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I was spending another Saturday afternoon watching the Wolverines' 106th-ranked defense play touch football when, out of my frustration, I tweeted "soon Michigan will only have the debate team to hold over State's head."
|Somebody needs a hug, and it's not just Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, getting the postgame greeting from Mark Dantonio.|
Not long after I did so, my friend Kelley, a Michigan State alumnus, informed me that her alma mater actually won the National Debate Team championship earlier this year. She then concluded her response with the phrase every Wolverines fan hates to see: #gogreen.
It's bad enough that grating catchphrase makes me think twice about recycling. Now it's an irritating reminder that it's getting harder to say "Go Blue" in mixed company. The Wolverines haven't beaten the Spartans in football or men's basketball since 2007, and there's no indication that'll be changing anytime soon. Seven Big Ten teams received at least one vote in the preseason basketball poll, but the Wolverines were not one of them. Meanwhile, Tom Izzo's Spartans head into the season ranked No. 2 and are eyeing a seventh Final Four appearance since 1999.
When I was growing up in Detroit, the state clearly belonged to Michigan, with the likes of Gary Grant and Desmond Howard owning the national spotlight.
Today, the state may very well belong to State.
"Before Izzo, we always went back and forth when it came to basketball and then football was sort of all Michigan," said State alumnus and former NBA All-Star Steve Smith. "But now, with Mark Dantonio, it does feel as if we've taken over football, too. I have a lot of respect for Michigan, but right now Michigan's all about State."
Denard Robinson's exploits aside, the truth is these three years under coach Rich Rodriguez have been dismal: His .400 winning percentage is by far the worst in school history, and, after a 5-0 start, Big Blue is teetering on another bowl-less season. As for Dantonio, for the second time in his four years in East Lansing, he has his Spartans in the hunt for a Big Ten championship, and they're headed to a fourth bowl game.
|Magic Johnson wears his Michigan State gear proudly.|
Former State coach Nick Saban might have been able to sneak Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram out of Flint and into Alabama three years ago, but as the Spartans continue to ascend the national ranks, that's going to be more difficult to do. And certainly losing talent to Michigan won't be as routine as it used to be.
Are the Wolverines just in a rough patch, or has the university quietly become the new Notre Dame -- maintaining national visibility based on past performance as opposed to current play? Since winning a share of the national title in 1997, Michigan hasn't exactly been a powerhouse. Pete Carroll's USC teams twice whipped the Maize and Blue in the Rose Bowl, and Ohio State has won eight of the past nine meetings, as Michigan has been slow to recruit speed.
Now, with State football owning a nice little three-game win streak heading into the basketball season, it's hard to imagine a stateside recruit who didn't grow up Blue not thinking about going Green -- especially with regular shots of Magic Johnson cheesing on the sideline of home games.
"Obviously, we are in a really good place right now, but there's still a lot of room to grow," said State's athletic director, Mark Hollis. "We respect everyone in the Big Ten, and we know success at this level can change in an instant if you're not careful.
"Still, we know we have two guys in Dantonio and Izzo who are doing a remarkable job of not only winning games but building the program the right way."
Now, like most every other big-school program, State has its problems. Recently, Izzo suspended guard Korie Lucious, who was arrested in September on a charge of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Dantonio, who last year proclaimed a "zero tolerance" policy for student-athlete misbehavior, has been under scrutiny for reinstating Chris Rucker after the defensive back served eight days in jail for a probation violation (he missed two games).
|Brendan Gibbons of Michigan State hoisted the Paul Bunyan Trophy, given to the team that wins the in-state Big Ten rivalry, last year.|
"Zero tolerance means exactly that," Dantonio said in an official statement. "I have no tolerance for his actions. He was immediately suspended. He has served his civil punishment, and there are other internal disciplinary measures nobody will know about outside the program. Again, zero tolerance does not mean automatic dismissal."
On the outside looking in, especially to a rival, it seems as if the coach massaged his own rules so one of the team's better players could help wrap up State's best record in 20 years. But given that Michigan's football program was found guilty of five NCAA violations this week and still might finish under .500 for the third consecutive year, who am I to judge?
At least State's winning.
Besides, it's not as if Izzo or Dantonio had to vacate nearly a decade of wins, the way the Wolverines basketball program did. The truth is that if Plaxico Burress hadn't shot himself in the leg, Wolverine Nation wouldn't have anything to feel good about in the past year. Not when it comes to its relationship with State.
"I tease the guys like Chris [Webber] and Jalen [Rose] because we are running things right now, and it's fun to brag about it," said Smith, who -- like Webber and Rose -- grew up in Detroit. "I don't know how long we'll be on top, but I do know we have a couple of guys who are working very hard to keep us there."
Will the pendulum swing back? Probably, but it won't be as far in Michigan's favor as it used to be. When I was a kid, the in-state rivalry was more in spirit than in reality. Whenever State won, most considered it an upset. Now, that's business as usual. The only time I was pulling for LeBron James to re-sign with Cleveland was when the Cavs flew Izzo up for an interview.
That's not the Go Blue swagger of old.
I'm afraid that's why I'm feeling blue in a green state.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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