The game clock read 2:16 in Indianapolis when MSU junior running back Jeremy Langford sprinted into the end zone and Spartan football lore, sealing the Big Ten championship for MSU.
Back in East Lansing, couches burned and sirens rang through the streets, even before the clock ran out to officially declare the team’s victory.
What followed throughout the night and early morning has been called a “civil disturbance” by authorities. The postgame celebration began with sporadic couch fires throughout East Lansing, but at about 12:30 a.m., hundreds of students spilled into the streets of Cedar Village and crowds ran amuck, furniture and torches in hand.
By the end of the night, 15 people — 12 of whom were MSU students — had been arrested, and the fire department had responded to a minimum of 57 couch fires across the city. DTN Management Co. Vice President Colin Cronin estimated the partiers caused between $5,000-$10,000 of damage in Cedar Village alone.
The crowd dispersed at about 3 a.m., when police began arresting people standing within 300 feet of an open fire without intending to put it out.
The disturbance reignited a more than decade-old discussion about student conduct following sporting events.
“It was very frustrating to see what was referred to as a tradition by some individuals happen again,” East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett said during a Dec. 10 City Council work session. “For anyone to think this is an appropriate celebratory tradition is something that I find offensive.”
East Lansing Police Chief Juli Liebler said after the meeting that a culture change is needed at MSU — and it starts with glorifying the term “riot.”
“That’s a very inflammatory term — it’s obvious that it was a very bad event, but we are trying to get away from using those types of terms,” Liebler said. “We called it a civil disturbance. We are trying to change the culture at this university.”
The individuals who were arrested could potentially face a trial, fees and jail time. The harshest penalty for the suspects is a 90-day jail sentence and a $500 fine. East Lansing City Attorney Tom Yeadon said most first-time offenders likely will receive lighter punishment.
Yeadon said pre-bargain agreements are usually different for people who were standing very close to the fire and people who were not. He said there isn’t a set time frame for cases to be settled.
“It depends on the case, but the process can take a short amount of time,” he said. “It depends on every suspect’s situation.”
Police and university officials also offered $20,000 in reward money to individuals with tips to additional arrests. Many students, including history senior Jordan Zammit, were critical of the way the aftermath was handled.
“I can’t stress how much the reward hurts me,” Zammit told The State News in a previous interview. “You’re telling Michigan State students to turn students in, there’s nothing worse to a student body than to do this.”
Nearly a month later, as the confetti fell in Pasadena and the Spartans celebrated their Rose Bowl win, the streets of East Lansing remained quiet. The fire department responded to only six couch fires, compared to the 57 they responded to following the Big Ten championship, East Lansing police Capt. Jeff Murphy said.
“I think it’s because no one was here,” East Lansing City Councilmember Ruth Beier said. “Only about 10 percent of the students were back in my neighborhood. I know there were some fires in the Bailey neighborhood, but they seemed more like statement fires.”
Beier said East Lansing will continue working with MSU to improve communication with students about the dangers of excessive celebrations, but she said the only way to combat disorderly behavior could be the fear of potential consequences.
“The city has tried everything, from being reasonable with fire lighters to being forceful,” she said. “The only thing that works is the fear of arrest.”
Beier said as MSU continues to build a winning tradition, the mayhem should stop.
“I think it will get better,” she said. “The more elite the teams and university become, the less attractive the hooligans look. If we look like a bunch of thugs, people won’t take the university seriously.”
Murphy said the policies of the department handling civil disturbances won’t change, including enforcing the fire ordinance more closely instead of using tear gas to disburse a crowd.
He said the department is less focused on people on the peripheral of that radius, instead directing attention to people only a few feet from the fire.
East Lansing police encourage students and residents to stay as far away from large fires and crowds as possible in the future.
“These events have nothing to do with celebrations,” Murphy said. “They are an excuse for lawless behavior. The message we are trying to get out is if one of these civil disorders happens again and crowds gather, that is probably not a place that you want to be.”
Murphy said many different parties have to work together to transform from a culture of civil disobedience.
“We’ve worked on this problem for 27 years, and the bottom line is its a whole culture change,” he said. “MSU and its students should have a more positive reputation than this. It’s pretty sad when after the Rose Bowl people say it was calm. In any other place in the world, if six arsons were committed to celebrate a win, it would make the news.”