Friday, November 18, 2005

Penn State at Michigan State Football

The Penn State Nittany Lions visit the Spartans Saturday. Penn State can win a share of the Big Ten title for the first time and be factored in the bogus BCS championship series. The Nittany Lions look strong and are an overwhelming favorite to win this one based on their record, only one loss this season, and because no one really believes the Spartans will defend the house.

Michigan State has not been a consistent winner since Nick Saban was lured to Louisiana State University in 2000. Saban was hard nosed, that is to say a real "hard ass." His teams were tough minded winners reflecting their coach. In 1999, Saban led his final Spartan team to a No. 7 ranking in the country as they finished in a tie for second in the Big Ten. They defeated Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State all in the same year for the first time since 1965 and recorded six wins at home for the first time since the 1912 season. The Spartans’ performance that year landed them a spot in the Citrus Bowl. (Excerpted from The Spartan's recent decline began when Saban jumped to LSU.

Bobby Williams followed Saban as head Coach for the Spartans, but did not enjoy the same success. Michigan State was one of the first and few Division 1-A schools to name a Black American as head football coach. Williams developed a reputation for recruiting and developing wide receivers; Plaxico Burress and Charles Rogers are examples. Dean Stanton, the Spartans stand out quarterback, joined the Spartans during Williams' tenure. I applauded Williams appointment, both as a matter of pride and of fundamental fairness. Williams had been on the coaching staff since 1990 and was named associate head coach in 1999. The roster was as much a reflection of Williams as it was of Saban.

Alas, things did not go well for Coach Williams. He was 13-11 after his first two seasons, but his last campaign was disastrous. Jeff Smoker was caught doing drugs and was suspended by Williams. (Smoker publicly acknowledged the mistake and entered rehabilitation. He was reinstated to the team and regained his starting position. He was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. A happy ending under the circumstances. Smoker's response is a text book example of how sports and public figures should respond when caught flagrante delecti.) The Spartans lost games to inferior teams, beginning a distressing tendency to lose games following big wins. Williams could be seen on the sideline showing expressions of shock and pain. Other coaches at least look like they are calculating their next move. Michigan State lost confidence in Williams and he was dismissed before the end of the 2002 season.

Amazingly, to me at least, Michigan State went after another Black coach**, the highly regarded Marvin Lewis, who turned them down in the hope of landing an NFL head coaching slot. Lewis is another tough minded perfectionist in the Saban mold who certainly would have benefited the Spartans, as he is now doing with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Michigan State turned to John L. Smith, who had a reputation for rebuilding struggling programs. The Spartans showed promise and got off to a fast start in 2005, highlighted by a 44-41 overtime win over hated Notre Dame. Smith's a wide-open offense put up gaudy numbers. The Spartans ranked as one the top five offenses in Division 1-A football. Unfortunately, the defense and special teams were not their match. After crushing Illinois 61-14, the Spartans allowed the Michigan Wolverines to get off to a fast start and played from behind most of the game. They lost a 34-31 thriller at home in overtime.

They might have redeemed themselves the following week with a win over THE Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus. The Spartans gained over 400 yards on offense. They forced six Ohio State fumbles and recovered four of them, three in OSU territory. But, they converted a measly seven points from that. Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton was sacked twelve times during the game. Near half time with a 17-7 lead, confusion on the sideline led to a turnover on a botched field goal attempt that OSU converted into a touchdown. That was the season! From that point to the Minnesota game, the Spartans have been out scored 185-75.

It's hard to conceive that happening under Saban or Lewis. There is no indication that Smith can turn this team around for Penn State. The Spartans developed a reputation for upsetting ranked teams. The last game at home against fifth ranked Penn State may be just that occasion. But, I don't know where this team's head is right now. Odds are, neither do they.

** The NCAA is justifiably criticized for the lack of African-American head coaches at the Division 1-A and 1-AA level. A number of potential candidates mentioned as not receiving fair consideration have MSU roots. They include Jimmy Raye, Sherman Lewis, Charlie Baggett, Williams and Tyrone Willingham, now coaching the University of Washington Huskies football team. The list is not exhaustive.

B.A., Michigan State University, 19-noneyabusiness.

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