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Published: Monday, 10/11/2010

Spartans prove little brother has grown up

Mark Dantonio became Michigan State's football coach before the 2007 season and in November of that year the Spartans, despite owning a late lead, lost to the University of Michigan for the sixth straight year.

Afterward, UM's star running back, Mike Hart, uttered these now-famous words:

"Sometimes it's just like when you're playing your little brother in basketball. You let him get a lead and let him get excited, but then you take it back from him."

Asked if he really thought of the Spartans as UM's little brother, Hart replied, "Yes, I do. They do, so why shouldn't I?"

Dantonio seethed, not only because the comment lacked any modicum of respect for MSU's program, but probably because he realized that culture of losing, of being second-best, truly permeated his locker room and his fan base.

Michigan was college football's all-time winningest program. Michigan State was, well, the "other" Big Ten team in the state. It had been that way for years if not forever.

So, when Hart's quote was repeated to Dantonio, the then-first-year MSU coach clenched his teeth and said, "It's just starting."

Boy, was he right. With perfect timing - the ascent of his program coupled with one of the darker periods in UM gridiron history - the Spartans have beaten big brother three straight years for the first time since 1965-66-67.

State won 34-17 Saturday in Michigan Stadium in a meeting of unbeaten and nationally ranked teams.

It came just a day after an inspirational message reportedly sent by Hart and displayed near the UM locker room concluded with the words, "Tomorrow, we put little brother in his place."

"I guess my only response now is that sooner or later little brother grows up," Dantonio said afterward.

It has happened, in part, because Dantonio embraced the rather one-sided rivalry instead of shying away from its importance.

"Not that I got carried away," he said with a wry smile and a lift of the eyebrows.

Dantonio has had plenty to smile about lately despite experiencing a rough patch personally. Less than a month ago, he boldly called for a fake field goal that produced a stunning overtime win against Notre Dame. A couple hours later, he suffered a heart attack and underwent a procedure to insert a stent into a blocked blood vessel leading to his heart. He had hoped to return a week ago against Wisconsin but was hospitalized with a blood clot.

He wasn't about to miss Saturday's game and led his team onto the field before adjourning to the press tower to make his calls from the coaches' box.

"It was a great program win," he said. "I'm so proud of what this team accomplished. I felt like this was a winner-take-all game … bragging rights, the conference, moving up in the polls, all of that.

"When we came [to MSU] the goal was to play at the highest level with the best teams. We've been able to do that the last two weeks."

When asked if he sensed the Spartans had physically dominated UM, Dantonio said, "I would never say that. I have great respect for Michigan's team."

That respect should be a two-way street now. As MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, "The tide has changed."

Sparty quarterback Kirk Cousins suggested the last few weeks have changed Dantonio, the man, too.

"Coach has a lighter side to him," Cousins said.

Dantonio, the coach, can afford it. His team is the big brother now.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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