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How College Football Rivalries Predicted the Future of American Politics

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Reflecting on political realignment during a Big Ten ass-kicking.

How College Football Rivalries Predicted the Future of American Politics

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Before Michigan’s October 30 football game against Michigan State—MSU was ranked ninth in the country and UM third—I had gotten in touch with an MSU graduate and Kalamazoo, Michigan ICU doctor I’ll call Dave. I was a few months into documenting the University of Michigan’s 2021 football season for my book, The Hot Seat: A Year of Outrage, Pride, and Occasional Games of College Football, which attempts to answer the question of why this sport drives so many people (including myself) to dangerous levels of emotional derangement. Dave invited me and my high-school friend Tim—both of us Michigan fans, with 26 years and counting of watching games together—to his parents’ morning tailgate in East Lansing. (The game kicked off at noon.)

Dave’s dad is such a Spartan fan that when he and his wife retired, they purchased a tasteful cottage-style home in the heart of the East Lansing student quarter. At a house across the street, there were about forty young people drinking and playing beer pong in the front yard. But at Dave’s parents’ place, there were lawn chairs and a tent set up over a big spread of food on a lawn surrounded by nicely tended hedges.

The air was chilly and wet, more misting than raining; the whole day felt like the moment your skin makes contact with the peripheral spray of a shower in a cold house. “Do they go somewhere south during the winter?” Tim asked Dave, about his parents.

“No, they come here and go to basketball games,” Dave said. Dave’s father’s sister and her husband were also there. They owned another one of the houses across the street. The centerpiece of the table, set with “breakfast” food, was barbecued ribs.

Dave’s uncle was a supply-chain manager for a manufacturing company. His dad was retired from Chrysler. According to the most recent statistics I could find, 54 percent of living degreed alumni of Michigan State live in Michigan, as compared with around 33 percent for U of M. Many Michigan graduates take jobs elsewhere in high finance, computer science, media, and so forth—things that put the university on the map nationally. MSU excelled in areas like engineering, teaching, and business administration—disciplines that were often applied locally. They made the state work. But, whatever. I still wanted to win the game.


Basically every college football rivalry is between one school whose fans treat their rivals like hillbillies or townies and a second school whose fans think the first school’s fans are condescending, soft-handed rich kids. The dynamic can exist between a “farm” school and a school for the local gentry, like Auburn–Alabama, or a public school and an expensive private school, like UCLA–USC. Ole Miss fans call their rivalry with Mississippi State “culture versus agriculture.” Even Harvard’s student paper, in my recollection, traditionally describes its football team’s many victories over Yale as a demonstration of “the difference between the ninety- ninth and ninety-eighth percentiles.” When I was going to school there, you could also buy shirts that depicted the Yale bulldog mascot fellating seventeenth-century historical figure and school namesake John Harvard, which was a bit of a mixed message. Does it really demonstrate superior social status that a dog gave you a blow job? I don’t know, but either way, I have one of the shirts.

Anyhoo, the Land-Grant Act of 1862 gave federal public land to individual states in exchange for agreements to set up universities that would specialize in “Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.” These land-grant colleges—including Auburn, Mississippi State, and Ohio State—were often located in the vicinity of older liberal arts schools. The snob versus slob dynamic in college football was destiny.

Courtesy of Public Affairs Books

A more recent phenomenon, though, is the connection on a national level between geography, college football achievement, and political partisanship. Americans’ political preferences have become more correlated with whether they live in urban or rural areas and, for white people, whether they have a college degree. This has been accelerated by Donald Trump’s polarizing nature and has made some states more red (Republican) and some more blue (Democratic) in presidential races. The ones that have gone red, most significantly, are Ohio and Florida. Those that have gotten bluer include Virginia, New Jersey, and Colorado. Universities in Ohio and Florida have won recent national football championships. Universities in those other states have not.

When Trump came to prominence, he solidified the college football belt for Republicans—and he did it by playing to the same feelings that have fueled football passion at land-grant colleges, and in the South generally, for years. His base voters are white people who don’t have a college degree and feel that because of that, among other reasons, they’ve been marginalized and looked down on. And a funny fact is that states whose residents have fewer college degrees on a per capita basis tend to be better at college football. Among states to win an NCAA football championship in the 2005–2020 window, Florida had the highest portion of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree at about 31 percent. That figure is twenty-ninth out of the fifty states.

