By Scott Westerman
“Competition is .. not an act of oppression or abrasion – I’ve worked with my best friends in direct competition.” – Diane Sawyer
One of my earliest football memories is being a boy scout usher at Michigan Stadium on the day when Michigan State came to town. Then as now, the U of M regular season was a run-up to the Ohio State game and Bump Elliot, Bo Schembechler, et al, always hoped that they could escape their encounter with the Spartans of East Lansing to prepare for the annual event that often determined who would go to the Rose Bowl.
Sitting on the hard concrete steps of the “Hole that Yost dug, Chrysler paid for and Canham carpeted,” I contemplated the 101,001 fans in attendance. Half wore Wolverine Maize and Blue and half wore Spartan Green and White. All were cheering at the top of their combined lungs. It was the World Cup with vocal chords instead of those soccer damned horns. And it didn’t stop from the time the teams came on the field, until the last second had ticked off of the clock.
It was said on both sides of the gridiron that, no matter how bad or good either team might have been before that particular Saturday, when MSU met U of M, it was anybody’s ballgame.
Such is the energy surrounding a rivalry.
When I was new to my Comcast job in Albuquerque, a reporter for the local business weekly asked me what I thought about our team competing with QWest, the local old-school phone company.
My response is still used in Comcast’s public relations training as the essence of the inappropriate answer:
“I can’t wait to get into their lunch box and fight over the red meat.”
Truth is, that competition is that “rising tide that lifts all boats”. When it’s healthy, it fosters continuous improvement in the quality / value quotient in a way that benefits everyone concerned.
But the benefits of a great rivalry are often perverted by those who descend into dogmatic dismemberment of the other side. Colleen and I were in a restaurant in Ann Arbor sometime back. When the proprietor learned we were Spartans (I tell everybody), he began a five minute diatribe of tired and discredited shots at the Institution.
Some of this is normal. We wouldn’t be good team players if we didn’t poke some fun at the competition with some regularity. I’ve been known to say that, “When you see someone wearing Green and White, you know they went to Michigan State, but when you see someone in Maize and Blue, they could have gone to WalMart.” But in this instance, it became clear to me that this particular individual was so attached to his team that anyone who supported someone else was a heretic.
I felt sorry for him. Colleen said, flat out, that we weren’t eating there ever again.
Contrast this to my experience in the Land of the Wolverines this past Saturday. The one person that everyone in Ann Arbor wants to talk to is Lucy Ann Lance. Along with her long time radio partner, Dean Erskine, she interviews the great and near great about things that are important to them. Her interest is so genuine and her questions so carefully crafted that she and Dean have built a hugely loyal following in the community.
Like many, she found it mildly fascinating that a kid who literally grew up in the shadow of the Big House would become such a passionate evangelist for the U of M’s chief rival. So she invited me to come down and talk with her about it.
I thought a lot about the message I wanted to share that day. And it came down to this:
The competition between our two Universities makes us both stronger. But if we are to return the State of Michigan, and our Nation to it’s rightful place as the innovation engine for the world… We have to do it together.
Ben Franklin’s message to the Continental Congress that, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” has real meaning for all of us who associate our personal brand with any organization.
The most abundance goes to they who create abundance for others. And we can’t do it alone.
This was brought into clear focus for me when Colleen was diagnosed with cancer late last year, right around the time we were returning to our home state. We instantly wanted the best care we could find. Ad the Cancer Center at the University of Michigan was where we wanted to be.
I regularly wore my Spartan armor when I accompanied Colleen to A2 for chemotherapy. Despite our clear academic alliances, we were both effusive in our gratitude that these exceptional Wolverine doctors were on the case.
The nurses in the infusion center got to know us well, and one day, when I was saying how much I appreciated Michigan medical care, a nurse pointed to the bag of clear liquid that was slowly dripping into Colleen’s IV. “We have some great docs here, but the drug that is saving her life was invented at MSU.”
She was referring to Carboplatin, the real life miracle drug that Michigan State University scientists revealed as an effective cancer killer.
All this was on my mind as I told Lucy Ann:
You can’t have Green grass without a Blue sky.
Ann Arbor doctors save more lives thanks to East Lansing medicine.
Michigan Football Coach Bo Schembechler and Michigan State Basketball Coach Tom Izzo have, together, transformed the definition of student athlete excellence.
And the next renaissance here in the Great Lakes State will be energized by Michigan and Michigan State.. together.
Whatever it is that you do, whatever team you root for, it’s ok to be proud. It’s ok to put lots of points on your side of the board. And winning sure fells a lot better than losing.
But remember, too, how competition has made you a stronger person, and that healthy rivalries ultimately elevate the quality of the game…