Orlando, Fla. — If it weren’t for the scorching sun, calm lake and the palm trees, the Spartan tailgaters in Orlando, Fla., may just as well have been gathering at the tennis courts in East Lansing.
The Green and White faithful traveled from all over to greatly outnumber Boston College fans for the Dec. 28 Champs Sports Bowl.
“I’ve only seen Michigan State fans here, maybe five Boston College,” said Justin Cooley, a 2005 MSU graduate who now resides in Washington, D.C. “When I do see them, they kind of hide their heads and they kind of realize that they’re outnumbered.”
Groups of fans congregated under tents, outside RVs and around grills as the hours ticked down until they watched MSU play its first bowl game since 2003.
A year ago they did not have much to celebrate — their team collapsing for a third straight season.
But now, even though the Spartans lost the game, many are optimistic about the future.
It may have been fitting that the Spartans wore their home jerseys for the game.
“It was awesome,” senior running back Jehuu Caulcrick said of the fan turnout. “We went out there for warm-ups and the whole stadium was pretty much green and white.
“We came back and said, ‘Hey, guys, we’re playing a home game here,’” he said. “We just appreciate the support that they gave us.”
If there was one Eagles fan who was not going to miss this game, it was Ron Saloman.
Having grown up minutes away from Boston College’s campus, Saloman has missed only three home games during the past 53 years.
Standing outside of Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium hours before the game, wearing red and yellow from head to toe and a baseball cap with an eagle’s head mounted on the front, he looked a little out of place.
Saloman said the school’s fans do a “tremendous job” representing the university, but he attributed the disparity in fan turnout to school size. MSU’s 46,000 total enrollment dwarfs Boston College’s 12,500.
Spartan tailgaters appeared to dominate a majority of the parking lots — except for a high school lot on the other side of the freeway.
A group of five Boston College students wearing the school’s yellow “superfan” T-shirts were cheered by passers-by who expressed relief to see support for their school.
One of the students made no excuses for the relatively small turnout.
“It kind of sucks being the minority, but there’s definitely no BC fans around, so whatever,” said Patrick Slonaker, a business sophomore at Boston College.
Brian Cunningham, father of redshirt freshman wide receiver B.J. Cunningham, said he was “overwhelmed” by the amount of MSU support in the area.
“The Spartan fans really showed up,” said Cunningham, a Columbus, Ohio, native.
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Tailgaters bridge the digital gap
Moving from the Internet to the lakeside parking lot, members of spartantailgate.com’s Red Cedar message board gathered from around the nation to pregame for MSU’s biggest match in years.
Orlando, Fla., native and message board veteran Chad Lawrence hosted the tailgate and said the gathering was a success.
“I never knew any of these people when I went there, but we’ve all become very good friends,” said Lawrence, a former MSU tennis player and 1981 graduate.
“It’s amazing how the Internet has opened the horizons to bringing different people together.”
Although the basketball season is only about halfway over, plans are already being made for the message board’s official Final Four tailgate, he said.
“You’re going to see a lot more of these happening,” Lawrence said.
Just like the sun gave MSU fans’ wintered bodies new life, first-year head coach Mark Dantonio breathed new life into a program without much belief.
“When I first got the job and I first came in here, I talked about earning back the respect of the fans, and nobody gave us much of a chance,” Dantonio said after MSU’s 24-21 loss to Boston College.
Lawrence admitted he was one of the program’s hardest critics during the past five years on the message board.
“I thought the prior coaching staff embarrassed the university on occasion, and Mark Dantonio gets it,” he said.
“You look at him and you see the determination in his face, and you say to yourself, ‘Wow, this is the guy. He gets it.’
“He has restored the respect to the program.”
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