Column: Sibling Rivalry

Michigan-Michigan State battle best in the land
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

In their century-old rivalry, Michigan holds a commanding advantage over Michigan State. But since 1950, the margin is much closer. Michigan has won 34 games, and the Spartans 23.

The rivalry is special not just because of the many Big Ten titles it’s determined or the national coverage it attracts. What sets it apart from other long-running feuds is the relationship between the schools, which fuels this duel with more emotion than any other.

The Spartans will tell you it’s their biggest game of the year. The Wolverines will tell you no loss is more painful. Unlike Michigan’s other rivalries against Notre Dame and Ohio State, this duel depends not on the teams’ records but on a constant regional turf war. It is a sibling rivalry, not subject to change. That’s why, even when one team is down, the tension is still high.

Chris Hutchinson, one of Michigan’s former All-American defensive tackles, once said, “Ohio State and Notre Dame were rivalries, but Michigan State was a war, almost a civil war, a real hatred.” He explained that most of the players on both teams were recruited by both schools. Once they pick one, they become polarized. “We just out-and-out didn’t like each other.”

The dislike – okay, genuine hatred – undoubtedly started in 1947.

That was Fritz Crisler’s last year as Michigan’s head coach, and Biggie Munn’s first year leading the Spartans. When Crisler had coached at Minnesota, Biggie Munn was one of his captains. When Crisler came to Michigan, he hired Munn as one of his assistants. So you’d think they would have been close. But for reasons I’ve never been able to determine, they hated each others’ guts.

In that 1947 game, their only contest against each other, the teacher made sure the student remembered the game by sending the Spartans home with a 55-0 pasting.

Crisler got his wish: Munn never, ever forgot that game – nor Crisler’s attempts to keep the Spartans out of the Big Ten. And he vowed to avenge both dastardly acts.

He did – many times over. During the ’50s and ’60s, the Spartans dominated Michigan, losing only four games over those two decades.

The Wolverines have since regained the upper hand, thanks mainly to Bo Schembechler’s 17-4 mark against State, but only Ohio State has beaten Michigan more often than have the Spartans. In the entire history of college football, only the Michigan-Ohio State games have attracted more fans. And no one, not even the Buckeyes, have upset the Wolverines more often than the Spartans have.

It’s an underrated rivalry – but not to the players.

Almost everybody who’s played in it, on either side, would agree with former Michigan defender Ian Gold: “That was truly the hardest hitting game we played every year.”

Whoever wins tomorrow, it’s a safe bet that both teams will never be as sore all season as they will be on Sunday. But it’s just as certain that, whoever wins, will feel a hell of a lot better about it.

Editor’s note: Saturday’s Michigan-Michigan State game will be played in East Lansing, with a noon kick-off and TV coverage on the Big Ten Network.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Liz Nowland-Margolis
    October 2, 2009 at 9:34 am | permalink

    Go Spartans! This Ann Arbor-raised Spartan is wearing her green today anticipating a big win tomorrow! Thanks John for the fun article! Go State!!

  2. October 2, 2009 at 9:54 am | permalink

    Vegas Odds: Michigan by 2 points on Saturday.

  3. By Eric
    October 2, 2009 at 12:02 pm | permalink

    I have been in Ann Arbor for four decades and have watched a lot of football games in that time. Frankly, I think that a lot of people here do not regard MSU as a particular foe: it is simply not competitive with UM academically. UW and PSU are ahead of MSU in that regard. I think big/little brother is the commonplace attitude here with MSU ahead of WMU and Mich Tech but trailing well behind UM. OSU is the greater rivalry no matter what MSU says.

  4. By ed
    October 2, 2009 at 1:51 pm | permalink

    You choose the rivalry that you like the most but, in the end, MSU/UM precedes the others due to the in-state effect and their relation with the people of Michigan and their effect as economic and social drives of the state.

    Also, you must remember, as Bacon said, that UM is not only an opponent on the field but it is also a force against MSU in all aspects. It has been historical. UM doesn’t only try to beat us athletically, but they tried to take the Land Grant for them to prevent the conception of MSU. Then, they were the only school against the acceptance of MSU in the Big Ten. So, this extends well beyond the field.

  5. By Rod Johnson
    October 2, 2009 at 6:11 pm | permalink

    When I was growing up in the Detroit suburbs, there was no UM/OSU rivalry, just UM/MSU. During the Bo & Woody & Ufer years, beating OSU meant a lot, but nowadays it’s kind of hit or miss. UM/MSU, however, endures.