(This week we set our sights on East Lansing and the Michigan State Spartans. You should already be familiar with SB Nation's great MSU site, The Only Colors, but if you aren't I suggest you stop by there often. There isn't a better source for Michigan State news and analysis on the internet.)
Five years ago you wouldn't recognize the Spartans. It was the era of John L Smith, Sparty No!, the Mike Valenti Rant, and game after game of collapses that continually challenged the college football world to suspend its disbelief. The Michigan State program was a mess of epic proportions, the future was not bright, and the past didn't lend any credibility to the idea that Michigan State was anywhere near pulling out of the nosedive it was in.
Nick Saban had given the program a glimmer of hope at the end of the 90s, but he bolted for greener pastures at LSU, the first step on a path that would eventually see him end up a towering tyrant in Tuscaloosa. Saban's Michigan State team had finally built momentum to a 1999 that ended in a 9-2 record, a Citrus Bowl invite, and wins over Big Ten foes Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan as well as non-conference rival Notre Dame. But his departure meant it was up to someone else to take control.
Saban's departure left Bobby Williams with the keys, and Williams proceeded to drive the whole damn thing off a cliff. Five wins in 2000 was disappointing, seven in 2001 was acceptable, but the awful start to the 2002 season -- and an eventually 49-3 de-pantsing at the hands of Michigan -- was the final straw. After the Michigan game a reporter asked Williams if he had lost control of his team. His answer: I don't know. He was the only person in the state who was unsure at that point.
Next in line was John L. Smith, a coach that had built up quite a positive reputation at his previous coaching stops. Smith, as we all know, failed miserably. His first team went 8-5, but the next three combined for just 14 wins. His final two years saw Michigan State start the season strong before collapsing down the back stretch. The 2005 team finished the season 1-6 and the 2006 team was a woeful 1-8.
Michigan State by the dawn of 2007 was mired in mediocrity and had developed the pungent stench that accompanies a deeply embedded losing culture. Everyone expected Michigan State to fall apart at the first sign of trouble, even those in the locker room it seemed.
The evidence all pointed toward a striking conclusion: that things were fundamentally broken in East Lansing.
Change doesn't happen overnight, but it also has moments, important singular events that in hindsight serve as road signs guiding the way toward the new future.
The introduction of Mark Dantonio as head coach at Michigan State was, unbeknownst to most, one of those watershed moments in the course of Michigan State football history. Dantonio has coached at Cincinnati for three years with some success, but had built his reputation as a defensive coach, including five years under Saban at MSU and three more as coordinator of Ohio State's defense under Jim Tressel where Dantonio helped win a National Championship.
Dantonio wasn't a flashy hire, but for a guy walking into the Michigan State locker room, he certainly said the right things. On his National Championship ring from his time at OSU:
"I wear this championship ring very, very few times, but I wear it for a reason," Dantonio said. "I wear it to symbolize what can happen when you have the resources, when you have the players, and most importantly when you have the commitment."
On competing against Michigan, Ohio State, and Notre Dame:
"If you have an opportunity to compete against the best, you can become the best," Dantonio said. "You have the opportunity to measure up."
No hubris. No "decided schematic advantage." Just straight talk. Football talk. Coach-speak.
Dantonio has proceeded to build his program along those same lines. He brought along Pat Narduzzi to run the defense, and the two began developing players on the roster and building a fundamentally sound defense that was formulated on constant pressure and physical pass defense. The results weren't there in the beginning, but the foundation was laid for the major defensive improvement of the last two years.
The Spartans didn't recruit at a high level, but focused on players from Michigan and Ohio that fell through the cracks of Michigan and Ohio State's grasp. Those two- and three-star defensive players became the backbone of the 2011 Michigan State defense that was one of the best in the nation. Heck Dorland over at The Only Colors did a long, detailed analysis of just how well Dantonio and his staff turned underrated recruits into high-level Big Ten players, and it is worth the read.
The offense has been a solid Big Ten unit through most of the Dantonio tenure, and while the Spartans have yet to put together a truly elite unit -- MSU hasn't ranked in the top-25 nationally in total or scoring offense during Dantonio's five-year tenure -- the offense has been good enough to win games in a distinctly Tressel-ball style most times.
