Sunday, April 5, 2009 Updated: April 6, 3:26 PM ET
Cheering for MSU from Ann Arbor
By Mark Schlabach ESPN.com
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan State knows it will be representing more than its school when it plays North Carolina in the NCAA championship game Monday night at Ford Field in Detroit.
The Spartans will also be representing a state and region that have been battered by the country's poor economy, climbing unemployment rates and crumbling auto industry.
"There are a lot of cities right now that have problems," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "But this is ours. This is our big city in the state. So that's why I think it's a little more meaningful for those of us that are from around here."
It's not often the sight of Michigan State playing for a national title would be reason to cheer in Ann Arbor.
Believe it or not, the Spartans' surprising run to the NCAA championship game is even meaningful for the sports fans who seem to hate them most.
Even in Ann Arbor, where University of Michigan fans only seem to dislike Ohio State more than Michigan State, it seems most of the Wolverines are rooting for the Spartans to beat the Tar Heels on Monday night.
"The first four times Michigan State went to the Final Four, you usually had the crowd here rooting against the Spartans," said Ron Dreslinski of Ann Arbor, who sat at the bar in The Blue Leprechaun on South University Avenue on Sunday. "This is really the first time you have Michigan people rooting for them. I think it's because the game is being played in Detroit. They're kind of the underdog, too, which makes it easier."
Imagine that, Michigan fans rooting for the Spartans in an Ann Arbor bar where football jerseys of former Wolverines stars such as Charles Woodson and Anthony Carter hang on the walls.
The Wendy's on Plymouth Road even offered customers a free Frosty desert if the Spartans beat No. 1 seed Connecticut in Saturday night's national semifinals at the Final Four. How's that for an economic stimulus plan?
Mike Gradillas, a UM senior from Kalamazoo, Mich., worked as the bartender at The Blue Leprechaun on Saturday night. He said the bar was packed while the Spartans battled the Huskies. Gradillas said nearly all of the bar's patrons were rooting for the Spartans during their 82-73 victory.
"There were no anti-Michigan people," Gradillas said. "It was all pro-MSU. If it was football, I'm sure it would have been different."
Bo Schembechler must be rolling in his grave.
Even at The Arena sports bar on East Washington Street, which caters more to the town's working class than UM's mammoth student body, Spartans fans are being heard loud and clear. Tim Lawrence, the bar's manager, said Michigan State fans filled the bar a couple of hours before Saturday night's game.
The bar is owned by a pair of MSU alumni and the restaurant hosts the Washtenaw County MSU Alumni Club once a month.
"It's a rather friendly Michigan State bar," Lawrence said. "Even more so now. It's been said 1,000 times, but it's the economy, economy, economy. It feels good for two and a half hours to see a state team doing well."
Lawrence said a large group of Michigan students occupied three tables in the bar Saturday night. They decided to root for Connecticut, cheering each time the Huskies scored. When the group left the bar at halftime, Lawrence said the rest of the crowd gave the group a standing ovation for leaving.
"The only reason they were here was to root against Michigan State," Lawrence said. "Everyone else was happy when they left."
At least a few Michigan fans are sticking to party lines.
Mike Kazin, a 2000 graduate of Michigan, was back in Ann Arbor this weekend for a friend's bachelor party. Kazin, a native of Queens, said he can't stomach cheering for the Spartans this weekend.
"They'd never cheer for us," Kazin said. "Mets fans would never cheer for the Yankees."
Mike Kern, who grew up in Ann Arbor and graduated from UM in 2001, said he can't cheer for Michigan State, either. But his parents, who are both Michigan fans, are hoping the Spartans beat the Tar Heels on Monday night.
"I think with the way the economy is, it's been nothing but bad news around here for six months," Kern said. "People want a reason to be happy. I just can't make myself do it. It's a rivalry. They'd never root for us."
Making matters worse for Michigan fans such as Kern, the Spartans won intrastate bragging rights this season in the sports that matter most.
The MSU football team defeated the Wolverines 35-21 on Oct. 25, its first victory over Michigan since 2001 and first win in Ann Arbor since 1990. Michigan State finished the season with a 9-4 record. Michigan went 3-9 under first-year coach Rich Rodriguez, missing a bowl game for the first time in 34 seasons and finishing with a losing record for the first time in 41 years.
The Spartans basketball team won at Michigan 54-42 on Feb. 10. At least the Wolverines made the NCAA tournament, upsetting No. 7 seed Clemson 62-59 in the first round and losing to No. 2 seed Oklahoma 73-63 in the second round.
"Last year was a bad year," Kern said. "They went 9-4 and we went 3-9 [in football]. That's all we've heard about. They hadn't beaten us for so long."
But for one more night, at least, many Michigan fans will be cheering for the Spartans.
A state's economic plight and its desperate desire for something good takes precedence over a rivalry.
"You can't help it when you're cheering for them," said Mark Sandri, who sat in Charley's bar on South University Avenue on Sunday. "It's almost like you're cheering for the state and region."
And an underdog.
Mark Schlabach covers college basketball and college football for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.