Wojo: Harbaugh ramps it up on Dantonio, stirs rivalry to life

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — This isn’t just about a walk across a football field, a brief confrontation and a scuffed-up Spartans logo. This is about what preceded the walk, and now what could follow.

In case anyone missed the message, Jim Harbaugh made it perfectly clear Monday, 48 hours after the Wolverines slugged the Spartans 21-7, a score that became a footnote to the pre- and postgame fervor. The message is, Harbaugh now has a team that can stand up to physical intimidation, and he doesn’t mind letting everyone know.

It illustrates how desperately Michigan wanted to turn this back into a relevant rivalry, from both sides, as rivalries are supposed to be. Harbaugh cranked it up Monday, accusing Mark Dantonio of “an orchestrated stormtrooper march” when the Michigan State team strode across the field, arms locked, per its pregame tradition. The Spartans pushed their way through a few Michigan players who declined to move, per their new don’t-push-us-around stance.

Harbaugh called the Spartans’ walk “bush league” and an attempt to intimidate, and he wasn’t stopping there.

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“Michigan State locked arms and used every inch of the field in their walk to attempt to (go) through or over our guys in a physical manner,” Harbaugh said. “To call that unsportsmanlike or bush league is putting it mildly. That could have been a real unfortunate incident. As I said, it’s the opposite of B.S. Coach Dantonio said that was B.S., but that’s not B.S. That’s fact.”

It’s also a fact that Michigan linebacker Devin Bush responded by stomping and digging his shoes into the paint on the Spartan midfield logo, a fit of fury that Harbaugh said he understood. It’s also a fact that Dantonio can be seen on video walking behind the line of Spartans with an apparent smirk, and made no obvious attempt to direct anyone away from the confrontation.

Collegiate hubris 

It’s also true that, as real rivalries go, it wasn’t out of the ordinary, heated but mostly harmless.

“I’ve never commented on a coach in the past,” Dantonio said on his teleconference Sunday. “I’m not gonna comment on one now, and the whole thing to me was sort of juvenile, and things are gonna happen in rivalry games.”

In some ways, the misunderstanding was understandable. Dantonio and Michigan State have been accustomed to walking through the Wolverines for a decade, taking digs and toting trophies. But did anyone really think Michigan wouldn’t eventually respond?

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Harbaugh just announced his unofficial arrival to the rivalry, and in the process, fully revealed his unpredictable, competitive persona, the one Michigan fans craved to see. The Wolverines played with punishing power, outgaining the Spartans 395-94. They’re now the team with playoff aspirations, while Michigan State is the team trying to piece together an offense with an injured quarterback, Brian Lewerke.

Rivals often make each other look bad with silly antics and social-media spats. But rivals also make each other get better, to avoid getting embarrassed.

Michigan (7-1) is better than Michigan State (4-3) now, and not just because of the Spartans’ spate of injuries. The Wolverines have rediscovered their toughness, especially on the nation’s top-ranked defense. They also have a quarterback they fully trust, and Shea Patterson can lead not just with his arm, but with his legs and his head.

Dantonio had won eight of the past 10 meetings, dominating several matchups. But Harbaugh is 2-2 against him, and since arriving nearly four years ago, his overall record (35-12) is better than Dantonio’s (29-17).

A thumping victory on the road gives the winning coach certain rights, right or wrong, and Dantonio has exercised those rights before. He’s taken verbal shots and cracked about putting a “stake” in the Wolverines in 2014 after linebacker Joe Bolden tried to plant a stake in the Spartan Stadium turf. It was a desperate motivational attempt by an outmanned team, and ridiculously, Brady Hoke apologized for it after Michigan State’s 35-11 victory.

No apologies needed then, or now. As long as no one gets hurt and fans mostly behave, rivalries are supposed to get prickly. Maybe this was an attempted show of force by an outmanned Spartans team. It might not have been thoroughly premeditated, as Harbaugh suggested, but the timing was curious.

Michigan State responded with a statement Monday that the Spartans were only two minutes late entering the stadium, and refuted claims the Wolverines weren’t informed.

 “As a courtesy, Michigan was granted field access before MSU’s arrival with the understanding from both sides that the U of M student-athletes would leave the field during this tradition,” the statement read. “Michigan was on the field prior to 10 a.m. as previously agreed upon, but when multiple MSU staff members asked both U of M student-athletes and staff members to please move off the field for the pregame field walk, this did not occur.”

I really don’t think we need to break it down any further. The Michigan players could’ve moved and the Michigan State players could’ve unlocked their arms briefly to let their opponents pass. In the grand scheme, it wasn’t big and ugly, more symbolic than anything.

"I see where they used the word 'juvenile,'” Harbaugh said. “That's trying to brush it under the carpet. Their strength coaches were out there leading it, their assistant coaches were out there. Coach Dantonio was right behind it. That had all the ear-markings and evidence of an orchestrated stormtrooper march.”

Launching darts

Yep, it’s back on. Now, both sides will spend time complaining about slights and sportsmanship. Chase Winovich dropped the “little brother” slam again, a high crime and misdemeanor in East Lansing, but not any worse than a decade of verbal and physical jabs thrown by the Spartans.

Instead of pinning blame, which is pointless in true rivalries, it’s better to identify motives. I don’t think Dantonio was trying to stir up the Wolverines. I think he was trying to stir up his own team and came across the wrong guy, Bush.

Clearly there was gamesmanship on both sides, and when that happens, the winning team wants everyone to know. After seeing the video that clearly shows Dantonio on the field, Harbaugh was even more convinced it was orchestrated.

If it was, it was fruitless. If it wasn’t, it helped relight the rivalry anyhow. The Wolverines celebrated like you’re supposed to celebrate after a big victory, carrying the Paul Bunyan Trophy around the field and jumping up and down at midfield.

The Spartans weren’t used to seeing that and the Wolverines weren’t accustomed to showing that. Hate is a strong word, but there’s now evidence both sides harbor it. From this point forward, I doubt anyone will hold back their true emotions anymore.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski