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Spartans vs Wolverines: Ultimate Michigan Football Rivalry

It’s that time of year again. Whether the temperature is in the 40s or the 80s (this may seem like a huge temperature differential, but in Michigan, it’s the norm) there is a light crispness in the air.

The leaves are starting to change. The days are getting shorter. Those much anticipated weekends at the lake are coming to a close.

But as one season ends, another begins.

“He’s at the 50, he’s at the 30, he could go all the way—Touchdown!”

I’m talking about Fall and football, and if you live in Michigan, football is a big deal! There are Friday night high school match-ups, college game days, and NFL showings that football fans live for.

Football brings people together. It is a common denominator, an activity to focus on and memorialize, and proof that we are inherently social beings.

Michigan Stadium &Quot;The Big House&Quot; - Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michigan Stadium “The Big House” | photo via @slydro

Football shows us the good and the bad; the need to prepare and to practice, the importance of working well with other people, the commitment of support from strangers, and a feeling of belonging and shared experiences.

In a world where we are bombarded with television shows, movies, music, and “reality TV”, football represents all that is real.

In one game, you have people communicating, planning, strategizing, arguing, shouting, smiling, clapping, cheering, sitting motionless, nervous and on edge, high-fiving, running, tackling, throwing, kicking, tripping, out with injuries, in surprise, in danger, in moments of shock and awe, frustrated, elated, sad, disappointed, excited, and spontaneous.

Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it?

House Divided Print On Etsy: Spartans Vs Wolverines
Michigan Football Rivals print available on etsy

So why do we watch? We watch for the thrill, I think. The unexpected can happen at any time. We watch because we have connections to these places and schools, whether it’s ourselves who went there or our family and friends.

We watch for the rivalries. This kind of intense passion and these meaningful stand-offs just don’t exist at the higher levels of the sport.

Here in Michigan, we’ve got a rivalry that has exemplified these ideas for decades. We’ve got the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans.

Wolverines Vs Spartans: The Ultimate Rivalry - The Awesome Mitten
The Michigan Wolverines just before a game. “Taking the field sequence, shot #4” by larrysphatpage is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Spartans vs Wolverines: Michigan Football Rivals

Whether you are a football fan or not, in Michigan we have a few options when it comes to siding with a team. When it comes to college football, you either bleed green and white or maize and blue.

The rivalry between the two schools is a natural in-state rivalry that stems mostly from competition for the same athletes, recruits, resources, academic prestige, and just to be considered the best school in Michigan (who wouldn’t want that?).

Football is not the only thing the two schools compete over, there is also a considerable rivalry in hockey and basketball (okay, so maybe just about anything the two schools can compete for is of the essence).

Wolverines Vs Spartans: The Ultimate Rivalry - The Awesome Mitten
A packed house at Spartan Stadium where Michigan State plays. “Michigan State University – Spartan Stadium” by Tony Faiola is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It’s safe to say that if you live in the Great Lakes State you or someone in your family has a preference between the two schools.

Maybe because you or someone you’re related to went to the school. Perhaps it’s because of proximity to Ann Arbor or East Lansing. Or maybe it’s just something you decided on one day as a kid.

Of course, we do have the random sprinkling of Buckeye or Fighting Irish fans. However, the biggest rivalry lies between the Spartans and the Wolverines. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter which team you cheer for as long as you pick a side and stick to it. We are not fond of fair-weather fans in this state.

Paul Bunyan Trophy
Paul Bunyan Trophy

The First Game: Michigan vs Michigan State

No matter your origin story in the rivalry, it’s safe to say that you weren’t around for the original go-round. The schools first played each other in 1898, a game Michigan won 39-2. The two teams didn’t play each other every year until decades later in 1910, which contributes to Michigan State not picking up their first win in the series until 1913, a 12-7 decision.

In 1953, the rivals started competing for the “Paul Bunyan–Governor of Michigan Trophy” when Michigan State gained full membership to the Big Ten Conference (the process beginning in 1950).

The rivalry in football between these two schools can get very contentious, but the weekend of the games is jovial and entertaining to be sure. The state of Michigan loves football, and that is very obvious the weekend of the Michigan-Michigan State game each year.

A Few Canopy Tents, A Portable Grill, And Friends Make The Perfect Tailgate.
A few canopy tents, a portable grill, and friends make the perfect tailgate.

Top 5 Michigander Tailgating Tips

Not a football fan? That’s OK. Even if attending a game or watching the action on TV bores you, there’s still a way you can partake in the festivities and be a part of that close community. You can go tailgating.

Regardless of who you’re rooting for, the best football games are the ones sandwiched between two bouts—before the game and after the game—of tailgating with family, friends, and food.

Location Matters

If you’re tailgating with adults only, a space near the parking ramp or in a parking lot will likely suffice. If kids are involved, grassy areas are better for football throwing, bean bag tossing, and washers to help keep kids occupied and away from traffic.

If you find a space that you and your tailgating buddies enjoy, make that space your tradition.

Bring a Dish to Share

If you are new to tailgating, this is a tip you should to take to heart. People go to football games to watch great football. People tailgate to eat great food and talk about football.

Don’t be a mooch. Tailgates are basically small community gatherings. Communities thrive when everyone contributes. The best contribution is a delicious dish that is tasty, hearty, and easily transportable.

A tailgate is where you can showcase your best casseroles, dips, meatballs, breakfast burritos, and grilled meats. Think grazeable food. You can’t grill burgers and brats without a grill, which is why I suggest investing in a portable grill.

A tailgate isn’t a tailgate without a little treat of grilled goodness. That said, always be sure to check propane levels before getting to the stadium.


Tailgating is generally an all-day event (you can easily wrack up 12-14 hours during a single tailgate event), which is why it is key to balance alcohol consumption and sober hydration.

Here’s the drinking golden rule: drink what you can handle but also make sure you swig a bit of H2O to keep your body and mind in game day mode. Drink responsibly!

Bring a Wagon

It is worth it to drag along a cooler, extra clothes, and a folding chair from your car to the tailgate spot. Really, anything with wheels is a good idea (a rolling cooler, foldable table on wheels) because you may find yourself walking a bit from your parking spot to the place where you are actually tailgating.

Bringing a wagon for the little ones to ride and play in is a fun idea. Be cautious though, pulling the tots around for any period of time often leads to requests to pull them around all. day. long.

Clean Up After Yourself & Don’t Forget to Recycle

After spending a whole day tailgating, cleaning up after yourself is the last thing you want to do. However, think of it as preserving your tailgating spot.

Leaving it the way you found it means that it’ll be in better shape in the future. This is especially true if where you are tailgating is public or private space. Cleaning up could mean you are allowed back next time. 

Proper cleaning requires a little preparation. Come stocked with two separate trash bags: one for trash and one for recyclables. The recyclables will likely be empty beer bottles and pop cans. We have a $0.10 bottle return policy here in the Mitten.

If you are feeling lazy, you can just leave the bag of bottles. Someone will find it and take it, I guarantee it.

Keep The Kids Occupied And Loving Your Tailgate Spot All Season Long!
Keep the kids occupied and loving your tailgate spot all season long!

What’s your favorite Michigan/Michigan State football rivalry memory? Who are you rooting for this year?

Thanks to Katelyn Sandor, Gabe Aikens, and Joanna Dueweke for their contributions to this article.

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