A somewhat related development is an increase in what’s called “negative partisanship.” In 1980, Americans who identified themselves as either Democrats or Republicans, when asked how “favorable and warm” they felt toward the other party on a scale of zero to one hundred, gave answers that averaged out to just under fifty. That number is now below thirty.

Voters are increasingly motivated by being mad at the other guy, something that is often attributed to social media because services like Facebook and Twitter make it so easy to amplify the dumbest and worst things the other guy is doing. There’s not necessarily evidence that social media makes people more hostile themselves, but it does allow them to see many more hostile statements and interactions between other people than they would have otherwise, which contributes to a general feeling that everything is nasty and bad. This negativity extends beyond politics. As MSNBC host and writer Chris Hayes has put it, the internet is like a pair of supersensitive animal ears that allows us to hear every negative comment anyone else in the world makes about us (or about something we like).

The day before the game, I had met Tim Alberta (of The Atlantic magazine, not my high-school friend Tim) for a drink. In addition to having arguably documented the country’s political polarization more thoroughly than any other writer, Alberta is a native of Brighton, Michigan who graduated from Michigan State. He had made reference to the phenomenon wherein we think the worst of the other guy, referring to “some kid at Michigan State” who “misspelled a sign on ESPN” and was made fun of by Michigan fans for years afterward. I didn’t remember that incident, but I immediately thought about a picture of a car in Ann Arbor on which someone, presumably a State fan, spray-painted the word (?) STAEE after the Spartans’ 2010 victory over Michigan. This item of graffiti has become a canonical image among Michigan fans of a certain age and level of onlineness, and I’ve laughed at it a lot over the years. I’m laughing at it right now! STAEE. In the photo, it even looks like they tried to correct the first E to a T afterward.

Alberta was making not making a one-to-one comparison between the Michigan and Michigan State rivalry and “rivalry” between Democrats and Republicans in contemporary American politics. Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is a graduate of Michigan State, while the pro-Trump chair of its state Republican Party is a University of Michigan regent named Ron Weiser, who, in March 2021, casually listed “assassination” as one of the ways that GOP representatives who voted to impeach Trump could be removed from office. (“While I should have chosen my words more carefully, anyone who knows me understands I would never advocate for violence,” he subsequently said.) It was more that the direction of American politics—its tone and the issues that most deeply animate people to choose the side they do—was predicted by the way Americans have clustered into college football fan groups for decades.

The STAEE photo speaks to a problem endemic in both politics and sports. Despite having ongoing social and professional relationships with a large handful of Michigan State graduates who are to a person smarter, more successful, and kinder than I am, my feelings about Michigan State as an institution mostly revolve around seeing Michigan people on Twitter retweet the dumbest shit their dumbest fans say and do. Or, alternately, in thinking about the MSU program’s low moments from the football rivalry, like the 2011 game in which its team committed six personal fouls, including one called against a defender who grabbed Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson’s helmet and pulled it so his head and neck twisted backwards, grotesquely, while he was lying on the ground after the play was over. After that game, then-MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said dirty play had been the plan: “That’s what we tried to do, sixty minutes of unnecessary roughness.” (He subsequently said he had been “kind of joking” when he made the comment and did not encourage cheap shots.) During the 2017 game, a Spartan defensive back made a choking gesture at a Michigan player who’d dropped a potentially game-saving pass; before the 2018 game, State’s team (with then-coach Mark Dantonio present) did a pregame ritual called “the Spartan Walk” in such a way as to “accidentally” run into a few of Michigan’s players while they were stretching.

It made me mad. I liked when Harbaugh’s teams beat Dantonio twice on the road at Spartan Stadium, in 2016 and 2018, and then at the Big House in 2019 by a score of 44-10, in a season that ended up being Dantonio’s last. He went out on the bottom, as far as the rivalry was concerned. Good! Negative partisanship!


The game was the first one I’d been to during the season that could be described as having an electric atmosphere. Both ESPN’s College GameDay and Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff national pregame shows were broadcasting on location. Tickets were stupidly expensive. I paid $450 each for a pair in the lower endzone. Disgusting.

