For the first three years of mine (and Sara G’s) college career, we watched a Michigan State Spartans team that trickled away lead after lead, against Notre Dame in a downpour, against Michigan (again and again and…), against Ohio State, against practically all comers. We saw teams stacked with talent – Jehuu Caulcrick, Javon Ringer, Drew Stanton, Greg Jones, Otis Wiley, Domata Peko – start out hot and find ways to lose. MSU was a team devoid of heart, bankrupt of drive and with no program
culture to speak of.
Finally, midway through the 2006 season, MSU cut John L. “Screwin’ It Up” Smith loose, and went on the hunt for a new coach. When Mark Dantonio was hired, we were skeptical. Things seemed…better? We still lost to Michigan. It wasn’t a great season, by any means, but the footing seemed solid. Looking back, the most powerful moment of that season came when Coach D got into a (since much maligned by U of M fans) war of words with running back Mike Hart. You can watch the video for yourself and see that that’s when Mark decided the Big Ten wasn’t going to have MSU to kick around any more.
After today’s bowl win against Georgia, they don’t. For the first time, the Spartans faced an opponent without an NFL caliber starting lineup in an extremely winnable bowl game. They were the only Big 10 team victorious on New Year’s Day (observed). They did what all of John L’s teams failed to do time after time ; they found a way to win.
MSU’s time under Mark Dantonio has not been easy. It’s not been spotless and it’s not been an astronomical assent. But what Michigan State has built with consecutive double-digit win seasons is a program culture. A culture of toughness, of underdog mentality and of winning despite the odds and against all costs. As stupid and cliche as that sounds, for a team that did not win, no matter what, to turn into the come-from-behind squad they’ve become is remarkable.
The difference is obvious – It’s leadership. From the coaching staff and the players. Michigan State lucked into a remarkable on- and off-field leader in Kirk Cousins for the past three years, and he will be sorely missed in 2012. But the leadership extends throughout the team, in seniors like Trenton Robinson and Joel Foreman, in position players like Brian Linthecum, Keith Nichol, Johnny Adams and Max Bullough.
One final thing to say about the 2011 Spartans, and Mark Dantonio’s teams in general – this defense is not playin’ with y’all. That’s 2011 and 2012 and beyond. Coach D gets defensive lumps of coal and turns them into diamonds (case in point: three-star recruit Jerel Worthy). I, for one, am excited for what’s to come from this team. (more on this to come, obviously)
But most importantly, to Kirk, to BJ, to Keith, to Joel, to Trenton, to all of the seniors who’ve played their last snap in Green & White- thank you. Thank you for giving us a program to get behind. Thank you for never giving up. Thank you for your pride and thank you for your commitment. Thank you, and Go Green.