Respect for 364 days, hatred for 1: MSU, UM alums talk rivalry, and smack
Southfield — Despite what you think, what you read, what you hear and what you see on the field that one fall Saturday every year, there actually is a strong mutual respect — and a lot of friendships — between Michigan and Michigan State.
Makes sense, too. A good chunk of both rosters is made up of Michigan natives who grew up playing with and against each other in high school. In the case of Connor Cook, Jake Butt and Jack Miller, they all grew up in Ohio, where Cook and Miller played basketball together. Cook and Butt, once they got to their respective colleges, would spend time together in the summers on Torch Lake.
Then there were those four hours a year, when they played for the Paul Bunyan Trophy — and often, especially in recent years, a whole lot more.
"Out of all those rivalries," said Butt, the standout tight end at Michigan who grew up knowing only about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, "this game really stands by itself. It's built by hatred."
Said Cook, the standout Michigan State quarterback who led the Spartans to two Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl win and a College Football Playoff berth: "Once you get out there, it kind of is about hatred."
It's rivalry week, all right. There's plenty of extra spice with the Wolverines and Spartans both 7-0, and ranked in the top-10 nationally. Michigan State alums Cook and Tony Lippett and Michigan alums Butt and Miller took part in the Detroit Sports Media Association's annual Big Game Tablegate at the Skyline Club on Wednesday. Legendary and retiring Michigan broadcaster Jim Brandstatter, who estimates he's been at 60 Michigan-Michigan State games (from his childhood in East Lansing, to his playing days at Michigan, to his 43 years as a broadcaster) also was in attendance.
The four players kicked things off with the celebratory cutting of the green-and-white cake, assisted by Fox 2's Jennifer Hammond, making the first cut with an axe in homage to the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
It was a couple hours of good fun, which is what the rivalry, which dates to 1898, is all about. Except for the time between the coin toss and when the clock strikes zero.
"The week leading up to that game is nothing like any other week," said Lippett, a Detroit native, who became a Michigan State cornerback turned wide receiver and one of Cook's favorite targets.
"It's kind of like a playoff game. It's just big — a different passion and intensity."
The four keynote speakers' time at Michigan and Michigan State overlapped. It marked a stretch when the Spartans dominated the series. Michigan State has won nine of the last 13 games, three straight from 2013-15 and seven of eight after the infamous "Little Brother" comment by Mike Hart in 2007.
There was a lot of banter during Wednesday's hour-long roundtable, egged on by emcee Eli Zaret, a Michigan alum who playfully dubs the game as, "The arrogant asses and the little brothers." The players' attire seemed to fit that description, the Michigan men in suits, the Michigan State guys in polos.
All shared different memories from games in the series. One of Lippett's favorite memories was a game in which he didn't play. In 2010, the former high school star quarterback served as the scout team quarterback for that week's meeting against Michigan and Denard Robinson. Michigan State won, 34-17, and Robinson threw three interceptions.
"I gave the defense fits," Lippett said with a smile. "I don't want to say it was easy, but it is what it is."
Lippett also enjoyed seeing the football building's countdown clock reset to "365" the following Monday.
Miller, during his sophomore year in 2013, was a backup on special teams, and got called in on kick coverage. He got leveled by a Michigan State player.
"This game's for real," Miller, an offensive lineman, said, adding, "There's something magical about it."
Cook has many positive memories, having beaten Michigan all three times he started — 2013-15.
But one game, of course, takes the cake, 2015, when Michigan State was toast. Cook knew as much and spent time on the sidelines late wondering how brutally he'd be roasted on social media the next week.
Then came the miracle of all miracles — trouble with the snap.
"The greatest play ever in Spartan history," Cook said. "We were so lucky."
Cook celebrated from the sidelines that October night. Butt was on the field when it went down. He likes to tell people that he was the one who tackled Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson. Of course, it was after Watts-Jackson had crossed the goal line for the stunning victory.
Butt could sense something was wrong when he saw Michigan State line up on the punt — all 11 guys were getting ready to rush the punter, nobody was deep.
"We had no answer for that," Butt said. "I just see a sea of white, I'll just never forget how quiet 110,000 fans were. I had my eyes closed. Did that really just happen?"
That's the beauty of the rivalry, which airs Episode No. 114 on Saturday.
Nobody ever knows what's going to happen, the line be damned. Last year, Michigan was a three-touchdown favorite, and Michigan State won. The road team's won five of the last six. There's the weather, the trickery, and sometimes even suspect (or perfect, depending who you ask) timekeeping.
"You've gotta be ready," Butt said. "You've gotta anticipate anything and everything."
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