Column: Michigan-MSU Rivalry Recharges

Izzo: “It should be a Duke-North Carolina thing around here, because there are too many good players in this state for one school to get them all.”
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

On Sunday, the Michigan Wolverines faced the Michigan State Spartans in the final of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament. After a decade of domination by the Spartans, John Beilein’s Wolverines held the upper hand the past four years. After losing two stars to the NBA and one to back surgery, they surprised just about everyone when they won the regular season Big Ten title this year by three games. Now they had the rare chance to beat the Spartans three times in one season.

Well, they say beating your arch-rival three times is almost impossible, and that proved true. There was no debating this one. The Spartans beat the Wolverines by 14 points. Spartans’ head coach Tom Izzo is doing what Tom Izzo does: Getting his team ready at just the right time for a good run in the NCAA tournament.

But Sunday’s game might have given both teams what they needed for the tournament: a spark of confidence for the Spartans, and a wake-up call for the Wolverines. I’ll bet both Izzo and Beilein are smart enough to use the Big Ten final game to motivate their players.

But, whatever happens in the NCAA tournament, both teams have elevated basketball in the state of Michigan – and with it, the rivalry between them. And they’ve done it the right way, too.

Since Izzo took over in 1995, he has graduated about 80% of his players – higher than the average of the student body at large.

Izzo grew up in the Upper Peninsula, and he’s proud of it. “People work hard up there,” he told me. “They’re straight with you. Kids are brought up that way, and that’s the only way they know. It’s in their blood. Remember this: All kids want to be disciplined – doesn’t matter where they’re from or who their parents are. I believe that. Discipline is a form of love.”

By that definition, Izzo’s players get a lot of love – and Beilein loves his players just as much. The year after Beilein took over in 2007, his players notched the most improved grade point average of any Michigan team. His players either go to the NBA, or graduate on time.

When I was watching Michigan beat Indiana two weeks ago, I looked out on the court and realized all but one of the starters had taken my class on the history of college athletics. (And no, despite the name, it’s not a blow-off. I’m a tyrant.) But why hadn’t the fifth player on the court, center Jordan Morgan, taken my class? Because I don’t teach master’s-level courses in engineering. That’s how you do it.

For decades, the rivalry between these two basketball teams never peaked, because one team was always riding high, while the other usually trailed far behind. But now, finally, both teams are performing at the game’s highest level, on and off the court.

In 2001, Izzo told me, “It should be a Duke-North Carolina thing around here, because there are too many good players in this state for one school to get them all.” Thirteen years later, the success of both teams has proved Izzo right: There’s more than enough talent in the state to fuel two top teams.

To equal the Duke-North Carolina rivalry would take a few decades, of course, but so long as Beilein and Izzo are coaching, that’s the direction Michigan-Michigan State is going.

The big winner here is college basketball. For all those who say the term “Student-athlete” is an oxymoron – and at too many schools, it is – these two programs stand as solid proof that you can do it the right way, and still beat the guys who don’t.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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