MSU’s tailgate scene is diffuse but still lively, with many pockets of activity in various parking lots and quads and apartment complexes. Tim and I found something called the “Meijer Fan Experience” near the stadium, which was a banner that read Meijer Fan Experience above what, as far as I could tell, was just a big field of mud. (Meijer is a local superstore chain. West Michigan Republican representative Peter Meijer, a family heir, voted to impeach Donald Trump, which means that he is one of the people whom Ron Weiser was referring to in his “assassination” remarks, which as Weiser has clarified, are not to be understood as advocating violence.) The GameDay set was on a nearby area covered in artificial turf; it was bigger than I expected, with an elevated stage and multistory lighting trusses. In context, it looked like a castle surrounded by peasants celebrating the harvest. In every direction, there were people coming and going and an astounding number of empty beer cans, cups, and other items of trash on the ground. As you walked, you passed between zones of body-vibrating bass. This sensory assault combined with the brain haze induced by the beers in a way I found pleasingly disorienting. I peed behind a shipping container that, for some reason, was part of the Meijer Fan Experience.

Game time approached. Tim and I walked to our gate by passing along the side of the stadium underneath the bleachers. Spartan Stadium has a renovated structure of offices and boxes on one side that looks like an Embassy Suites, but otherwise it’s just two concrete slabs that extend up and up above the mostly nondescript, low-lying, flat, gray municipality of East Lansing. I mean this as a compliment. The effect is to make you think, These men and women are a harder people than we are. No one wants to fight a Serbian.

Inside the stadium, everyone was packed together fifteen minutes before kickoff. In more vertical stadiums like Michigan State’s, it feels like the crowd is on top of the players, and the green of the field and the yellow, white, and green of the uniforms stood out luminescently from the Michigan mudscape. The local pregame hype tradition is that a PA announcer reads a description of the weather, which is usually bad and was, as mentioned, bad on this day as well, which he ends by concluding, along with the rest of the crowd, that “It’s a Beautiful Day for Football!”

I expected Michigan to win. Michigan State was undefeated, but in a flimsy sort of way, with multiple close wins against not-so-great teams like Indiana. Michigan had the better numbers. There had been more rumblings, led by a writer named Sam Webb of 247Sports, that a tantalizing freshman quarterback named J.J. McCarthy was set to assume an even bigger role on the offense. Was he going to be a superstar by the end of the year? Maybe Michigan would win in a blowout. What if it was a blowout? That would be great!

On Michigan’s first possession, Cade McNamara—the older and more responsible player who was still starting at quarterback despite McCarthy’s occasional appearances—threw a pass to a little-used true freshman wide receiver named Andrel Anthony on a crossing route from Michigan’s own seven-yard line. From our seats behind the play, it looked like McNamara was throwing into a maze. There were four Michigan receivers guarded by seven defenders. But it was a perfect pass between two Spartans, past another, and right over a ducking referee. Anthony ran past the MSU defensive backs, who seemed as surprised as everyone else to see him in the game, for a ninety-three-yard touchdown.

Michigan would hit a number of big passes like this in the middle of the field, and the team moved the ball more consistently than Michigan State overall, but the Spartans made more tough, gritty plays. (“Grit” is football parlance for “playing well without looking good.” “Tough” means “gritty.”) Over the course of the game, Michigan settled for field goals after failing to convert a third and seven, a third and three, a third and six, and a third and eight. Michigan State, by contrast, gained first downs or scored on a fourth and one, a fourth and four, a third and three, and another third and three. Michigan violated one of the canonical rules of playing a highly motivated underdog in a volatile environment: you can’t let them hang around. “You can’t let them hang around like this,” Tim and I said to each other.

Sitting to my right was a fiftysomething Michigan State alumnus who said he was a middle-school physical education teacher in a small town near the Indiana border. He was dismayed at how long his team’s quarterback, Payton Thorne, was holding on to the ball. On one play at our end of the stadium, Thorne dropped back, surveyed the field, rolled out to his left, kept looking around for a while, and, if I recall correctly, ran out of bounds. “Throw the fucking ball!” my neighbor screamed.

His wife turned toward him as if to disapprove of his obscene exclamation, or so I thought. “He needs to throw the ball,” she said sternly.

Just before the half, Michigan defensive end David Ojabo, coming from the offense’s left, sacked Thorne near Michigan State’s own end zone while hacking the ball out of his hand with a violent chop. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, coming from the right, jumped on it for what would have been a touchdown that put Michigan up 27-14. But after an extremely long video replay, the referees working the game decided that Thorne had held on to the ball long enough for his shin to have touched the very tippy tops of the grass blades on the field before it came loose. The play was ruled a sack, not a fumble, and the touchdown was taken off the board. It was a devastating decision.

