When it Comes to the Stake, Give me a Break!

The handwringing over the planting of the stake Saturday has eclipsed being ridiculous. It wasn’t classless and certainly didn’t warrant an apology.

That Michigan lost handily to Michigan State Saturday was sickening to Wolverine fans everywhere, but the misery experienced by many of them was made worse by what is being called a “classless” show of “poor sportsmanship.”

Regarding the latter reason for Maize & Blue disgust... puh-lease!

To be clear, the overwhelming repulsion over losing another lopsided game to the Spartans is totally warranted.  Michigan was flat out beaten in every phase of the game and seemed to do as much harm to itself as Michigan State did to it.  But the righteous indignation over the planting of the stake is, in my opinion, an example of many on the Wolverines’ side of the aisle being able to dish it out and not being able to take it.

Still, the stake has been such a prevalent topic in the aftermath of the game that Michigan headman Brady Hoke issued a statement Sunday to clarify his team’s intent. 

“I spoke with Mark earlier (Sunday) and expressed to him that we meant no disrespect to his team,” Brady Hoke explained in his statement.  “During our regular Friday night team meeting, one of the topics presented to motivate our team was a history lesson addressing commitment and teamwork in a tough environment. A tent stake was presented to the team as a symbol of this concept. The stake was brought into our locker room as a visual reminder, and one of our team leaders chose to take it out on the field.”

There was an obvious gap between intent and how it was perceived by the opposition. The Spartans added another touchdown to their bottom line in the waning moments of the game to make that clear.

"Throwing the stake down in our backyard out here and coming out here like they're all that. We weren't going to cool off of it," Dantonio said. "It just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point."

Michigan State took issue with the act.

So what!

That doesn’t make it a crime against sports humanity.  We’ll save that guilty verdict in case Michigan’s coaches ever decide to instruct their players to commit 60 minutes of unnecessary roughness penalties.

In retrospect driving the stake was a bad idea for Michigan, but not because it was classless.  It was a bad idea only because the Wolverines couldn’t back up that action on the field. If they had been, maybe the reaction would have been different.That certainly seems likely since the team was demonstrating the type of passion and intensity it was being criticzed for lacking.

Let's rewind the tape to 1987 when then Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh uttered the following words:

“I guarantee we will beat Ohio State and go to Pasadena.” 

There was no shortage of rankled feathers in Columbus after that one, but there doesn’t seem to have been cries of classlessness from the Michigan faithful, and there certainly weren’t any apologies from one Mr. Glenn E. “Bo” Schembechler.

“I won't school him on what to say or not to say,” Schembechler said.  “I'd be more upset if he'd said we'd lose.”

Did Ohio State take that as a sign of disrespect? Sure they did. Their football building was reportedly plastered with the statement. But did their frayed feelings constitute classlessness?  I think not.  That’s just another key moment in a heated rivalry… and a key moment that Michigan fans just happen to widely celebrate.

How about in 1991 when Desmond Howard performed one of the most memorable celebrations in college football history by striking the iconic Heisman pose? That’d almost certainly earn a penalty flag today if witnessed by an official. Was it classless? The answer again is no.  It was another great moment in a heated rivalry… and another moment widely celebrated by Michigan fans largely because of the outcome.

There are certainly other examples. I spoke to former All American tackle Greg Skrepenak today and he mentioned that he too guaranteed victory over Ohio State in his senior year (though it’s pertinent to mention he didn’t like the stake being planted in the ground last Saturday). 

Mike Hart’s infamous “Little Brother” quote after the Wolverines win in 2007 was apparently the impetus for the Spartans sudden desire to really want to beat Michigan afterward, as opposed to just kind of wanting to beat the Wolverines before. 

Or how about Darius Morris directing Kalin Lucas and the Spartan to “get the ‘heck’ off of my court” after the Wolverines dispatched of the Spartans in the regular season finale at Crisler Arena in 2010. 

The reaction to all of these events was decidedly different from the response to the planting of the stake.

Which brings me back to the original point. Such “antics” are hardly “beneath” Michigan. Furthermore they’re not unsportsmanlike.  This one is embarrassing because Michigan lost.  But that type of embarrassment doesn’t require an apology to the opposition.  Especially since that isn’t even the most vivid example of goading Spartans “unintentionally”.  That distinction goes to the skywriting incident of 2013 when the Michigan athletic department commissioned a pilot to tattoo the Lansing skyline with “Go Blue” two hours before a Michigan State non-conference game versus Youngstown State.  No public apology followed that incident though, and Spartan athletic director Mark Hollis seemed get what it’s all about.

"I love rivalry games!" Hollis told Mlive.com. “There really is no apology necessary for something like that. In my viewpoint, I have a little smile in the corner of my mouth. I thought it was a little banter, and it's a great rivalry."

Fast forward this Monday’s press conference and both Hoke and his players, despite the apology, suggested the incident was “overblown.”

I wholeheartedly agree.  The apology seemed to be attempt to appease those whose sense of classlessness would be irreparably violated if they actually heard the things being said on the field play.

So once more, planting the stake wasn’t classless. It was ill-advised because Michigan’s play during the game couldn’t substantiate it. If you're going to do it you better be able to back it up. Otherwise the consequence might be getting an exclamation style touchdown scored on you at the end of a game.

And that wasn’t an example of classlessness by Michigan State.

It was another example of a heated (and lately a one-sided) rivalry.

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