Will Michigan Be “The Victors” Again?

Where college sports are concerned, most Michiganians belong to one of two tribes: Wolverines and Spartans. As a result of Saturday’s game, the Wolverine tribe (including me) is in shock, while the Spartan tribe is enjoying the sweet taste of schadenfreude. But both tribes would be wise to consider the truth that the Mountaineers illustrated so vividly for the folks in Maize and Blue: A great history is nice, but if you want to continue to be a winner, you have to be ready to perform today.

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Michigan the football team, much like Michigan the state, has a great history: the all-time wins leader in college football (and winners of their last five games against MSU) on one hand, the birthplace of the American auto industry on the other. Both have had great times: the 1997 National Championship, the 1950s and 1960s when factory jobs were plentiful and paid well. Both have given us great leaders: Michigan football has given us great coaches like Fielding Yost and Bo Schembechler, and great players like Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson and Tom Brady. Michigan the state produced great leaders and innovators like Henry Ford, W.K. Kellogg and Herbert Henry Dow.

But the Wolverines are not the only college football team with a proud past. Michigan State University’s Spartans have had their moments of glory (including beating Michigan on controversial final plays, but hey, I’m not bitter) and the Wolverines’ archrivals in Columbus have won a lot of games as well. And then there’s tiny Appalachian State, winners of the last two NCAA I-AA championships. It’s not like they don’t have talent of their own.

There are 49 other states in this country. All of them have some ability to compete economically with Michigan. All of them have school systems and colleges; most of them have profitable local industries. A large number of them have important advantages that in economic terms are as valuable as a mobile quarterback is in football: 22 states have right-to-work laws that prohibit forced union dues while leaving workers free to bargain collectively, and most states have lower overall tax burdens compared to Michigan.

Which brings us to last Saturday. For all their tradition, all the history, all the great wins, the Wolverines fell to little Appalachian State 34-32 in perhaps the biggest upset in the history of college football. And for the last five years Michigan has been losing ground economically. Michigan lost 220,000 jobs between 2001 and 2006, or 4.8 of its total employment, while right-to-work states increased their payrolls by 6.4 percent. Michigan is losing incomes as well; if the trend of the last five years holds, a majority of right-to-work states will have higher per capita disposable income than Michigan by 2010.

Whether the game is football or economics, Michigan has competitors, and they aren’t scared off by history. If we want to succeed today we have to be ready to compete today.

The Wolverines can still have a good season, but if they do it won’t be because they keep on playing like they did against the Mountaineers, it will be because they practice hard and improve. In particular they will need to stop committing unnecessary penalties that set the team back five to 15 yards at a time. The Wolverines might also learn from and maybe even copy some of the plays that Appalachian State used so effectively against them.

By the same token, if Michigan is to prosper, it will have to improve and get into condition to compete. Michigan could start by repealing an unnecessary prevailing wage law that sets taxpayers back an additional $250 million a year. Michigan might want to borrow a page from the playbook of fast growing-states like Virginia and Idaho by passing its own right-to-work law.

Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32. And among football fans throughout the state, the question is "How will Michigan respond?" Will the Wolverines rest on their laurels or will they do what it takes to be ready to compete next week?

Michigan has been losing jobs for the last five years. And for all of us the question is, "How will we respond?" Will we rest on our laurels or are we ready to do what it takes to compete?


Paul Kersey is senior labor policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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