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Michigan State: the emotionally stunted bad boy of B1G football

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Seriously: What the fuck Sparty?

By the late 80s, the “secret” of the Nebraska weight room was no longer really a secret.

“Little brother.”

It’s rare for two words to encapsulate so much. Michigan State has long built a self-identity out of resenting their place vis-a-vis MIchigan and using it as fuel. While the payoff has been more on the hoops side, it’s been good for football too. Since George Perles made his first bowl game, the only time Sparty has gone bowl-less in successive years was 1991-1992.

Oh, looks like I forgot about 2004-2006. I suck. How shall I punish myself?

I’ve got it:

Anyway, what’s annoying as shit is a team that has had a pretty good run of success but won’t stop playing the underdog card. That is MSU to a T. Nobody grinds an axe like Sparty, so Sparty should be hated.

Thesis:

Over the last forty years or so, MSU is basically the Washington of the B1G: a school that

  • is NOT a “traditional power”
  • is still an established program with plenty more built-in advantages than most everybody else in their conference
  • typically cuts tons of corners trying to displace the traditional power(s)
  • had a fair amount of success
  • and deserves your hatred for their hypocrisy in alternatively puffing their chest out at their rival-slaying when it suits them while also playing the “everybody cheats, don’t take it out on lil’ ol’ us” rationalization when convenient.

Honestly, the closest parallel is probably Colorado under Bill McCartney.* But Sparty, unlike Washington and Colorado didn’t win a natty, and also hasn’t had the sustained valleys those two programs have faced at times. Thus, MSU has been more continuously relevant, but also less successful at the highest level. For B1G fans, this is really the worst of all worlds, and, again, Sparty deserves your hate.

[*How surprised would you have been if Dantonio had founded some sort of dudes-only, back-to-nature Christian fellowship organization? You know I’m right.]

***

Iowa fans my age love to talk about how the 1981 team ended the Big Two, Little Eight era in the B1G. Aside from a couple of other asterisks,* those making this claim usually don’t mention that Sparty would have made the Rose Bowl in 1978 given their head-to-head win over co-champ Michigan, but for being on probation. And 1978 was only a few years after Duffy Daugherty left. For all the “Big 2, Little 8” talk, Michigan State has usually been good. And yet they won’t shut up about being the underdog, as if there was some collective solidarity among the rest of the B1G.

[*You didn’t have to play Ohio State, you won the convoluted “sucked for so long the other team made a Rose Bowl more recently” tiebreaker, and you were drubbed 28-0 in the Rose Bowl. Great work Hawkeyes!% (Andre Tippett was a fucking stud, though, I’ll give you that.) I’m just grateful Barry Alvarez spent time at Notre Dame so he learned how to prepare for bowl games. (No, typing that last sentence was NOT fun.)]
[%Yes, my 1981-based lead-in was just an excuse to take a shot at Iowa. They were good last year so their preview is still a couple of months off. Couldn’t hold the hate in that long.]

And, as consistent as the tides, whenever they’re good, they do it with a collection of future draft busts, knuckleheads, or both, that Sparty fans love to hand wave away. Observe:

  • The defensive stalwart of the ‘78 Spartans would wash out of the NFL without making much of an impact and was dead at age 30, killing himself after a couple of criminal convictions and being named as the chief suspect in two armed robberies of convenience stores.
  • I will not speak ill of Lorenzo White, the star of the 1987 Spartans, who did the B1G proud by actually winning the Rose Bowl. However, his running lanes were often opened by the gentleman pictured above, basically the John L. Smith of O-line prospects, and the defensive leader had a promising NFL career ruined by a moped accident during training camp.*
[*Which did really suck. Truly fantastic college LB. Playing in a 4-3 under the tutelage of the guy who helped Bud Carson create the Steel Curtain formed the ideal situation for an MLB wrecking ball. 15 solo tackles in that Rose Bowl is a Pantheon-level performance...Oh shit, that Rose Bowl was against the Trojans! And the Romans built the Pantheon!! Those are the decadent elites (almost as bad as Michigan) that we Spartans must hate. We feed only on black soup and perceived slights.]
  • Nick Saban rebuilt MSU following the lean later years of the Perles era. He didn’t stick around long enough to win a B1G championship, but the 1999 team was very good, led by an outstanding receiver who later accidentally shot himself, resulting in a prison stint that cost him a great shot at 10,000 receiving yards* and, likely, a bust in Canton. Noted defensive genius Saban produced two first-round picks on that side of the ball while at MSU. One of them, Julian Peterson, had a great pro career. The other, Dimitrius Underwood, did not. Underwood had real, and severe, problems in his life, and I don’t wish to mock him. However, how believable is it that those problems were unknown while he was in East Lansing? More likely, it seems, is that Saban was utilizing the hard-edged utilitarian logic of Don James, head coach during Saban’s playing days at Kent State, and the man who first hired Saban as a coach.**
[*10,000 yards receiving is less of an accomplishment than it once was, but Burress would’ve joined Muhsin Muhammad, Derrick Mason, and Andre Rison (we’ll just take a pass on him as this article is too long as it is) as Spartans who hit that threshold. Of course, none of those guys were as decorated in college, or drafted as high, as Charles Rogers, but that’s a different can of worms. Bottom line: SPARTY USUALLY HAS A LOT OF TALENT! That’s why all the “little brother” chafing is so fucking annoying. You’re not Indiana. Stop whining.]
[**James, of course, went on to win a national title in 1991 at Washington with an uber-talented squad that everybody knew would end with the Huskies on probation. The totally foreseeable “lack of institutional control” determination was handed down a couple of years later, effectively ending James’ coaching career when, foreshadowing a future Spartan head coach, he tried to save face by resigning in a huff.]
  • But, really, Mark Dantonio turned this shit into an art. Instead of a moped accident, one of the talented defenders he sent to the pros settled on “ATV accident” as career-derailing-mishap-of-choice. Pairing this with a series of crimes and a prison sentence demonstrates that Dantonio-era defenders combined the off-the-field achievements of multiple past Sparty greats into a single package!*
[*But surely, in keeping with the self-image of Spartan fans, this player was a plucky underdog who was “coached up” to greatness, right? Nope. 5-star recruit. 2nd highest ranked player nationally at his position. MICHIGAN STATE IS NOT SOME FUCKING UNDERDOG AND THAT NARRATIVE IS BULLSHIT WANKERY.]

