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Michigan vs Michigan State: Roots and ties bind Harbaugh and Dantonio to rivalry

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio learned about the Spartans-Wolverines rivalry. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh spent his childhood engulfed in the series, with an up-close-and-personal view that few have ever witnessed.

Today, they serve as the in-state affair’s best coaching match-up since the days of George Perles and Bo Schembechler. Best in terms of pedigree and potential since then. Despite having just two victories versus Schembechler, who was at UM from 1969 to 1989, and five against Michigan from 1984-1993, Perles helped escalate one of the most storied regional rivalries in America.

Schembechler, an iconic symbol of pride in Ann Arbor, attacked the game with unbridled passion. The rivalry ran deep for him.

Harbaugh remembers those days in the early-to-mid-80s.

He was right there.

“I participated in it, played for Bo and knew his thoughts on the rivalry and the game,” said Harbaugh, whose team lost just once to UM during his five years. “(It’s) a healthy, fair, honest competition.”

Does he hope to one day have the same type of Perles-Bo fire with Dantonio?

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Jim Harbaugh vs. Michigan State in 2015. Photo: Andy Shippy

“I think it exists now, yes,” said Harbaugh, who seems to have a distinct advantage heading into Saturday’s nooner in East Lansing. He lost 27-23 in 2015 due to a botched punt. This year, he has the No. 2-ranked team in the land (7-0, 4-0) and the No. 1-ranked total defense.

On Monday, Harbaugh played it close to the vest, carefully wording every response to avoid any possible misinterpretation of his words. In some cases, he even asked if a question was indeed included in the question.

Nonetheless, Harbaugh said what Harbaugh says about men he respects and/or admires, calling Dantonio “one of the best” coaches in the game today. He echoed similar sentiments during Tuesday’s conference call.

Yeah, they coach opposing schools and have their own place in the rivalry, but they respect the importance of the position.

Sure, there have been a few moments — stakes driven into the ground, both teams having linebackers ejected, even a clock malfunction — that have sparked plenty of competitive dislike and dismay. But, outside of the fan-rivalry and raw on-field emotion aspect, it’s always been about respect among programs.

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Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio speaks with BTN following his incredible win at Michigan in 2015. Photo: Andy Shippy

“You know, it’s always been an intense rivalry, there’s no question about that. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for, you know, really, for Rich Rod(riguez), Coach (Lloyd) Carr, for Brady Hoke and now for Coach Harbaugh — for Jim Harbaugh,” said Dantonio, who has won seven of his past nine meetings with Michigan, beating each of the aforementioned — with exception to Carr — former and current UM coaches.

“I mean, all you have to do is look at (Harbaugh’s) background as a coach — the guy’s a ball coach, there’s no question about that. He’s got his hand print, or thumb, on so many aspects of that football program. You can see that he pays great attention to detail.”

A “very good person,” Harbaugh has earned Dantonio’s full endorsement. As far as rivals go, they’re certainly an ideal pair. Both have won. Both have had their programs at the forefront of college football. Big Ten titles will certainly go through Ann Arbor and East Lansing for as long as both coaches remain at their respective schools.

“I think he’s doing a great job, obviously, and it will be a challenge — this week will be a challenge, as well as the years after,” said Dantonio, who’s in the midst of his first five-game losing streak at MSU.

Harbaugh grew up in Ann Arbor. He’s all-Michigan. Raised that way by his father, actually. Jack was a one-time assistant under Schembechler, a man who Harbaugh holds in the highest regard.

Dantonio had to ask some questions. His research wasn’t too difficult, though. He just had to ask his boss.

“When I first came here, I came here with Nick Saban’s staff, and Nick Saban had been the defensive backs coach and (defensive) coordinator for George Perles,” said Dantonio, a defensive assistant during Saban’s term (1995-2000).

“So I think Nick learned about the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry from George, who learned about it from Duffy and from playing in it — but mainly from Duffy.”

Long considered the greatest Spartans football coach, if not greatest ever at MSU, Daugherty dominated Michigan during the 1960s. He won/claimed three national titles. Prior to Dantonio’s 7-for-9, Daugherty had been the only one to have such success versus the Wolverines. He won 10 times (tied twice) between 1954 and 1969, and then UM ran through the ’70s.

With that said, the immense desire to win every year rubbed off on Saban, who went 2-3 versus UM before departing for LSU.

“So (Saban) had a healthy respect for that rivalry when he came, and basically, it took (me) about five minutes into the game, and I got a healthy respect for the rivalry,” Dantonio said.

It was 1995. MSU trailed 25-21 in the fourth quarter. That’s when Tony Banks took control with fewer than two minutes to play, dissecting UM’s secondary with darts to Derrick Mason and a 25-yard, game-winning TD toss to Nigea Carter.

Those type of moments live forever in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.

Dantonio’s already had some dream moments. The 2015 game. Larry Caper’s overtime game-winning TD in 2009. Harbaugh is looking for his own.

“And you know, I carried that rivalry with me for six years here, as an assistant,” Dantonio said, further explaining the learning process. “So when I came back (as head coach in 2007), it was sort of natural, and I knew that we had to measure up in this state, to be a factor in this state, to be a proven winner in this state — the first thing you were going to have to do was you were going to have to measure up against U of M.

“So we went to work doing that.”

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