Spartans or Wolverines? Who to pick?
College football season has begun and it’s not off to a great start. As I mentioned in this space last week, the sport is groaning under a multitude of scandals, most glaringly at Ohio State and Maryland where physical and emotional abuse is something that can’t be shrugged off or ignored.
The biggest football programs in this state, Michigan and Michigan State, aren’t starting off on solid footing either. MSU needed a late interception to save itself from being upset at home by Utah State and Michigan’s bus ride to South Bend must have missed its exit as both its offense and defense struggled to do much anything against rival Notre Dame.
This weekend so far has been a reversal of fortunes as the Wolverines pounded Western Michigan 49-3 with the Spartans playing a late game in the desert, where Herm Edwards and Arizona State should prove a stiff challenge.
I couldn’t resist asking this question to my readers: Which team is the one to root for? As I’m sure you know by now, I’m not a native Michigander. I grew up in Minneapolis and it was no choice there — Minnesota has only one Division I program, the University of Minnesota.
Yes, there’s schools that have Division I hockey just like Northern Michigan University does, but as far as straight up D-I schools, it’s just the Golden Gophers.
So there isn’t an in-state rivalry. I’ve also lived in Illinois, where there are two main schools, Illinois and Northwestern, but neither are consistently good at either football or basketball, so there isn’t any hatred there.
The closest I’ve come to an in-state rivalry as a journalist is when I lived in Indiana. I went to school in Indianapolis, a naturally more pro sports-focused city. However, the state can be divided into three fan bases, Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame. At its core, though, it’s between the Hoosiers and Boilermakers. With the Fighting Irish, it’s more of a “love them or hate them” sort of relationship.
Purdue and IU have an interesting rivalry since the Boilermakers despise the other Hoosiers, while the Hoosiers don’t care about Purdue unless they’re playing them.
IU is the flagship school in the state and many residents are literally Hoosiers. Its fans focus on Kentucky when basketball season starts.
Purdue, on the other hand, has this bizarre “little brother” complex, and as an outsider it was funny to watch. Boilermaker backers scream “Pay attention to me!” at the Indianapolis media when they focus on the Hoosiers, and their goal each year is to beat IU. Not to win the Big Ten, but to beat the Hoosiers.
By the way, I’m not saying this to mock Purdue fans. I actually like Purdue. Its official mascot is a train. How can you not like that? I just found it fascinating as a reporter how one side can be so intensely focused on beating the other, while the other pretends the first one doesn’t exist.
So now I’m in Michigan and I’m kind of seeing the same thing. Here in the Upper Peninsula, it seems that there are a lot more Wolverines fans than Spartans and I’m guessing that it’s due to U-M’s history of excellence. So is U-M the football version of Indiana, the team with a long history of excellence, and is MSU the Purdue, the team that has also been good, but doesn’t have the title banners or national following?
From what I’ve seen, there might be some truth to that. U-M is definitely Indiana as the Wolverines consider the Ohio State their main rivals. Also, Spartans fans know what Michigan is up to, while Wolverines backers tend to forget MSU is even there.
However, MSU isn’t desperate for attention like Purdue is and now that the Spartans are becoming a powerhouse on the football field, it seems as if their fans want to make the College Football Playoff or the Rose Bowl instead of just beating Michigan.
The question now is if the Spartan fans can win me over. Looking at what I know about MSU, the arguments that I’ve heard about why I should back them are their “blue collar mentality” and that the Spartans have to work hard to get respect, whereas Michigan is “snooty” and gets props simply for being Michigan.
Another one is that MSU is always underrated and that lack of respect from the media and other teams should make me want to root for them. It’s a “family” in a way and the bond is stronger between Sparty backers than the Maize and Blue. There’s some truth to this as I’ve met Michigan fans who never have lived here, but have never met an MSU fan who didn’t have some tie to the school.
The family feel is enticing since I’m close to mine, but sometimes you want to stray away from home. So let’s look to Ann Arbor.
Michigan’s resume, to me, is basically look what we’ve done. The Wolverines are the all-time winningest program, with multiple national titles and a long-standing tradition of being great in just about everything. It has the biggest stadium in the country with the Big House and arguably one of the largest fan bases in that you can say “Go Blue” in a crowded bar and somebody will probably say it back to you.
Unlike the “family” feel of Spartan fandom, you have an extended family with the Wolverines, which Spartan fans seem to be annoyed about.
Each fandom has glaring flaws, too. MSU is going through a public relations disaster with the Larry Nassar scandal and its fallout and bitterness toward U-M is kind of a turnoff for me.
Meanwhile, Wolverines’ fans seem to always be upset unless a national title is on its way, which reminds me a lot of New England Patriots fans. Ugh.
Also, speaking of the Patriots, trying to entice me by saying Tom Brady went to U-M won’t work. I can’t stand the guy.
Oh, and your famous winged helmets, you got them from Princeton when Fritz Crisler coached there, so stop hyping that up.
However, what both teams’ fans should hype up to me is why I should cheer for your squad. I listed what I know and what your flaws are, but I know there’s other reasons.
You can convince me to be with the minority in MSU, which my wife would probably prefer as an Ohio State fan, or you can convince me to join the majority with U-M and create some marital tension in my home each season, which could be fun in its own way.
So who is it going to be? Remember, I’m the outsider, so make your best pitch and do it quickly.
Because the season has begun and I’m looking to get started as a new fan.
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.