By Ashley Dunkak
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio respects the rivalry between his school and the University of Michigan. He appreciates the rivalry game. He even admires Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.
His feelings for Michigan in general, however, have not changed.
“Just because you like somebody in the family doesn’t mean you like the whole family,” Dantonio said. “I have a great deal of respect for Brady and his coaching abilities, very close with his brother back in the day. Good man.”
“I’m a competitor too, just like our players are, so there are times when I need to stand up and be accountable for who I am and the position I hold because I represent a lot of people,” Dantonio added. “A lot of people have feelings toward this game. I think that’s important to recognize because that’s a part of it too.”
Dantonio has a long history of animosity with Michigan, stemming back nearly two decades. From 1995 to 2000, he was the defensive backs coach for the Spartans. The next three years, Dantonio served as the defensive coordinator for Ohio State. From 2004 to 2006 he coached at Cincinnati, but since 2007 Dantonio has been with Michigan State.
“In this state, I’ve said this many, many times, you either grow up green or you grow up blue,” Dantonio said. “Not too many people are indifferent in that in Michigan, so it’s an exciting opportunity for our players, a great challenge for our players. It always has been. It’s a game that we point to every year. It’s a great rivalry game.
“I embrace the rivalries,” Dantonio continued. “It just gets you going a little bit.”
These season, though, with Michigan State atop its division with a 4-0 conference record, the game carries more weight than simple bragging rights.
“This game means more than just winning and losing in state,” Dantonio said. “It’s an opportunity to really sort of take control of the Legends a little bit or at least push forward. The stakes get higher as we go. I think it’s a national game too because it’ll have a meaning as far as bowl implications and those type of things.”
Topping Michigan not just in Saturday’s game but in the final Big Ten standings and rankings is a priority for Michigan State because the program constantly fights for the same resources as Michigan, which has the advantage of being established as one of the most storied football programs in the country.
“We compete with the University of Michigan every single day, every single week, whether it’s on recruiting, whether it’s fundraising, a lot of different things,” Dantonio said. “I’ve really never thought about it like that because it sort of is what it is, so I just worry about what I can control, and we try and do the very best we can in terms of things we can control, and based on my count right now, we’re up.”
In 2007, Dantonio’s first season, Michigan State lost 28-24 to the Wolverines. The next season the Spartans defeated Michigan 35-21 in Ann Arbor. In 2009 the Spartans won 26-20 in overtime, and they emerged victorious again in 2010 by a score of 34-17. Michigan State defeated Michigan 28-14 in 2011. Last season the Wolverines finally broke the streak, putting the Spartans down 12-10.
Overall, Dantonio has a 4-2 record against Michigan, intensifying the rivalry between the teams significantly.
“I think for it to truly be a rivalry, it cannot be one-sided,” Dantonio said. “It can still be a rivalry, I guess, but it makes it much more competitive. Obviously things take on a whole new meaning … It’s just words. If you can’t back up the words, it’s just empty words and it sort of gets lost in its meaning.”
With Michigan ranked 23rd nationally and Michigan State ranked 24th, the meaning is certainly there this weekend.
Long known for heralding their rivalries with Ohio State and Notre Dame much more than the one with the Spartans, the Wolverines seemed to validate the bad blood between the teams by hiring a sky writer to draw “GO BLUE” in the sky over Spartan Stadium in East Lansing earlier this season. On that topic, Dantonio refused to say much.
“Don’t get me started,” Dantonio said. “What can you say? You know the drill, guys.”