MSU Thoughts

Note: This was first written from September 22nd thru 26th, 2005. There have been edits since then, but overall I still believe this is valid.

I: Intro

Officially starting this week (although it’s been going on all month, and there’s many who never left) hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of 18-30 year olds are filling in the apartments, dorms and houses that surround the colleges that are supposed to give them the education to improve their lives. In response:

  • Rents rise in the area, and sometimes outside the area, as landlords try to increase their take between taxes, insurance and city intrusion.
  • Liquor stores and bars prepare for the usual business rush that comes from the infusion of overmonied (and overcredited) students ready to throw themselves into a hard weekend’s drinking
  • Other businesses get ready to escape from the doldrums they’ve suffered through the summer
  • Campuses plan their parking patterns for the year’s football bacchanals
  • Cops start planning overtime, ready to spend their time hunting down “underage” drunks and others.

I’m sure there’s places where everything works out fine, where people go and do more than they ever dreamed of doing. I’m more concerned about one place. A place where I spent (too) much time in college, then another bunch of years profiting off of (paying during this time with taxes and support of local businesses). A place where I believe things have gone horribly wrong, and where things can go amazingly right IF THE PLACE REMEMBERS WHAT MADE IT GREAT IN THE FIRST PLACE.

The problems I’m going to talk about here happen all over. Many schools have similar problems to what I’m talking about. However, I’m going to focus on what I know and have loved: Michigan State University.

Sadly, the school has felt free to trade on its party-school reputation, with predictable results. Seems every time I hear about MSU in Chicago, it’s always in a severely negative light, as if everything bad about Chicago can be traced directly to MSU graduates.

I wonder if any other school goes through this. I once heard a mutilation of the OSU Fight Song by U of M graduates which included the couplet “at Columbus you’re way ahead/when you get straight A’s in Phys Ed;” I have to wonder whether they even feel the need to demean MSU folks when too many of them are too willing to demean themselves for fun and sport.

II: Remembering The Past

When I think of MSU, I think of a school that has always had to scrape for its survival. A school that has always lived in the shadow of Michigan. A school that has always had to seek ways to excel, be noticed, and in ways the other school couldn’t stop.

It has always done its best when it’s gone its own way, as Michigan always did its best to insure that MSU could never compete. Whenever MSU tried to improve itself, there was U of M, trying to stop MSU any way they could.

MSU was always at its best when they didn’t compete directly but worked where U of M didn’t want to go. MSU was started (as Agricultural College of the State of Michigan) when Michigan ignored the wishes and needs of Michigan’s farmers. As Michigan kept to its elitist mind-set, MSU reached out to the rest of the population. When Michigan focused on Graduate students, MSU built up its undergraduate programs and built the biggest dorm system in the nation (complete with classes at the dorms).

And now? Sadly, MSU has seen fit to follow the rest of the universities in their activities. They chase after graduates, starving undergraduate education in the process. They chase after athletic greatness (more on that later). They starve their liberal arts for the sake of their business, law and engineering schools. (Yes, I missed science and Agriculture, but those schools were the basis of MSU).

You know the results. You see it every time they lower themselves to the worst expectations.

III: The Athletic Side

I remember 1987. Perles had promised Michigan State fans a rose bowl in five years, and we got it. Better yet, we won the game; something other Big 10 schools had found hard to do over the past twenty years! The Spartans had arrived, and we thought we were here to stay (yes, “WE.” Remember, universities are chosen by those attending. That choosing of the Universities makes for stronger identities than with pro teams.).

Well, things changed. Perles turned his attention away from coaching and recruiting (and onto the Athletic Director’s job), and the team suffered; with losses to Central Michigan in 1991 and 1992 (and a near-loss in 1993) being the Nadir of his career. He lost his jobs soon after.

But that’s not the worst of it:

If you’re not an Michigan State Spartan fan, you probably have forgotten (assuming you heard in the first place) that MSU won the Rose Bowl in 1988. However, chances are you know that MSU’s football teams used Steroids in the eighties, and that was the only reason for their success. I heard the thoughts frequently enough on Chicago Radio, but when Mandarich wrote My Dirty Little Secrets, one couldn’t even hide behind the idea of “nothing written, everything hearsay.” Mandarich keeps the pegs on himself, but you know he was just the most obvious of a sizable group.

