Pick a sports mecca. Any sports mecca. New York? Boston? Los Angeles? Nice try, but this year none of 'em hold a candle to Iron Mountain, Mich.
That's right, Iron Mountain, the hometown of Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo and former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci. It's located in the Upper Peninsula, which was described once by a federal report as a "sterile region on the shores of Lake Superior destined by soil and climate to remain forever a wilderness."
Turns out that report could not have been more wrong, as the former mining town of 8,154 nestled on the Michigan side of Wisconsin's northern border is suddenly in the sweet spot of an impossibly successful state rivalry.
The Milwaukee Brewers are in the thick of the National League Championship Series. The Detroit Tigers are battling in the American League Championship Series. The Green Bay Packers are 5-0 and the reigning world champions of football. The upstart Detroit Lions are the only other unbeaten team in the NFL. In college football, the Michigan State Spartans are ranked No. 19, the Michigan Wolverines are ranked No. 10 and the Wisconsin Badgers are ranked No. 4 in the nation. And we might as well mention the Badgers, Spartans and Wolverines are all either emerging or established powers in college hoops and hockey.
"The best two states, the best place to be in the freaking country is Wisconsin and Michigan," says Scott McGuire, wearing a bright yellow Michigan shirt. "Who'd have thought. If I would have sat down and talked to you at Christmastime and said that Michigan and Wisconsin would be the two hottest places to be, you'd have said I was crazy."
McGuire is spending his Saturday night at Famers Sports Bar and Grill, located just outside of Iron Mountain, having dinner with his family and watching Michigan beat Northwestern.
Famers, the home of the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame, is an easier place for McGuire to track sports than the spot where he used to listen to games.
"I couldn't get Michigan games when I was in high school," McGuire says. "So I used to drive 30 or 35 miles to listen to Michigan games on the A.M. radio. I used to park on the side of the road."
McGuire says Michigan State basketball is big in the area -- because of Izzo -- as well as the Packers. But Michigan and Wisconsin college football and the Brewers and Tigers all have their fans in the area, too.
Sometimes those fans are in the same family.
"I have a son-in-law that is a Lions fan and my son is a Green Bay Packers fan," says Virginia Coombs of nearby Norway. "So Grandma keeps her mouth shut and doesn't root for anybody but the high school kids."
Coombs works at the Iron Mountain Iron Mine, a roadside attraction-type museum. She sees people from all over the two states visiting the area and says there is a lot of buzz about the teams this year.
"Mostly Packers fans but there are a few Lions fans," Coombs says. "Now I'm sure they're all going to get on the bandwagon for the Lions this year."
Watching Sunday football at the Big 10 Sports Bar and Grille in nearby Quinnesec, Scott Theary of Quinnesec has a handlebar mustache and a Detroit Lions hat.
"I'm a Packers fan," Theary says. "I just wear this to irritate other Packers fans." Theary points emphatically to his hat.
Then he says this is best time ever to be a Wisconsin fan.
"I watched (the Brewers) last week when they were on at the same time as the Packers," Theary says, referring to last Sunday afternoon when the Packers were playing Denver and the Brewers were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS. "I hooked up another TV so I could watch them both."
For the owner of the Big 10 Sports Bar and Grille, being in a border area makes things complicated.
"I have to watch what I say sometimes," says Bruce St. Arnauld, a Wisconsin Badgers season ticket holder, about his his mixed-loyalty patrons. "Being on the border, I had to decorate (the bar) around Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin. I have to play the game out here, but in my office its all red."
St. Arnauld expects an uptick in Lions fans now that they are competitive and says that the vibe of the area is wonderful. In St. Arnauld's first year owning the bar, Izzo coached Michigan State to the NCAA Final Four and it was a big boon for him. He says the feeling now is similar to then. It's a help for the whole area, as parts of the "U.P." are losing population.
"We're Brewers fans, we're Tigers fans up here," St. Arnauld says. "So now today we'll use all of that -- we'll have the Tiger game on, we'll have the Brewer game on."
Fans of both Wisconsin and Michigan are loving the success so far, but the two states could be on a collision course.
The Tigers and Brewers could find themselves face-to-face in the World Series. The Packers and Lions already have a huge nationally-televised Thanksgiving Day game on the schedule. And the Wolverines and Badgers are headed for a showdown in the first-ever Big 10 conference championship in football -- if the Spartans don't ruin it for Michigan this weekend.
Whatever happens, the good people of the so-called "sterile region" of Iron Mountain will be sitting pretty.
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