Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Paul Bunyan Game: A State's Rite Of Passage

Michigan and Michigan State -- the state's great football game -- is upon us once again. Today Michigan's Wolverines host Michigan State's Spartans play on the weekend of the traditional high school rivalry week, the ninth week of the season. Is there a better week of football in the state of Michigan this side of Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie?

If nothing else, there's always room for another great story as it relates to the annual football game between the maize n' blue and green n' white. That lesson wasn't lost on those who attended the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association's (DSBA) annual media day for the 101st edition of the annual rivalry game Tuesday at Ginopolis Restaurant in Farmington Hills. The afternoon was filled with a lot of good-natured ribbing, some candid observations and some great stories and laughs.

Frank Beckmann, Jim Brandstatter and Rich Strenger took up the Michigan cause while Spartan stalwart George Perles headlined the state of affairs for the green n' white. MSU's Sherm Lewis was a late scratch due to an unforeseen circumstance. The luncheon was a lot like a back-n-forth volley to prove state supremacy even before the ball gets kicked off Saturday in historic Michigan Stadium. And one other thing's for certain: There's both no memory and a lot of history that goes into this game when it takes center stage each year. Michigan State hasn't won since 2001; something the Michigan contingent didn't allow to be overlooked. At the same time, the Michigan State faithful are quick to point out that every year is a new year and another chance at redemption, in a very Brooklyn Dodger-kind of way.

Here are some of the highlights:

"I remember in 1983, my first year as head coach, we're playing Michigan up at our place and it's in the pregame when the coaches usually make small talk at midfield," Perles recalled of his first game with Michigan's legendary Bo Schembechler. "Instead, I told Bo, 'I'm nervous (about this game)". He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'You ought to be!'

Michigan won that '83 game 42-0. That was the infamous "We beat the pants off of them" game. When Perles was hired to assume the Spartan sideline, he immediately made the statement after his first year of recruiting that, "We beat the pants off the guys in Ann Arbor!" Of course, those recruits didn't get on the field much in Michigan's 42-0 win, but Perles also remembered something Bo said that endeared the gruff Michigan coach to him.

"When I got hired, he came right into his coaches' locker room and said, 'Boys, the picnic's over!", referencing the fact that Schembechler knew Perles would turn the MSU program into one that Michigan would have to contend with after several dormant years in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Of course, the Paul Bunyan Game -- the axe-wielding figure of the game's trophy -- is more than bragging rights. It's a season's redemption or re-birth. Sometimes it signals the end of the hopeful campaign for the loser. Usually both schools have played Notre Dame and each school awaits their season-ending rivalry game, with Michigan and Ohio State paired up annually and Michigan State's Land Grant Trophy game with Penn State as their season's natural bookend.

"People always bring up Ohio State, but I worried about Ohio State only after we played Michigan State," said former Wolverine tackle and current radio commentator Jim Brandstatter. "It's a game about mutual respect, especially for the guys from the state of Michigan. You have to remember, I played at East Lansing High School. My brother (Art) was a Spartan. My mother was left to wear maize n' blue - as only a mother could - among all those Spartan fans. I was playing classmates out there. To me, there was no bigger game on our schedule."

Perles, who champions his Motor City Bowl game on a near-daily basis, and Beckmann, the play-by-play voice of the Wolverines for 28 seasons, were the center of some verbal poke-n-jab when the discussion of Michigan's bowl prospects arose.

"Would Michigan go to the Motor City Bowl?" Beckmann asked rhetorically. "Absolutely -- as long as they don't have to play Toledo!" Beckmann said with a good-natured laugh. "Seriously, any coach in America would take those extra practices. Michigan's played four good quarters of football this year, but none of those quarters have come in the same game. You better believe Michigan would go. George, did you bring an application with you?"

Beckmann has become a bit of an YouTube sensation, with the emphasis depending on which color shirt you don during this game for his call of the final two plays of 2001's game. Spartan tailback T.J. Duckett caught a two-yard pass for the winning score after the clock was stopped with 0:01 left. The game even has a Wikipedia page titled Clockgate that details the Michigan frustration with the game's result, a 26-24 win for MSU.

Beckmann even goaded Perles to admit his famous pressbox quote from Spartan Stadium in the moments after that '01 game. "After Duckett caught that ball, George Perles walked out into the hallway and said, "Well, I guess Spartan Bob (then MSU's timekeeper) earned a game ball today -- isn't it true, George"

Perles, with a sly grin, replied, "Yes, it's true, although he doesn't get to keep the clock anymore these days," among a room full of laughter.

Finally, Beckmann made no apologies for his unabashed viewpoint of 2001's final two plays.
"We are advocates for our school," Beckmann said with an unwavering tone. "We are the broadcasters for the 12 games Michigan plays, just like George Blaha and Jim Miller (the MSU radio tandem) are for Michigan State."

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries. Cameron's blog, The Write Referee, is syndicated by 27 papers throughout Michigan by The Oakland Press. His second book, Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries, is due in September of 2009.

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