In the second half, Michigan took a 30-14 lead but developed an increasingly concerning problem on defense. That problem was Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III. Michigan State’s new coach, Mel Tucker, had come up with a good solution to the aforementioned depletion of his roster and of the local-talent problem that Midwestern teams face in general. For years, NCAA athletes were penalized if they transferred from one school to another by being required to sit out a year of competition. The NCAA finally changed this rule in 2021, enabling more players to move more freely. Most programs took in a few transfer players at spots where their roster depth wasn’t great. Tucker and Michigan State took twenty, including Walker, who had previously played for Wake Forest.

It turned out to be the right choice for him, as he had the best season of any running back in the country. Michigan’s defensive linemen were good, but watching them try to tackle Walker was like watching henchmen trying to corner Spider-Man. U of M would get a defender in the space where the play was headed, but then Walker would zip laterally ten feet with a sideways leap and suddenly be running full speed into the secondary on the other side of the field.

MSU compounded Michigan’s trouble by sprinting up to the new line of scrimmage after big Walker plays to run another play immediately, often an “outside zone” run, which, to keep it relatively simple, is where the running back and the offensive line sort of casually migrate toward the sideline together before the running back decides where to go. It forces the opposing team to follow the offense and figure out what spaces they have to defend on the fly. Michigan had a lot of trouble with this, particularly because they kept trying to substitute new linemen onto the field in between plays. So a group of giant guys would run on and get set for less than a second before they had to all start running again, and then Walker would zoom by them. There would have been a slapstick Road Runner effect to it had I been in the mood for mirth and revelry.

Walker had five touchdowns in the game, which is too many. Five touchdowns! Come on! I tried to react to each of his absurd runs, as the score got closer and closer, by shrugging my shoulders and sighing magnanimously, as if to say, Well, what are you gonna do? But in my heart, things were bad. “This is not going to be good for the narrative,” Tim said. It was true. Fox was almost certainly updating the graphic that every network liked to show which conveyed Harbaugh’s record in “big games.”

With seven minutes left and Michigan leading by only three, J.J. McCarthy went into the game for McNamara, who was being checked by members of the medical staff. He attempted to hand off to a running back at around midfield, but neither player held on and the ball dropped straight down onto the ground. Michigan State recovered and then took a 37-33 lead. That would end up being the final score. Tim got an alert on his phone for an email from one of our friends on the chain. “Sam Webb can kiss my ass,” it said.

It had been mentally and physically exhausting watching the game. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, I felt like taking a nap. We’d been up since 6:30 a.m., thinking about nothing but football, and it was already starting to get dark. I could not imagine what it felt like to have been playing or coaching under the circumstances, to the extent that instead of being angry, I was impressed by how long Michigan had stuck around and how close they had come to winning. “Hostile environment” doesn’t do justice to the fury of a home team comeback in front of seventy-five thousand people. Before every crucial Michigan down, the PA would play an audio clip that sounded like this: “Bwahhh-AhhUhhh / Bwa-Bwa-Bwa Bwa-Bwa-Bwa Bwa-Bwa-Bwa Bwahhhhh / Bwa-Bwa-Bwa Bwa-Bwa-Bwa Bwa-Bwa-Bwa Bwahhhhh.” I haven’t been able to determine when or how this set of noises was composed. I assume it’s from a movie or song that is popular with teens. But it sounds like a dinosaur coming to get you and is very scary.

When Michigan State made a big play, because of the slight delay created by sound traveling from the other sections, the roar wouldn’t hit all at once but rather came as an escalating shockwave that built and whipped around from the other side of the stadium. (You don’t notice this effect as much at a home game, I think, because you’re also yelling.) Being a visiting fan felt like being on a really small ship that had really angered the ocean god.

During one Michigan third down in the fourth quarter, I took a 360-degree video to document the frenzy. At the bottom of the screen was Jim Harbaugh, a speck in the maelstrom. He was going to be back on the ol’ hot seat. In that moment, from that distance, the idea of blaming one person for the outcome of a football game—which involves thousands of interactions between dozens of players during a three-and-a-half-hour marathon of shifting momentum and randomness—seemed absurd. What is one man against the storm? But when the gods get angry, the people have to make a sacrifice.


This article has been excerpted from The Hot Seat: A Year of Outrage, Pride, and Occasional Games of College Football by Ben Mathis-Lilley. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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