Sunday, August 31, 2008

42 Years After Their Biggest Game Ever, Spartans Still Trying To Find Themselves

Rich Rodriguez is the fourth head football coach at the University of Michigan in the past 40 years. Mark Dantonio is the fourth head football coach at Michigan State University – in the past nine years.

And therein lies part of the reason why the Spartans have been playing catch-up with the Wolverines for most of the last four decades, when it comes to football.

It’s time for another college football season, and once again U-M is hogging the spotlight. This time it’s because, for the first time since 1995, the Wolverines are about to be led onto the gridiron by a new man. A coaching change in Ann Arbor is truly news; in East Lansing, where it happens more frequently than presidential elections, the shock factor is almost nil anymore.

You have to be pushing 50 (a group that, sadly, includes me) to recall when it was the other way around. A time when Michigan football was in upheaval and MSU football’s foundation was as solid as oak.

“Kill, Bubba, Kill!”

That was the chant around campus in the mid-1960s, when defensive end Bubba Smith headlined those great Spartan defenses, along with linebacker George Webster. MSU football was the bee’s knees, constantly ranked in the Top 20, and often in the Top Ten. Once, it was no. 1. That was in 1965.

The next year, in ’66, MSU played Notre Dame in, some would tell you, the greatest college football game in the modern era. Certainly one of the most anticipated, and maybe the most talked about – at least around these parts.

No. 1 Notre Dame (8-0) and No. 2 Michigan State (9-0) got it on in East Lansing on November 19 that year. And the MSU student body, all week leading up to the game, urged Smith to kill Fighting Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty. It’s still unclear whether the pleas were literal or figurative.

Both teams boasted great defenses, so the 10-10 score late in the ballgame was hardly surprising. Hanratty wasn’t dead, but he WAS out of the game, courtesy a first quarter sack by Smith.

The Irish got the ball for their final possession with 1:10 left, on their own 30 yard line. They would have needed about 40 yards to get themselves in field goal position.

But Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian would have none of it. With backup QB Coley O’Brien in the game, Parseghian chose to run out the clock. Once the MSU crowd sensed what Ara was doing, they launched into a chorus of boos. There would be no resolution on this gray Saturday afternoon. No satisfaction, for either side. A lousy, rotten, 10-10 tie. In the biggest game of the century!



Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, U-M was plodding along under coach Bump Elliott. Their teams were OK. Not great. Not ranked in the Top Ten. Not like Michigan State.

In 1968, Michigan went into Columbus to play their annual rivalry game against Ohio State. They lost to the Buckeyes, 50-14. Late in the game, OSU went for a two-point conversion, despite their huge lead. After the game, the reporters went after Ohio State’s irascible coach, Woody Hayes. Why had Hayes gone for a two-point conversion with such a big margin in score?

“Because,” Woody snarled, “I couldn’t go for THREE.”

Elliott resigned soon after the OSU blowout. His record was a very pedestrian 51-42.

Michigan then turned to one of Hayes’s old assistants to run their football program.

Glenn “Bo” Schembechler swooped into town and was greeted warmly with this headline from one of the local fish wraps: BO WHO?

The unknown Schembechler lasted 21 years on the U-M sideline. And for those two-plus decades, he turned the tables on stable, always-ranked Michigan State. Gradually, it was Michigan that rose to football prominence in the state, and in the country. And it was Michigan State that became pedestrian, winning some, and losing some more. Michigan began to dominate the U-M/MSU rivalry. The November tilts against Ohio State, with Bo going up against his mentor Hayes, were so legendary that books were written about them. Bumper stickers were printed. They said things like “Woody Is A Pecker” and “Oh How I Hate Ohio State.”

Fun times.

The truth of the matter is that Michigan State football has never really come close to the sort of stature and relevance it enjoyed in 1966 when the Spartans battled the Fighting Irish in a game for the ages. They’ve spent most of their time trying to nip at Michigan’s heels. They haven’t been able to conquer the state, so how can they conquer the country?

Dantonio is in his second season at MSU. He came from Cincinnati, a nice little football program, but in three years leading the Bearcats, Dantonio’s overall record was 18-17. If Michigan had hired a coach with such a mediocre resume, Athletic Director Bill Martin would’ve had to enter the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Before Dantonio there was John L. Smith, a fine man but out of place. He lasted four years. Before Smith there was Bobby Williams, even more out of place than Smith. Williams lasted three years. Not since Nick Saban (1995-’99) has an MSU football coach lasted even as long as five seasons. In the world of college football, where it takes a couple years for the recruiting labor to start bearing fruit, those stints are extremely short and smack of poor hiring decisions and un-thorough due diligence.

There’ve been some peaks at Michigan State, but the distance between them is beginning to grow larger and larger. There was a Big Ten co-championship in 1978 under Darryl Rogers. A Rose Bowl win under George Perles, some 20 years ago. A bit of winning under Saban. But Michigan still beats them like a drum every fall.

It’s been 42 years since Michigan State played the “game of the century” against Notre Dame, another fallen program. Mark Dantonio, it wouldn’t appear, has anything tangible in his background that suggests he can bring the program back to national fame.

Of course, that’s what they said about Schembechler.

BO WHO?

1 comment:

Joe said...

You really nailed that one, Greg.