Friday, October 10, 2008

My Spartan Memories, Volume 1: November 12, 1977

In keeping with the Michigan State football theme that I seemed to have established thus far with this blog, I might as well keep the ball rolling, so to speak. I never consciously aimed to make this a "Spartan football blog," but with our nation's economy in utter shambles, and the election year increasing in intensity and nastiness, my mind really craves escapism lately. For the moment, MSU football is providing that escapism. So why not escape along with me?

I have been mulling this idea around in my head for awhile, and was actually going to start it prior to the Indiana game. However, it wasn't until now that I have finally got around to doing a little feature that I will call "My Spartan Memories." I hope all of my one or two readers out there in cyberspace enjoy it.

Michigan State will be playing the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston tomorrow, so this is a perfect opportunity to reflect back on the very first MSU football game I ever attended. The date was November 12, 1977 and the place was, naturally, Spartan Stadium. I was a nine year-old fourth grader. The game program pictured above is the actual program that I begged my parents to purchase for me at the game. Look closely at the pant legs of the Northwestern quarterback, and one can see the actual stain from the hot chocolate I accidentally spilled on the cover. (Although the photo shows two MSU players about to deliver a bone-crunching sandwich hit on the QB, giving one the impression of Spartan domination, I suspect that this photo was taken during the '76 game in which the Spartans were drilled 42-21).
Allow me to provide a little background. I was literally born a Spartan fan. Both of my parents graduated from Michigan State, and were students during the last period of truly great MSU football in the mid-sixties. My parents were on the sidelines at the 1966 "Game of the Century" between State and Notre Dame. (My father was a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity. Traditionally, DU brings a large bell to every home game and rings the bell for every point MSU scores. So if the Spartans score a touchdown and extra point, the bell is rung seven times). I grew up on stories of Duffy Daugherty and Bubba Smith. (I may share some of these stories in future posts).
Although as a child I was raised a Spartan, it wasn't until I reached nine-years-old that a light switch went on and I became an actual football fan. I had a rivalry of sorts going on with the kid who lived next door to me, who was a Michigan fan. (At the time, we lived on the northwest side of Detroit, a city dominated by the University of Michigan. Spartan Nation, if you think a "blue wall" exists in the Detroit area now, it was really bad in the '70s.). The neighbor kid had gone with his parents to see the Wolverines squeek by Navy, 14-7, earlier in the '77 season. I remember him showing me the football program he'd aquired at the game. I decided that I wanted to see an MSU game, and I'm sure I pestered by parents about going to a game throughout that season (my memory on that particular point is a little hazy).
On November 12, 1977 my wish was fulfilled and I drove up to East Lansing with my mom and dad to watch the Spartans take on the Wildcats. My memories of the day and the game are fragmented now, so just today I researched the game by reading the account of it published in the November 13, 1977 Lansing State Journal. I work at a library in downtown Lansing, so it was easy for me to take some time during my lunch break to investigate the microfilm.
Prior to reading the newspaper account, here are my memories of that game: I'm pretty sure we parked on the south end of campus. I distinctly remember taking a shuttle bus to Spartan Stadium. It was extremely cold that day, but it was at least partly sunny. I received a free MSU raincoat/windbreaker (with a prominent Arby's logo on it). I loved that thing and wore it until it fell apart. As far as the actual game goes, all I remember is that State absolutely hammered Northwestern that day, and the final score was 44-3. I couldn't remember precisely who scored for the Spartans, but had a vague recollection of Kirk Gibson catching a touchdown pass. I remember all of us shivering on the old wooden bleachers of the north endzone, and briefly warming up with hot chocolate. We left a few minutes before the end of the game (on the way out of the stadium my parents bought me the game program pictured above), and I recall, in the warmth of our '75 Valiant, listening to the radio play-by-play announcers describe the [inebriated?] students tearing down the goalposts in jubilation. (Ah, the seventies!).
Here is how reality meshes with my perception (and in some ways contradicts my memories): the State Journal reported that it was indeed extremely cold that day (even by the standards of November in Michigan) with temperatures in the low 30s and a northerly wind of 15 miles per hour. I was also correct in recalling the Spartans' total domination of Northwestern that day, but had no idea of the extent of that domination. The Spartans racked up an astounding 607 total yards (275 rushing and 332 passing). After Northwestern took an early 3-0 lead on a Sam Poulos 37-yard fieldgoal, State struck back with 31 consecutive points. Kirk Gibson did indeed take a pass from Eddie Smith into the endzone for a score. (Gibby crossed the goal line with 29 seconds left in the first half to give MSU a 31-3 lead at intermission). Here's where the memory is a little faulty: I swear that the reason Michigan State couldn't convert their final PAT of the game was because the students were already in the process of "goalpost removal." However, the State Journal makes no mention of this (and, in fact, doesn't mention the goal posts being torn down) so perhaps I'm wrong on this point. (Can anyone out there clarify this?).
The Northwestern team that Michigan State faces tomorrow is undefeated. The Wildcats have won four of the last six meetings between the two schools and easily have had more gridiron success of late than MSU. Since MSU's last Big Ten title in 1990, Northwestern has won three (1995, 1996, 2000). However, when these teams met in '77, Northwestern was an absolutely terrible team. They entered the game winless (and finished the season 0-11). According to the State Journal, the day before the '77 game against the Spartans, a newspaper article was published in Omaha, Nebraska suggesting that Northwestern was on the verge of being removed from the Big Ten. They were to be replaced by the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Northwestern coach Jon Pont was incensed by the rumor and quickly squashed it. (My dad used to talk about Northwestern being so inept that they were going to be forced out of the Big Ten, but I was always a bit skeptical. Funny to see that such rumors were actually published and discussed in '77).
The 1977 Spartans were a good football team. After starting the season a bit shaky, they finished strong and placed third in the Big Ten with a 6-1-1 conference record (7-3-1 overall). The following season, with senior quarterback Eddie Smith and senior flanker Kirk Gibson (not to mention an underrated defense), MSU won the Big Ten title. Unfortunately, due to an extremely harsh NCAA probation, the Spartans were never on television and were barred from representing the Big Ten in the 1979 Rose Bowl. (I don't know if MSU football has ever fully recovered from those NCAA sanctions, but that's something to be explored in a later post). 
My first Spartan football game was a fantastic experience, and is at least partly responsible for making me the MSU fan I am today (for better or for worse). Let me end this post with some stats from that 1977 Northwestern game:
Attendance: 61, 228 (I do remember there being quite a few empty seats that frigid November Saturday)
Northwestern 3 0 0 0 -- 3
Michigan State 10 21 7 6 -- 44
Eddie Smith: 24 attempts and 15 completions for 286 yards passing, 3 TDs (2 passing, 1 rushing).
Mark Brammer (TE): 7 catches for 108 yards, 1 TD
Kirk Gibson (FL): 3 catches for 103 yards, 1 TD
Jim Earley: 7 carries for 83 yards
Steve Smith: 63 yards rushing and 2 TDs (and no, he's not the same Steve Smith who led the MSU basketball team to the 1990 Big Ten title!)
Bruce Reeves: 62 yards rushing
Dan Bass: 15 solo tackles
Mel Land: 13 solo tackles

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