‘Michigan State has always been in Detroit’

By Chris Solari

March 21, 2013

From LansingStateJournal.com

The ties that bind Michigan State’s basketball team to Detroit are long and deep.

Greg Kelser. Steve Smith. Shawn Respert. Kalin Lucas. Some of the Spartans’ best players have come from the Motor City.

“We feel like Detroit IS Michigan State and Michigan State IS Detroit,” junior guard Keith Appling said.

That feeling holds true outside the arena, too. MSU’s reach in metropolitan Detroit extends well beyond sports.

Detroit is home to the school’s largest alumni base, with about 100,000 Spartans who own businesses and serve in the workforce. And the university has made a concerted effort in recent years to establish more of a presence there — with its athletic teams and its academic programs.

MSU returns to its home away from home this weekend, opening NCAA tournament play today at The Palace of Auburn Hills. And Tom Izzo’s team once again will shine a national spotlight on the city and the school’s symbiotic relationship.

“I think they embody what I believe in — the blue-collar, hard-working, factory-type,” Izzo said this week. “I can’t think of a better place to have this at.”

About 25 percent of MSU alumni live in the southeast region of the state.

Ben Erulkar sees them all around him every day. And the Detroit Regional Chamber’s senior vice president for economic development knows exactly the impact they have.

“The first and most obvious way Michigan State benefits Detroit is through talent, pure and simple,” Harvard graduate Erulkar said. “Michigan State produces really smart people. Those folks stay in the region to make their lives and their careers, and that’s a tremendous benefit — probably the benefit we tend to overlook and take most for granted.”

Jena Baker-Calloway, director of the 3 1/2-year old MSU Detroit Center, said the university also benefits from having a metropolitan Detroit presence.

“It’s a two-way relationship, not a one-way relationship,” Baker-Calloway said. “There is expertise within the community that the university wants to make use of as well, along with what university brings there in various disciplines where we are top of the field in terms of thinking and research.”

Erulkar pointed to two cooperatives in particular: The university’s supply chain management school, which helps to guide the resurgent automotive industry, and its agricultural programs, particularly with the recent urban farming initiative to help reallocate land within the city. He added that MSU’s research and discoveries in those areas, as well as others, provide the type of innovation and entrepreneurship needed to re-energize Detroit’s economy.

“When we at the chamber go overseas and promote Michigan and southeast Michigan as an attractive place for talent to come to and for capital to invest in, Detroit is the brand name that people focus on,” Erulkar said. “There’s no question that the state as a whole, and MSU and the educational institutions, all benefit from that.”

‘Terrific experiences’

There is no MSU brand more recognized than its basketball team, and Izzo has made Detroit a major point of emphasis during his 18 years as head coach.

The Spartans have played 16 times in the metro area under Izzo. His record is 10-1 in Auburn Hills, including two NCAA tournament victories in 2000 en route to the national championship.

“We’ve had terrific experiences playing there,” MSU President Lou Anna Simon said Tuesday.

Izzo said the way the city embraced MSU in 2009 made its Final Four trip to Detroit “just a setting of all settings.” Open practice at Ford Field before the games drew more than 10,000 fans. More than 7,000 more jammed into Somerset Mall in Troy later for a pep rally.

“I thought that was pretty sweet with it being in the city,” said MSU senior center Derrick Nix, who that year was a senior and schoolmate of Appling at Detroit’s Pershing High. “It meant a lot to the city, and it meant a lot to the program.”

One example of the emphasis MSU has taken in the region is by opening its Detroit Center in October 2009. It’s a way for the university to introduce itself to future Spartans while helping to contribute in the rebuilding of a troubled city.

More visible now

“Michigan State has always been in Detroit,” Calloway-Baker said, “but not as visible.”

The office on Woodward Avenue adds a central location to the university’s presence in southeast Michigan — the College of Osteopathic Medicine has locations at Detroit Medical Center and Macomb University Center, and MSU Extension programs are available in the region.

The center contains the College of Music’s Community Music School, which offers music therapy as well as classes for inner-city children to help fill the void left by arts funding cuts to public schools. College of Education interns in area schools use the center as a home base, and it also houses offices for governmental affairs, university advancement and admissions.

Another major compoment of the Detroit Center is its abundant space. Staff has reached out to offer a place for neighborhood groups and civic organizations to meet.

“People see East Lansing sometimes as being kind of far away,” Calloway-Baker said. “It makes our faculty and the university as a whole more local.”

All tied to athletics

Bob Hornik says MSU’s success means a lot to the alumni — in terms of pride and finances. MSU’s Macomb Alumni Association president, who previously sat on the school’s national alumni board, has researched a number of Big Ten peers and said there is a direct correlation between athletic success and donations to his group and the university.

“How the alumni association goes is how the athletic programs go,” Hornik said. “Everything kind of ties to athletics.”

Hornik’s group collects money through fundraising events — such as the one it will hold March 27 in Warren with former Spartan basketball star and Pistons announcer Kelser. Those funds go to scholarships for MSU freshmen.

He said there has been an active push in the last half-decade to promote the school more as well, stretching beyond being just a social organization.

Steve Culp, who is in charge of the MSU Alumni of Metro Detroit, was a football manager in the 1990s. He now coaches football and track at Troy Athens High and teaches physical education at Brookfield Academy.

He said the Detroit Spartans — which encompasses alumni groups in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — attend MSU sporting events together when they are held in town, as well as organize watch parties at local bars for games on TV. They also participate in a number of civic activities, such as next month’s tree planting in the city’s Parkland area.

“The thing you see the most and what stands out, obviously, is sports,” Culp said. “But also, it’s about getting involved in the community.”

Izzo said he’s been appreciative of the Spartan support around Detroit and thinks this weekend’s second- and third-round NCAA games — especially with rival Michigan also playing at The Palace — will provide an energized environment.

And, in turn, he envisions it as a much larger positive for a city that needs MSU’s help.

“Hopefully they’ll embrace it like I think they will,” Izzo said. “It’s another way to put our best foot forward as a city and hopefully keep building on what we’re trying to do down there — and that’s to get things straightened out the way they should be.”