With last season’s 7-6 disappointment, I have read a lot of negativity and criticism towards the football team on several blogs and message boards. Whether it be from genuine fans or clueless rivals, I fear this discouragement will spread like wildfire the first time a receiver drops a ball. Personally, I have no problem getting fired up for the spring game. But last season, a lot of fans chose not to attend games because MSU stopped winning every close contest. I believe fan support is a huge part of building a successful football program. It attracts recruits, donors, and perhaps most importantly, generates positive buzz about MSU football in the media. It is no accident that some of the most successful programs have the most passionate fans, either because of their success or because of their constant exposure in the media.
One of the collateral disappointments of last season dealt with fan support at home games (see Iowa). After the loss to Notre Dame, the student section struggled to show up. Some fans decided not to waste the time and effort to attend games like Eastern Michigan and Northwestern. Even the Nebraska game was surprisingly bare. For MSU football to remain successful, this cannot happen. We cannot afford to be spoiled fans who only show up for marquee games. The players and coaches who turned this program around deserve more. So in an effort to curb my enthusiasm this offseason, I decided to watch old Youtube videos of past MSU games to rediscover why I am such a diehard fan. Most of all, reflecting on the transformation from the MSU teams of the early 2000s to the present gives me great optimism and excitement for the upcoming season. In my fifteen years as a Spartan fan, MSU football has come a long way.
I officially became a MSU fan on November 7, 1998, at the age of eleven. Ohio born and bred, sitting in the temporary stands at the mouth of the ‘Shoe, I witnessed one of the most unlikely spectacles of sport. As a kid, the NFL, specifically Jerry Rice and the 49ers, consumed my sports interest. But on that night, my father, my uncle (an alum), and I cheered as Michigan State, a twenty-eight point underdog, upset #1 Ohio State 28-24 at Ohio Stadium. I’ll never forget Renaldo Hill intercepting Joe Germaine’s fourth down pass to seal the victory, or feeling the temporary stands shake beneath my feet. Most of all, I remember the pride I felt wearing my green and white in Columbus after beating Ohio State. I was not a Michigan State student, not even a resident of the State of Michigan, but I knew who my team was after that game. Some people cannot explain why they root for the Yankees or the Cowboys. They just do. I cheer for State because I happened to see one life-changing game.
In the years to follow, MSU football suffered Nick Saban’s departure to LSU, Bobby Williams’ (and Morris Watts’) mediocrity, and John L. Smith’s spread offense hype. Admittedly, my love for MSU football deteriorated in my teenage years for many reasons, but I always kept an eye on MSU’s teams. Now fast forward to October 15, 2005, my freshman year of college. In a matter of weeks, John L.’s team shocked #10 Notre Dame in South Bend and lost to Michigan in a heartbreaker at home. My father and uncle got tickets to Columbus for me and some friends to watch MSU play OSU at the ‘Shoe. It had been many years since I had been to a game, and I remember the feelings of ‘98 rushing back. Although I attended college 250 miles south of East Lansing, I wore my green and white inside of Ohio Stadium and felt that Spartan pride. Leading 17-7 with just seconds to halftime, John L. rushed the field goal team out for a 35-yard attempt. OSU blocked the kick and returned it for a touchdown. John L. summed it up best himself in an epic meltdown: "The kids are playing their tails off and the coaches are screwing it up." That game became the turning point of the 2005 season, as the Spartans finished 1-4 over the last five games.
The next season began with the same frenzied hype leading up to the season. On September 23, 2006, MSU was 3-0 heading into a home showdown with Notre Dame. With a sixteen point lead in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame charged back to beat MSU in the pouring rain. It was another devastating loss, but perhaps even worse, was the way MSU played the rest of the 2006 season. The week after Notre Dame, MSU became Illinois’ first big ten win in two years. However, I kept watching every Saturday, while MSU football finished 1-7 over the remaining eight games, ironically notching the largest comeback in college football history to beat Northwestern in Evanston. I will never forget hesitating to celebrate the historic comeback at Northwestern as it crossed my mind that this game could save John L.’s job. Luckily, it did not.
All of us can agree that it would be difficult growing up a Spartan fan in Ann Arbor. I argue that growing up a Spartan fan is far more difficult in Northwest Ohio. The area is split, half root for the home state Buckeyes and half root for That School Up North. Affiliation depends on many things. Other than actually attending one of the universities, the arguments boil down to either, "You live in Ohio . . ." or matter of factly stating "Ann Arbor is closer than Columbus." Regardless of the logic of these arguments, northwest Ohio high schools send many players and students to both UM and OSU. There are strong roots for both sides. Needless to say, growing up a Spartan fan among two of the more
annoying passionate fan-bases in the country is frustrating (note: this argument does not apply to basketball). Common retorts to MSU football range from Michigan fans cheering for MSU like Lakers fans cheer for the Clippers, or tongue-in-cheek comments from OSU fans like "at least MSU’s basketball team is relevant." In the early to mid-2000s, cheering for MSU football in this environment attracted a combination of pity and/or playful amusement. When asked if it was because I went to school there, I regretfully had to reply, "No, I’m just a fan." It was always followed with "How did you become a MSU fan . . . ?"
