By Scott Westerman
It was surreal.
Our little Michigan State alumni group was enjoying a rare moment of relaxation. Coach Mark Dantonio’s young Spartan team had taken some solid first steps. Game won 55-18. In our second floor corner of the Fox and Hound here in Albuquerque, we were multi-tasking, watching three games, ours. Ohio State’s and Michigan’s. The UofM club used to haunt this comfortable little watering hole, but they chose a different location this season, leaving us and the Buckeyes with the run of the place. Ohio State had disposed of their sacrificial lamb. Our victory was in the bag. Now, every eye was on the pictures coming from Ann Arbor.
We Spartans are competitive. A good friend is fond of saying that his kids that graduated from State ended up making more money than his Michigan offspring. An MSU trustee once confided in me that Michigan State was one of the only places where you could graduate with a 2.5 and rise to the top of your chosen profession. Surveying our little MSU microcosm I could see that both statements were true.
We can also be generous. In our midst that Saturday were two lone Wolverines. One was decked out in his Maize and Blue, part of a mixed marriage with a beautiful Spartan belle. The other was the brother of an MSU grad. We dutifully cheered when the boys from A2 scored and expressed concern as Appalachian State found the weakness in the untested Michigan defense.
But we got a full dose of the Hatfield & McCoy hatred that seems inbred between Ann Arbor and Columbus as the clock passed the two minute warning.
All of a sudden every Mountaineer advance elicited an explosion of cheers from the sea of red downstairs. It was almost as if the Appalachian State alumni had grown by 30, each the most rabid of fanatics, screaming approval at each turn of the down marker.
Then came the ASU field goal. The Mountaineers took the lead again and pandemonium ensued. We green bloods drifted toward the balcony, mesmerized, not by what was happening on the big screens, but by the pure vitriol of what we were witnessing in the sea of red below.
The Wolverines, did what they have done so many times in the past. They marched quickly into field goal range and with six seconds on the clock, the special teams unit lined up to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
1,549 miles away, the New Mexico Buckeyes were screaming their lungs out, as if the noise could be heard as the intended distraction all the way back in the Big House.
The incredible happened. The second blocked field goal of the day. And as the last seconds ticked away an ASU defender ran the ball back, only to be snowed under at the Michigan 20, first by a pair of blue jerseys and then beneath a sea of his adrenaline charged teammates, still perhaps unbelieving at what had transpired: The worst opening game upset in Michigan history.
Meanwhile, back in the Fox and Hound, the Buckeyes celebrated as if they had just won the national championship. From our perch, it looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, a demonstration stunningly out of proportion to the true human drama that had taken place in Ann Arbor.
Ohio State has an exceptional athletic program with a rich tradition of excellence and achievement. If they can win convincingly throughout the rest of the season, they may again have the opportunity to earn a BCS berth. But a big part of true excellence is how the fans behave. True winners are magnanimous in both victory and defeat, remembering that after all, the players on the field are still kids, learning lessons about leadership in the trenches of the psudo-combat we call intercollegiate athletics.
Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that many OSU and Michigan fans have never learned.
I grew up in Ann Arbor. I loved the magic Cazzie Russell and Bill Buntin wove on the basketball court in the 60s. I was proud when Bo brought focus and work ethic back to the football program. But somewhere along the way, the intoxication with sustained success transformed the game. An appreciation for consistent, excellent execution gave way to an addiction to week after week of blow-out victory. Lloyd Carr lost the opener and the cyber-survey at the DetNews.com asks, “should he be fired?”
There are many corners where we could assign blame for this uncomfortable evolution in our athletic psyche. But seeing Ohio State fans exalt at Michigan’s misfortune felt a lot like watching gawkers cheer at the scene of a fatal traffic accident.
It tuned my stomach.