It couldn’t be that the taciturn-emphasizer-of-fundamental-soundness Mark Dantonio was running a renegade program, right? OF COURSE IT WAS! While Jim Tressel:Mark Dantonio is not exactly equivalent to Don James:Nick Saban, you already know my point here, and you know it’s not a reach.* Just because you adopt a stern countenance and mouth platitudes about caring for the players as people doesn’t mean you actually do.

[Points in Dantonio’s favor: 1) He didn’t teach some bullshit class about leadership, 2) He will never be part of a 30 for 30 documentary meant to atone for throwing a troubled, talented player under the bus...only after doing everything you could to pretend said troubles didn’t exist. Points in Tressel’s favor: 1) His default with the media wasn’t “absolute prick”; 2) Hold on, I’ll think of something...]

Dantonio was good at playing the role, but suffice it to say that putting a player on the field less than 72 hours after he was released from jail—for violating parole owing to a different criminal offense—is pretty strong evidence that, in East Lansing, fundamentals and the “right way” apply only to the on-the-field product.* Fortunately, getting housed 37-6 was totally worth the bad PR. And, according to Dantonio’s pretzel logic, this was consistent with a “zero tolerance” policy.

[*Actual quote from Dantonio defending his decision: “I will try to do the best I can for each individual player that’s here and their families. I think that’s what they signed up for. They didn’t sign up to come here and go 11-1. They signed up because they felt I would take care of their sons — I would try and take their sons and mold them into a productive member in society.”
Just the fucking worst.]

After this hit parade, it almost serves as comic relief that Dantonio’s two best offensive players are guys who:

1) racked up multiple suspensions (yes, I know, only pot) and then ruined an HOF career because he thought he should be paid as if he was playing in the days of Walter Payton and Earl Campbell.

and

2) evolved into a so-easy-to-meme-its-unfair Covid-truther whose lone playoff victory is most notable for demonstrating that Drew Brees was washed up.*

[*“If I get it, I’m gonna ride it out,” Cousins said. “I’m gonna let nature do its course. Survival-of-the-fittest kind of approach. And just say, if it knocks me out, it knocks me out. I’m going to be OK. You know, even if I die. If I die, I die. I kind of have peace about that.”]

Jesus, what a shitshow.

***

Now you’re stuck with a real rebuild and you wonder why fans of other teams seem to be less ready to join in your glee at beating Michigan. Let me make it simple. It’s because you are the equivalent of the asshole who makes $200k a year, but thinks he’s middle class. Just because he’s upside down in his mortgage and your program is ethically underwater doesn’t mean that either of you should open your mouth about the sins of the elites. Just stop. The vast majority of FBS teams would take your history—and recruiting advantages—in a heartbeat. Don’t try to play the chummy “fellow underdogs” card. Instead, just realize that you’re eminently hateable and shut the fuck up.

After all, that would let you stew in your resentment for a while and build up a brand new “nobody respects us” line to fuel your next ascension up the B1G ranks once you hire your next sour-faced defensive genius with questionable morals. In the meantime, the rest of us are going to enjoy your struggles.

***

Wait, I’m not done. I don’t think there’s a CFB program with a more appropriate mascot situation. Nothing sums up the psychotic desire of MSU fans to be loved while also wishing to dominate like using the diminutive for a mascot based on one of the most militaristic, ruthless societies of the ancient world.*

[Half the mouth-breathing white nationalists in the country—a disproportionate number of whom call Michigan home—noodle around with the iconography of ancient Sparta. But in East Lansing, he’s a lovable mascot, and we call him Sparty. So cute! Fuck off.]