Now go back to November 26, 2006, the date MSU hired Mark Dantonio. A former Michigan State assistant and Ohio State Defensive Coordinator, Dantonio seemed like the perfect hire. Equally intriguing was his distaste for the University of Michigan. Dantonio placed great emphasis on the Michigan game, placing a countdown clock in the locker room. No longer was it "just another game." At this point, I had never been so excited for any college football season to start. After Michigan lost to Appalachian State to begin the 2007 season, Dantonio commented to reporters that "Maybe we should have a moment of silence for them." I, like many, loved the aggressive approach, but questioned whether it would translate to wins on the field.
On November 3, 2007, surrounded by Michigan fans, I watched Michigan rally to beat MSU in the fourth quarter. Like previous losses, this felt like a sure sign of things to come; i.e., another lost season. However, after an arrogant Mike Hart commented that MSU was Michigan’s "little brother," Dantonio did not back down. He did what no other MSU football coaches in the last decade ever dared to do: he held his ground. Dantonio poked fun at Hart’s height and reiterated his dedication to the MSU/UM rivalry. He sounded like a man on a mission, and amazingly, his resolve softened the blow of the loss. Instantly, I was ready for next season and another shot at toppling UM. Instead of crumbling, MSU rebounded to beat Purdue and Penn State to secure a spot in its first bowl game since 2003.
The next four years saw MSU handily beat Michigan, three of which came against undefeated Michigan teams. I remember tailgating outside of Spartan Stadium in 2009, my first year as a law student at MSU. A Michigan fan confidently told me that Michigan was undefeated and that "Sparty could never beat Michigan two years in a row." I also recall tailgating in Ann Arbor the day after MSU’s victory over Youngstown State under the lights in the 2011 opener. I decided to wear my student section t-shirt to Ann Arbor. After a drunken heated discussion, a random Michigan fan bet me fifty dollars that Michigan would beat MSU at home. He forced me to take his number and text him after Michigan won the game so that he could collect my money.
In all, I could not have picked a better three years to spend at MSU. A Big Ten title, Big Ten Championship game, Little Giants, Rocket, and three wins over Michigan capped my experience. It is a far cry from the MSU of my teenage years. But 2012 was a setback. Some believe it cost us in recruiting or in our national perception. To many Spartan fans, myself included, 2012 felt like 2006, when MSU went 4-8 and further cemented its status into mediocrity. Instead, State went 7-6, beating TCU in its second consecutive bowl win, and losing to UM by two points (recall Michigan players and fans storming the field as if they won the national championship). Now take a step back, and think to yourself if you ever remember a 7-6 season feeling so devastating. In my 15 years as a Spartan fan, I cannot.
I watched last year’s game against Michigan in Ann Arbor with about fifteen other MSU fans. We sat in a friend’s apartment while my brother went to the game (he is a UM student). After the loss, I waited for my brother to arrive back. He emphatically ran up the stairs and screamed "Yes, finally!" smiling with relief. He might as well have said "thank you God" in front of all of us. That reaction is something that sticks out to me as a sign of MSU football’s arrival. UM fans no longer brush off a comeback win like "we only need one quarter to beat you," or genuinely assume that UM will beat MSU year in and year out. MSU is scaring UM fans to death, and those who claim they still only worry about beating OSU each year are lying to you and themselves.
Anyone who is reading this probably feels the same way about MSU football as I do. Waiting for the season to start is like Christmas. Instead of waking up at 5 A.M. to sneak a peek at presents, we wake up eager to crack that first beer and head to the tennis courts. So keep the tradition alive and go to the games in the rain, snow, sleet, or wind and support a team that has given you the opportunity to be proud of your school. Most teams do not have this luxury, and most simply cannot make the turn around that MSU has in the last 7 years. Michigan State football is poised to rise to the level of elite and remain a B1G championship (or even national championship) capable team for several years as long as the right administration is in place. But, the players thrive off of electric home environments and passionate fan-bases. After a rough 2012 full of disappointments, if there is ever a MSU team that needs the support of its fans to help them to victory, 2013 is it. Even with all of the great seasons I have seen in my short time as a Spartan fan, 2013 may turn out to be the most special season yet.