an all-encompassing battle of wit and strength. Everyone cares. While not everyone is a good sport, in my experience, most are. At the end of the day, we can all turn south and hate the Buckeyes and Irish, in solidarity.
In 2008, I learned how to win with grace, by antithesis of one Mike Hart, and I saw what true determination looked like on the face of Mark Dantonio. “It’s not over, it will never be over.” In 2008, I in turn learned how to lose with grace.
Now, the rivalry is back. There are no guarantees, even with a wire-to-wire lead and just a punt to go. The best rivalries are competitive, and this one is as contentious as ever. If the Wolverines want to bust into the top four, they must go through the Spartans; and if Michigan State hopes to avenge a lackluster 2016 campaign, a win at the Big House seems like the best way to do it.
Go Michigan, the State. I can’t wait for Saturday.