Column: With Bullough left behind, MSU program and fans face difficult questions
I woke up this morning, the day after Christmas, in Disney World on a Florida vacation. Happiest place on Earth, right?
Without a doubt. Until I remembered the news that broke overnight: Max Bullough — Spartan leader and warrior, senior middle linebacker and captain to boot — was suspended for the Rose Bowl.
It took me a few seconds to process everything again before reality sunk in.
In arguably MSU’s biggest game since the late 1980s, the Spartans would have to take the field one man short — a loss that’s substantively larger than just one player.
My initial thought was one of shock. My mind also was immediately filled with questions, questions I continue to turn over in my head. How could this be possible? And what exactly happened?
The only information offered by the athletic department was, at that point, nondescript. Even now, the facts are murky. Every potential lead has turned up little information of substance.
I was left to ponder the facts of the matter as I spent the day with family at the ‘happiest place on Earth.’ I certainly wasn’t as excited to be there as before, to say the least.
MSU, down a starter and captain, now has to take on Stanford with one fewer Bullough on the field. Sure, back-up linebackers Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris are up to the task in regards to football physicality. In fact, they’re likely coached to make just as quality pre-snap reads as Bullough.
But can they replace what he brought to the table in terms of intensity, toughness and leadership? Probably not. When your starting middle linebacker defined the very qualities inked on his biceps — ‘Spartan Pride’ — it’s tough to fill those shoes. Still, I have no doubt the Spartans will come to play with both passion and fire.
From a fan’s perspective, my thoughts also have been about more than X’s and O’s. The suspension has unquestionably tarnished Max Bullough’s once-excellent legacy at MSU, at least for the time being. Early hiccups aside, Bullough’s been a tremendous representation of the program, saying all the right things and exemplifying the grit and determination preached by head coach Mark Dantonio.
Bullough even went so far as to talk about the Rose Bowl’s importance to himself and the program, noting earlier in the season that its meaning would last for a lifetime.
Week after week this year, he consistently came to play, serving as the anchor of a defense that broke records and set up a ‘no fly zone’ in the secondary. ‘Spartan Pride’ indeed.
And here’s where more questions come in, followed by more disappointment.
What happened to lead to such a dramatic suspension? Why would Bullough involve himself in something, or make a decision to get involved with something, that could even remotely jeopardize his chances at playing in the Rose Bowl?
It’s difficult to say.
We certainly don’t know all of the facts of the matter at this point. The very nature of the situation lends itself to, naturally, some serious questions — and sadly, very few answers.
In a way, it also lends itself to a kind of admiration for Dantonio. As noted college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit tweeted Thursday, decisions like this one, tough decisions, are, in a way, why MSU is playing in the Rose Bowl.
Since the day he first set foot on campus, Dantonio has preached accountability, responsibility, toughness and integrity. Unlike so many of his coaching peers (even men that Dantonio worked under, like Jim Tressel), the coach made what had to be one of the most difficult decisions of his career — suspending a star captain and leader for the biggest game of his MSU tenure. But that’s a story for another time.
In a twist of irony, as my day at Disney World came to a close, the Spartans kicked off practice in California, followed by a public event at another one of the ‘happiest’ places on Earth — Disneyland.
Thousands of miles apart, two locations made to manufacture joy now are tied inexplicably to my thoughts of one tough day to be a Spartan.
What matters now is not just what we know, but what we don’t know — both on the field and off.
Is MSU greater than one player? I think so.
But the answer to that question really lies in Pasadena. As for answers about the man left behind — we’ll have to keep looking.
Beau Hayhoe is the State News sports editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.