The Great Tom Izzo and Yooper Invisibility

During last Sunday’s Michigan State-Michigan basketball game (a gut-wrenching 58-57 loss, at least from the perspective of MSU partisans like myself), television announcer Verne Lundquist mentioned that MSU coach Tom Izzo hails from the “remote” area of Michigan known as the Upper Peninsula whose residents are colloquially known as “Yoopers.” Seems innocuous enough: a broadcaster simply providing background information on a coach’s roots. Except that Izzo’s hometown receives an inordinate amount of attention in national media coverage. So much so, that he may be the Most Famous Yooper Ever. Arguably no other coach’s roots are brought up as frequently, with the notable exception of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s South Side Chicago origins.

Izzo’s considerable accomplishments certainly help drive the interest in his origins and place him in elite company. In 18 years at MSU, Izzo has won over 70 percent of his games while taking home a National Championship in 2001. He’s also won 7 Big Ten Championships and appeared in 6 Final Fours.

When announcers or journalists list these achievements they, often in the same breath, point out Izzo’s humility. His “aw shucks” demeanor leads this reporter to believe that Izzo “seems incapable of uttering an insincere word.” So, too, Izzo is often praised for his generous dealings with the media, a quality often contrasted with the more curmudgeonly antics of other coaches. One writer even considers impregnating his wife again (he already has five kids) just to name that child after Izzo.

Such humbleness, the narrative goes, can be attributed to Izzo’s upbringing in Iron Mountain, MI. As Pat Forde wrote a few years back, “It’s hard to come out of the snowbound, sparsely populated UP with either a soft streak or a sense of entitlement. Izzo has neither.”

Narratives like this—especially those that attribute heroic values to rustic and remote places—usually get my cynical dander up because they oversimplify and smack of condescension. You know, Poppy, those rubes may lack intelligence and culture but they make up for it with real no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, salt-of-the-earth gusto. After all, I’m from the UP, too, and all the snow shoveling I did growing up hasn’t toughened me up one bit: my soft streak is all too evident, my sense of entitlement immeasurable.

But I can’t resist this particular narrative because all of the national adoration that Izzo receives makes the UP visible when it so often feels invisible. Perhaps I see this too much through the lens of my own insecurities, but so much of the UP’s identity involves feeling unwanted and inferior and generates the seemingly contradictory responses of willful isolation (who cares if they ignore us, screw ‘em) and hypersensitivity about being overlooked (how dare they ignore us, screw ‘em). Midwesterners are naturally prickly about being overlooked and perceived as the vacant territory between the coasts, and Yoopers are overlooked Midwesterners.

This may seem abstract and unfounded, so here’s just a short list of slights and indignities that motivate this Yooper inferiority complex:

* The UP, which is only connected to the rest of Michigan by a 5-mile long suspension bridge, was ceded to Michigan in 1836 as a consolation prize for losing the Michigan-Ohio War. Michigan wanted Toledo (!) and got the UP instead.

* Look no further than maps for representations—or misrepresentations, as the case may be—of just how forgotten or carelessly portrayed the UP is. Here’s a compendium of the various erroneous depictions of the UP, but here are the recurring themes: as part of Wisconsin, as part of Illinois, as part of Canada, or just plain omitted (the most popular).

* There’s also a fair amount of intra-state tension. Since the Lower Peninsula is shaped like a hand or a mitten, inhabitants of the LP often do this annoying thing where they point to a spot on their hand that roughly corresponds to their town. This young lady from Lawton demonstrates The Michigan Hand Thing. When someone finds out that I’m from Michigan, sometimes they will ask, “Where on the hand are you from?,” and I’ll politely respond by telling them that where I’m from isn’t on the “hand” and that the “hand” misrepresents the state because I’m from the Upper Peninsula which isn’t on the “hand” and that people from the Lower Peninsula can take their goddamn hands and go fuck themselves for all I care.

* When the UP is recognized, that recognition comes in the form of pity and condescension. For instance, when the University of Michigan had its affirmative action policy challenged in 2003, I found out that UP residents received 16 points on the admission application (for context, minorities received 20). (This was sobering knowledge to say the least: I got affirmative action points and still didn’t get in to UofM. Very humbling.)

* When the UP does make an appearance on the cultural landscape it’s as a no-place, some wilderness where you can fashion your own identity. Michigan State, of all places, recently put on a production of a play called U.P., in which a “disillusioned” character abandons the hollow excesses of LA in favor of the U.P., “one of America’s only remaining ‘Outbacks.’”

* All this lack of respect has led to a Rodney Dangerfield Complex that has, in turn, led to thoughts of seceding from Michigan to form Superior, the 51st state—finally, an independent Outback! This threat of secession occurs sporadically and was kicked around as recently as last summer. (However sympathetic I am to the secession delusion, I also recognize that it’s a pipe dream; as prevalent as the feelings of resentment among Yoopers might be, seceding would be politically unsound and economically insane.)

So it’s this cultural history of invisibility that informs my fondness for Izzo and the role that the Upper Peninsula plays in the media narrative that lionizes him. Former Modern Spectator contributor Brian Phillips recently considered the prominent position of the coach in college basketball, arguing that as a sign of getting older we start identifying more with the coaches than the athletes (which makes us less creepy but also less fun versions of Wooderson). Regardless of the frustrations of aging and the search for a proxy in the sports arena, Phillips’ piece serves as a reminder of how much of our own psychological baggage we bring to our fandom. While I still love Izzo, I realize that at least part of that affection is tied up with my own vexed relationship to the place I grew up, to the place I once so desperately wanted to escape but whose negligible position in the cultural landscape it turns out I’m very sensitive about—so much so that it’s ultimately really difficult to distinguish my own inferiority complex from the one that I associate with the UP.

I used to think that I watched sports for the escapist fantasy it provides, for the chance to get away from myself for a couple of hours. Now, it seems, I can’t even do that.

A very nice piece.

Tom Farrelly.    Mar 8, 11:13 AM    #

Ha! “My sense of entitlement immeasurable.” Interesting about identifying with the coaches more than with the players. I think I have always and still identify most with the spectators and advertisers.

— Emily    Mar 8, 01:55 PM    #

No wonder I act the way I do.

Gene Olsen    Dec 3, 09:22 PM    #

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