The longer the Spartans progress under Dantonio, the more it becomes clear just what the long term goal is, and it looks a lot like what Wisconsin has been doing. Michigan State is focusing on what it knows best -- defense -- and putting together a program that is capable of sustaining a high level defense for years to come. Just like Wisconsin has concentrated on building a monster pro-style downhill rushing attack with the tools it has handy (corn-fed linemen and bowling ball-esque running backs) Michigan State is finding smart, hard hitting linebackers, big secondary players, and adept pass rushing defensive linemen to play a physical, attacking style defense that, somewhat tragically is self-identified as "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness"*.
This is the slow march of change. It is the day to day minutiae that constitute the shift from conference wide laughing stock to bully. Michigan State has, more than arguably any program in the Big Ten over the past five years, done the little things right when it comes to getting the right players for the system, developing them as individuals and also pieces of a coherent whole. This is the blueprint for real, sustained change.
*(Listen, I get it. I know why that moniker "pops" and I know why MSU fans get all pumped up by it. What I don't get is why you play up that angle right after a game where your team commits 13 penalties for 124 yards, and then cry foul when a player with two personal fouls gets suspended by the league. Call it "necessary roughness" or 60 minutes of hell, but realize that when you play up that angle it'll define how people view what happens on the field, for better or worse.)
But there are still moments. Those little moments that indicate the larger cultural shift and help feed it.
In the aftermath of Michigan's comeback victory against the Spartans in Dantonio's first year as head coach, Mike Hart made an innocuous comment about the Michigan comeback being akin to an older brother overpowering his younger sibling. It was a joke, but the anger ran far deeper for Michigan State fans and the team itself.
Rather than giving a terse "no comment," Dantonio addressed it:
Short jokes aside, it was clear that battle lines were drawn, and while at the time Danonio's comments were mocked by Michigan fans, the next four years have been all green.
Then two years ago in a heated back and forth game between Michigan State and Notre Dame, the Spartans got to bury one more meme. With the game on the line and a shot at a second overtime, Mark Dantonio went for the fake and the win. Little Giants was born, and Sparty No! was finally put to rest.
Small moments, but defining ones as we look toward the future. Loathe as we Michigan fans are to admit, the transformation at Michigan State is not simply an abberation, a blip on the radar, or a cruel setup by God for the biggest Sparty No! of them all (hint: it probably starts with Notre Dame in Spartan Stadium and ends with Mike Valenti's head exploding).
No friends, things in East Lansing are different. The question is, how different?
The growth of Michigan State as a program coincided with the worst stretch of Michigan football in program history, and despite the improvement in Big Ten play, Mark Dantonio has a 1-4 bowl record. The Spartans have always made the most of unheralded recruits under Dantonio, but recent recruiting momentum at Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State could tilt the scales if those schools are able to develop that high level talent.
On the other hand, Michigan State has far more stability than it has in the past. Mark Dantonio considers this a destination job and has given no indication that he would leave the program in the near future. Michigan State is finally starting to close the gap in terms of football facilities, and the unprecedented financial success of the Big Ten should help MSU in that regard down the line. Not to mention the fact that the defense is still stocked with young players and plenty of quality depth.
What does this mean for the future? It is hard to tell, but one thing seems almost certain: Michigan State will continue to exist in and around the top of the Big Ten for the foreseeable future. Mark Dantonio and staff have done a great job putting in place the pieces for continued success, and there is no indication that things will regress to the days of John L. and Bobby Williams.
Ultimately, this is a good thing. It give the Big Ten another solid program on which to try and rebuild some semblance of national respect. It opens up new rivalries such as Wisconsin vs. Michigan State, which is fast becoming one of the most heated and important games on the schedule. And it gives new meaning to old rivalries.
Four years ago it was easy to laugh off Dantonio's retorts to Mike Hart or his petulant platitudes about pride. It was easy to make jokes about Michigan State being the little brother, because for all intents and purposes, in 2007 Michigan State was the little brother.
A lot can change in four years, and while Michigan is on its way back (whatever that means) the road to redemption -- and a Legends division title -- now runs through East Lansing.
It takes a long time to build that kind of respect and standing in the conference, and it takes a damn good blueprint.