Sunday, August 31, 2008

Football season begins...Amen! (plus my own saga of the last 30-plus years of Michigan State football)

The waiting is over... no more suffering through a disappointing Detroit Tigers baseball season. I can officially put baseball on the back burner and say "hallelujah!" to the beginning of football season (in particular, college football). It was a sunny and unseasonably warm day in mid-Michigan (and also the day of my oldest son's birthday party), so I wasn't able to plop in front of the tube and take in the full glory of College Football 2008-Day One, but I did see enough to be quite satisfied. I caught a tiny bit of the Ohio State/Youngstown State game (the Columbus, Ohio version of "Christians being fed to the lions"), then once my son's birthday party had ended (which, by the way, was lots of fun and way more important than football--seriously!), I watched the bulk of the Michigan/Utah game. I must admit to being overjoyed at the Wolverines' demise. (I had the game on in the background while putting together a Lego "medieval catapult" for my son).

I was a little disappointed that my Michigan State Spartans couldn't get over the top against Cal, but I was happy that they at least hung with the Bears and didn't fold up the tent (which is precisely what most past MSU teams would have done in similar circumstances). I like the attitude that this team has under Mark Dantonio (the guys have no quit in them) and the future seems bright for Spartan football. I feel I need to temper my enthusiasm for MSU football's future because I've been burned so many times in the past. I've been following Spartan football since 1977, and it has been essentially one disappointment after another (with enough sporadically exciting moments mixed in to keep me going for another season).

Here is a brief summary of my up-and-down life as a Spartan football fan: 3rd place Big Ten finish in '77 (I attended my first-ever MSU football game that year, a 44-3 massacre of Northwestern) and Big Ten title in '78 (but no Rose Bowl because of NCAA probation)--then coach Darryl Rogers splits town after '79 season. Thus began the Dark Ages of the Muddy Waters era (no, not the bluesman Muddy Waters--this was Frank "Muddy" Waters). Muddy was a good man--a true Spartan who cared about the school and his players--he was just out of his element as a Big Ten head coach (and maybe a little past his prime).

George Perles arrives in December 1982 and brings promise. Indeed, he leads the Spartans to the Big Ten title in 1987 and a victory in the 1988 Rose Bowl. Three years later, in 1990, MSU tied for another Big Ten title. Little did I know at the time, but as an MSU student during this period (1986-1991), I was witnessing the most successful stretch of Spartan football since the Duffy Daugherty era of the mid-sixties. Unfortunately, after 1990, it was all downhill for Perles (once he'd attained dual role as athletic director/football coach, the football program was neglected and eventually punished for NCAA infractions).

Enter Nick Saban (or as some refer to him, Nick Satan): four up-and-down mediocre years (no doubt hindered by scholarship cuts due to NCAA probation) followed by a 10-2 record in '99 (and second-place Big Ten finish). Just as it appears that MSU has turned the corner and found its saviour, Saban bails for LSU. The Spartan Nation is devastated (not to mention mad as hell). Bobby Williams is appointed interim coach and leads Spartans to an emotional Citrus Bowl victory over Florida. In a knee-jerk, "let's circle the wagons" moment, MSU hires Bobby Williams as head coach. At the time, it was a great story: players gather en masse at President McPherson's house and plead with him to hire Williams, and the president does so. (Here is my unsolicited advice for university presidents: don't allow your football players to influence your head coaching hires). Like Muddy, Bobby Williams was (and I'm sure still is) a good man. My understanding is that he played "good cop" to Nick Saban's "bad cop," and I truly believe he cared deeply about his players--I just don't think he was ready to be head coach at the Big Ten level. Midway through a truly abysmal 2002 season (on and off the field), Bobby Williams is let go.

Once again, a new coach heads into town with loads of optimism. For a while, John L. Smith reminds me of the rootin' tootin' gunslinging cowboy that was Darryl Rogers 25 years earlier. After the terrible 4-8 finish of '02 (and all its attendant off-the-field problems) the Spartans bounce back for a solid 8-5 season. John L. Smith is named Big Ten Coach of the Year. Unfortunately, that's as good as it gets under John L. Three straight mediocre finishes (and an inability to beat Michigan, Ohio State, plus an absolutely devastating collapse against Notre Dame in 2006) and John L. is run out of town.

Now Mark Dantonio has arrived and brought some renewed optimism. With the changing of the guard down in Ann Arbor, Coach D has managed to land a national top 10 recruiting class for 2009 (and has re-established the all-important ties to the Detroit area). Will this lead to a consistently competitive program in the near future? Tune in later to find out...

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