Indeed, it is now considered as fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s (and the four super bowl victories) won their championships from Steroids.

Connection? Perles. He was the defensive coach at Pittsburgh, then moved to MSU to coach during the eighties and early nineties. Indeed, one can believe that Perles had seen the changes coming up and bailed out to MSU (and safety, and protection) before he was stuck on a doomed team with a wrecked reputation.

Understand this, MSU fans: Reputations last longer than winning seasons. Fans remember bowl wins, everyone else remembers what is thought about the school. And reputation always trumps bowl wins; for reputation lasts (whereas bowl championships don’t). Don’t let the plaques fool you; the plaques exist to edify the faithful and that only.

IV: Student “Life”

March 27, 1999: I was on the west side of the Lansing area. Michigan State had just lost their Final Four game to Duke, the eventual champions. And I’m risking a fight with a Notre Dame guy three inches taller than me because on the television screen is a bunch of brats setting couches on fire and bragging on their beating the Police!

Now, I’m aware of the history of MSU riots, and until this date some actually made sense. You had times when the cops were kept from beating up on students, and times when the students went ape-shit on each other. There were also times when a so-called riot was nothing but people having fun, with the “riot” moniker added on as a scare tactic.

March 27, 1999 was sheer stupidity. They lost the game, so they decided to tear shit up.

And worse yet: they continue with this pattern; with the exception being a controlled celebration after the 2000 NCAA basketball championship.

Guess what: I get to hear Radio talk show hosts rip on MSU students and graduates. They’re linked with the worst of the Cubs fans, and when the latest version of March 27, 1999 happens I get to hear thoughts of a preemptive carpet bombing of East Lansing so as to clear the land of all stupid people.

As the “Udder University” always in the shadow of the Behemoth in Ann Arbor, you should know your actions are looked at more closely. Many look at you, hoping to God that you’ll mess up and act like the vicious brats they pray for you to be. It’s up to you to live to a higher standard, NOT DOWN TO WHERE THE HATERS WANT YOU TO ACT!

V: Not Just At Michigan State

I talk about things going on at Michigan State because of my experiences there. However, MSU is not unique in any sense. As Murray Sperber wrote about voluminously in Beer and Circus, similar stuff has been going on at college campuses allover the country. Michigan State, while not exactly the virtuous sister in this (it is cited in the book), it’s not necessarily the worst either. Not only that, but it’s squarely in the mainstream of university decay, according to Sperber.

What the universities need is some changes:

  • Do you really need football? Basketball? Lose the sports, you lose the idiot alumni PLUS a major source of your troubles.
  • If you’re going to let anybody into your halls, have some classes that separate the men from the boys (and the women from the girls). Many colleges used to do this; the idea being to let in people who may not have done well in High School and see how many of THEM belonged in the University.
  • Return the drinking age back to 19. That would remove the obvious difficulty in keeping alcohol away from the High Schools (students hell-bent on drinking will do so; families hell-bent on feeding students alcohol will do so regardless) while reducing the power of drinking on the campuses (since relatively few students will be “illegal,” with the number dropping near zero by the end of the school year)
    (yeah, fat chance I know, but it’s a shot. Have heard many intelligent people suggest this, figured it belonged here.).
  • How much Public money is flowing to the universities, anyway? Some schools might want to think about taking themselves private; as monies from the public sector become scarcer that might be a way to take total control of their future.
  • Otherwise, more funding from States and Federal. Stop using schooling costs as a bar keeping poorer students from education.

I wouldn’t mind seeing MSU dismantle it’s Football and Basketball programs and create classes to weed out the posers from those who belonged in college (one of MSU’s strengths has always been welcoming others, no need to stop that). I’d also like more “In Loco Parentis,” including a barring from school for anyone identified as being in one of those riots they seem determined to start every year. Students seeing their friends barred from school for “tearing shit up” would go a long way towards a calmer, more fitting celebration next time around.

Don Hargraves
August 22-26, 2005,
Last Edited December 2, 2009


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