by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The first piece of hate mail I ever received came from a Michigan State fan.

He felt our sports section was giving Michigan too much attention while ignoring his team, the Spartans. The letter went something like this:

“I’m sick of all the publicity U-M and its crybaby coach Bo Schembechler get in the Free Press. How come you never write about the Spartans? How come it’s always MICHIGAN MICHIGAN on the front page and then some little article on State buried inside by the tire ads?

“We’ll see how smart you are after the Spartans kick Michigan’s a– this year. Don’t come begging George Perles for an interview then. He’ll be too busy talking to a real newspaper.

“P.S. I bet you’re too chicken to print this.”

(signed) A Green & White Fan.

At the time, I remember thinking, “Hmm, maybe this guy has a point.” Of course, that point would have been stronger if 1) he hadn’t written the letter in crayon, and 2) Michigan didn’t beat MSU a few weeks later by a score of 31-0.

But that has long been Spartans fans’ problem, hasn’t it? If it’s not Michigan stealing the headlines, then it’s Michigan stealing the game. State just can’t get on top.

Until January 1990. Or so they thought. It looked like a Spartan opportunity

January 1990 was when Bo Schembechler gave up the whistle. What an opportunity! Suddenly the throne room was unlocked. With Bo and his legend out of the picture, Michigan State might grab the spotlight, win the recruiting battles, get the front page, become the BIG football school in the state.

This partly explains why the board of trustees caved in to Perles’s controversial demand to be coach and athletic director. One trustee told me this week, “With Bo retiring, we saw a great opportunity to make George the next dean of the Big Ten coaches. We figured the athletic directorship would help him do that. We wanted to give him one more gun in his holster.”

They never figured he might shoot himself in the foot.

Which brings us to this year. As everyone knows, things have not been rosy at MSU. The Spartans haven’t won a game. They’ve lost to Hoosiers, Scarlet Knights, Fighting Irish, and Chippewas. Saturday is their annual showdown with Michigan, and they are underdogs the way Dom DeLuise would be an underdog to Mel Gibson in a sexiest-man competition. How many touchdowns have the Spartans scored? Two? In four weeks? That’s an average of one touchdown every other Saturday. It’s kind of tough for fans to rally around that.

To make matters worse, Gary Moeller, the new coach of Michigan, is building a legend in quick-drying concrete. He already got the Wolverines to No. 1 in the nation for one week last year. He had the best recruiting class in recent memory. And last month, he became a national smash by calling a long end zone pass play on fourth-and-one against Notre Dame. Touchdown! Michigan wins! Suddenly, Moeller is no longer “The Next Bo.” He is the innovative guy who is turning it loose in Ann Arbor.

And Perles? He still coaches from a bunker. “Too conservative,” critics say. “No imagination. Out of touch.” Poor George. He thought things would get easier. Now, instead of competing with Schembechler, an old general like himself, he is pitted against Moeller, a younger coach who actually uses a no-huddle offense. And he’s losing the battle.

Not exactly what the trustees had in mind. Perles bleeds green and white

I visited Perles this week in East Lansing. As usual, he pointed to the pictures on his office wall — Biggie Munn, Duffy Daugherty — and insisted his only desire in life is to live up to their green-and-white tradition.
“Michigan State is the only reason I’m here instead of working on the assembly line at a Rouge River plant,” he says.

Perles is a big man with thick shoulders, thick enough, it seems, to handle a steroid controversy, battles with the university president, a near-exit to the NFL, and a one-year trial as AD, which is being evaluated right now. Not to mention an 0-4 start. Maybe it’s because he knows, deep down, if he were ever fired, he’d walk away with a ton of money.

A more likely scenario is that Perles might drop coaching and keep the athletic director’s job, finish his career talking sky boxes and TV contracts.
“I would be willing to do anything to get this (evaluation period) over with,” he said when I asked about that possibility. And a growing number of Spartans fans support the idea.

Of course, that might change should the Spartans pull off another upset Saturday. Let’s not forget, they did throw the Wolverines off the throne last year. And wasn’t it only four years ago that Perles and MSU won the Rose Bowl?

Ah, but memories are short, and sensitivity is endless. If the Spartans are 0-5 come Sunday morning, State fans will go into a letter-writing funk, feeling somehow cursed to be second-best again. “If they want to blame somebody,” Perles says, “let them blame me. I deserve it. I’m in charge here.”

A nice gesture, George.

Just don’t give them your home address.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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