Dantonio, Harbaugh find room for respect in annual clash

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, left, is 1-2 against Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.

No one has ever wondered what the Michigan game has meant to Mark Dantonio.

The Michigan State coach has made it clear, from the moment the teams met in his first season in 2007, that beating the Wolverines would be a priority.

More than once, Dantonio has emphasized how personal this game is and what it means to the Spartans.

The bigger question down the road in Ann Arbor is — does Jim Harbaugh feel the same way?

The simple answer would be, of course he does. How could someone who was a player in the rivalry not? But, at Michigan, the topic of its rivalry with Michigan State is always clouded by its rivalry with Ohio State.

The Wolverines have long insisted it’s the Buckeyes that matter, which, of course, just agitates the Spartans, who have happened to dominate the last decade by winning eight of 10. Add in Harbaugh’s lifeless answers to questions about facing Michigan State and it would seem this is just another game on the schedule.

This week he was asked if there is more emotion playing the Spartans.

“Yes,” he said. “In-state rival, Big Ten opponent. It always has, is and always will be.”

That was sure to fire up the Maize and Blue.

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But kidding aside, how fired up Harbaugh is this week doesn’t really matter. Sure, it’s good for media and fans scooping up every tidbit they can get, but what’s more important to Harbaugh and the Wolverines is proving this year is for real.

Last season, Michigan was ranked No. 7 and lost at home to Michigan State. Three years ago, the Wolverines were No. 12 before losing on the final play of the game at home. The only win in the series under Harbaugh was in 2016 against a historically bad Michigan State team.

Add in the three losses to Ohio State and Harbaugh is 1-5 against his rivals, which is hard enough to deal with, but even worse considering they’re all division games. And that, as much as anything, is why this game is important to Michigan.

“Hmmm, mmmm,” Harbaugh said. “Great opportunity.”

So, no, Harbaugh won’t be pounding the podium or shooting off great one-liners and telling stories of his days as a player in the rivalry.

In his way, he tried to make that clear on 97.1 FM this week when asked if he understood why Michigan fans would be anxious entering the game.

“You’re asking me if I understand?” he said. “Yes, I understand. I grew up in this rivalry, played in this rivalry, coached in this rivalry. I understand it thoroughly.”

Of course, it’s never been a problem for Dantonio. He’s been at the forefront since 2007 when Michigan running back Mike Hart sparked the rivalry into an obsession for the Spartans coach by calling them his “little brother.”

That, of course, fired up Dantonio the next day when he said, “It’ll never be over here. It’s just starting.”

He has run with that, winning eight of the next 10 and reminding the Wolverines of his team’s dominance along the way. In 2014, when Michigan players drove a spike into the Spartan Stadium turf, it just fueled the fire.

The Spartans scored a late touchdown in a 35-11 win, one that seemed meant to hammer home a point.

“I felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point,” Dantonio said in the postgame interview.

Asked to elaborate, he did.

“The little brother stuff, all the disrespect, it didn’t have to go in that direction,” Dantonio said. “Throwing the stake down in our backyard out there and coming out there like they’re all that … it got shoved the last minute and a half and we were not gonna pull off on that.”

That game was the last in the series for former Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Harbaugh was in charge the next season and, Dantonio said this week that things shifted a bit.

“I’ll tell you one thing about the three games that we’ve had, ’15, ’16, ’17, I think they have been played with great sportsmanship on the field, I really do,” Dantonio said. “Everybody’s playing hard and I think that’s good for college football. Well-coached football teams and respect; respect what they have done.”

Dantonio credited Harbaugh’s love and respect for the game for the shift, something that has permeated throughout the program. It also came a day after Harbaugh wondered if we were all done with the clichés that surround the game.

So, at least it’s not all animosity between the teams. Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. But both coaches approach it in their own way and, regardless of records, it will always be a big week around here.

“A lot’s been said,” Dantonio said, “but when you look at it, I think it’s good for college football and I also think it’s good for the state of Michigan. Everybody’s enthused.”

Michigan at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: Fox/950, 760

Records: Michigan 6-1, 4-0 Big Ten; Michigan State 4-2, 2-1

Line: Michigan by 7


Twitter: @mattcharboneau