LOS ANGELES — There’s certainly a lot at stake on New Year’s Day for MSU as a football team and as a university community. No one can deny that.
There’s even more at stake for MSU’s national reputation as a football program, one that has been battered and bruised for years.
Players and coaches have approached this week the right way, taking in the glory of a moment a quarter-century in the making while also focusing on the ultimate prize, a coveted Rose Bowl victory.
Distractions surrounding the suspension of senior linebacker and team captain Max Bullough aside, it looks like MSU is ready, from the outside looking in, at least.
Clearly, from the response in this city and across the country, the fans are ready, too.
This game is ultimately the culmination of years of hard work on the part of program leaders and star players, something that started more than six years ago with the arrival of head coach Mark Dantonio.
I vividly remember Dantonio’s introductory press conference at MSU. He stood at the podium, stern and stoic. In an image later put on a promotional poster, he stood at that podium and literally pointed the way forward for MSU wearing glittering championship rings.
It seemed so far off at that point, but in my Spartan heart, I hoped and dreamed it would happen.
It took a while, but his players have met the challenges posed by Dantonio on that day and since, earning the right to play in the “Granddaddy of them all.”
Dantonio made this season’s theme “Chase It,” and the Spartans did that this season and then some. Behind a stellar defense, an opportunistic offense, and the grit and determination exemplified by their head coach and team leaders, the Spartans have earned the right to be out in Pasadena. That much is certainly clear on the eve of the program’s biggest game in a quarter-century.
What makes this all the more meaningful is that no one around the program — not even fans — seems to take this opportunity for granted.
Cherishing this chance in the national spotlight, mostly away from criticism, is a dream come true for fans of the program (this one included).
And that spotlight has largely been negative, a good portion of the time, at least.
The fact that MSU is even here helps put to rest memories of exceptionally lean years for MSU football, including bleak losses by Bobby Williams and John L. Smith, laughable interviews and public appearances, and a sense of disrespect for MSU overall.
Some of those memories and indignities have replayed in my mind during the journey out to Los Angeles. Like the time I headed as an excited middle-schooler to ESPN’s “College GameDay” before a game versus Notre Dame, only to be sorely disappointed by the lack of attention paid to an MSU team that later came up woefully short.
I returned again to the show’s appearances at MSU only to realize the Spartans were something of a side show to things like Penn State’s pursuit of a Big Ten title, in one instance. And I watched highlights of college football late at night through middle school and high school, expecting to see even a big play from MSU’s game earlier that afternoon. I realized, sadly, that analysts paid the Spartans no mind even as they competed for bowl eligibility.
I later came to realize, as MSU teams faltered mid-season and faded fast, that the Spartans weren’t really deserving of stellar media attention. Not yet anyways.
So it turned into a labor of love watching and rooting for MSU football week after week, year after year. The seeds of success were planted early in Dantonio’s tenure, and although it seemed elusive at times, there was always the promise of a better tomorrow.
Close losses against Michigan and Notre Dame turned into rousing wins, huge trick plays and an even greater belief in the Spartans.
And even when MSU stared down further indignation from rivals and the media, coach Dantonio was right there to back up the Spartan ethos with fire and passion.
That’s why it’s so heartening to hear stories and see social media posts of happy Spartans from Los Angeles and across the country. This week, Bullough’s suspension aside, has been an amazing one for the Spartan community. More than that, it’s been two-plus decades in the making.
And it’s revealed the passion and determination MSU fans have — for the team, for the program and for each other. After years of waiting, MSU’s set to take the national stage for the right reasons, not as a side show. That makes it all worth it.
Come kickoff time, I know that the promise of a better tomorrow, at long last, will be fulfilled.
Beau Hayhoe is the State News sports editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.