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Michigan State Football: Spartans Emerging as Big Ten Power


When Andrew Maxwell arrived in East Lansing in the late summer of 2009, he could have easily kept his mouth shut, endured his redshirt season and spent the next two years toiling anonymously in the shadow of all-time Michigan State wins leader Kirk Cousins. No one would have blamed the backup quarterback for taking the quiet route for three years before blossoming in 2012.

Maxwell wasn’t looking for anything like that. Instead of dutifully playing the freshman role, he went about the business of constructing relationships with players — even upperclassmen — in preparation for the day he would take over for Cousins. That’s not cockiness, but rather a sound leadership strategy by a young man who stands ready to run the Spartan offense and become the face of a program that has made a U-turn from its old image.

“When I got on campus, I started leading right away by building bridges with teammates,” Maxwell says. “That way, when it became time to be the starter, it would be easier to lead.

“If you just change into a person you haven’t been, the guys aren’t going to respond. If you continue to be yourself, you’ll be a more effective leader.”

Maxwell may be the same out-front guy he was when he came to school, but the Michigan State program has transformed itself dramatically over the past couple seasons. Two straight 11-win seasons and a pair of New Year’s Day bowl games — including a win over Georgia in last year’s Outback Bowl — have put the Spartans in position to assume a role of influence and status in the Big Ten. Over the past four seasons, MSU has won more conference games than all but one other school (Ohio State) in the league, has beaten Michigan four straight times and has, most important, shed the reputation as the program that could always be counted on to make a key gaffe or have an off-field issue at the wrong time.

The problem at Michigan State has never been talent. The Spartans have had that. From 2000-07, MSU had 28 players drafted, including four first-rounders. That was only 10 fewer than Michigan produced over the same time frame. But during that period, MSU won only 45 games, while the Wolverines captured 73. Lack of discipline, off-field problems and some mystifying turns of fortune during games torpedoed the Spartans’ efforts. When someone sent out the S.O.S. in East Lansing, it meant “Same Old Sparty.”

That started changing in 2007 when Mark Dantonio took over as head coach. Though low-key in his demeanor and mannerisms, Dantonio is a rock-solid leader who values character above everything else. During a March interview, he spoke of the 150 straight days the program had enjoyed without an off-field incident. While that could change in the heartbeat of a 19-year-old, it demonstrated the standard he had established, and more importantly enforced, within the program.

“He’s honest, competent, caring and loving,” Maxwell says of Dantonio. “One of the best compliments you can give a coach is that he cares about you on and off the field.”

By recruiting players who can thrive on the field and lead off it, Dantonio and his staff have created a new ethos at MSU. In 2009, the Spartans were 6–7 and dropped an Alamo Bowl decision to Texas Tech. The enemy wasn’t necessarily youth, although it was a younger team; it was the lack of a strong example from the team’s upperclassmen. Although three of them were voted captains, the fourth captain was Cousins, then a sophomore, who was only the second Spartan sophomore ever to receive that distinction. The younger players who ended up being the cornerstones of the success of the last two seasons didn’t click with their elders, most of whom had been recruited by previous MSU coach John L. Smith. “We didn’t have good chemistry that year,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi admits.

That has not been the problem the past two seasons, and it’s unwise to discount the value of such chemistry. Successful teams feature leaders who take direction from the coaches and hold their peers accountable. That may not have been lacking completely before in East Lansing, but it is in evidence now. Twenty-two wins in two seasons provide the proof.

“It is as important as anything,” junior linebacker Max Bullough says. “The guys on the football team are friends with each other. We are together day and night. If somebody gets into something, the guys next to him are getting out of the situation.”

There are four games scheduled on Aug. 31 involving FBS teams, but the one expected to attract the most attention is Boise State’s visit to MSU. Although the Spartans also play Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Notre Dame, the matchup with the Broncos will allow Michigan State to take the national stage and deliver something that will gain attention.

“If we want to go where we want to go, we have to make a statement in the Boise State game,” Dantonio says.

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It’s interesting that a Big Ten team would consider a game with a Mountain West opponent (BSU moves to the Big East in 2013) as a yardstick for its program, but the Spartans feel as if this is their time to take some steps outside the neighborhood. AD Mark Hollis has inked agreements with Boise State, Alabama, West Virginia, Oregon and Miami, giving the Spartans a fortified schedule and allowing them to reach out to constituencies beyond the state of Michigan. There is little chance Dantonio and his staff will be recruiting heavily in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest, but this is an opportunity for a program that has been in the shadow of Big Ten rivals to extend its sphere of influence — as the highly successful Spartan hoops team has done.

“I did most of the basketball scheduling, and I’m doing the football scheduling,” Hollis says. “I’m going to schedule like basketball. We’re setting up the kinds of games kids want to play, and that sets the bar with some big expectations.”

One gets the impression that Michigan State feels it is ready to make a move into the national hierarchy. That’s why it’s scheduling up, why it is adding a giant, $10 million video board to Spartan Stadium and why it is launching a full assault on Michigan, which for decades has adopted a smug attitude toward its “little brother.”

College athletics are filled with relationships like the one that has prevailed between the Wolverines and Spartans. Alabama considers itself superior to Auburn. Texas makes Aggie jokes at the expense of Texas A&M. University of Washington is the cosmopolitan school, and Washington State is the farm. You can still find bumper stickers in Ann Arbor referring to Michigan State as “Moo U,” a nod to the school’s agricultural roots. And for all the references to the “Arrogant Asses” at U-M, a designation coined by former Spartan coach Darryl Rogers, there remains something of an air of superiority amidst the Wolverines. But ever since former Michigan running back Mike Hart referred to MSU as the “little brother,” there has been a change going on.

The four-game winning streak has fueled it, yes, but the attitude in East Lansing has changed, too. Dantonio has made no secret of his dislike for Michigan, and last winter, MSU hoops coach Tom Izzo weighed in, too. The Spartans aren’t behaving like aggrieved smaller siblings, but rather like newly pumped-up equals who aren’t having any more of the condescension.

“I grew up in the state (Midland), and I grew up with the attitude that Michigan was the elite program, and Michigan State was the other one,” Maxwell says. “The tide has changed. Our success against them demands that.”

That can’t be enough for Michigan State. Winning in the sandbox is good. Taking it to the rest of the playground is better. The Spartans have more character than in recent years, and they have been able to back it up with what Dantonio and his staff consider some good recruiting classes. Dantonio was able to redshirt all but two of last year’s newcomers and expects many of them to contribute next year, particularly on defense.

“To me, it doesn’t make a difference what ‘star’ a player is,” Dantonio says, referring to recruiting rankings. “They’re not sending you to a bowl game if your recruiting class is in the top 10. You go to bowl games and championship games because you’re in the top 10 or top 20 on the field.”

As Maxwell assumes the starting quarterback role for Cousins, who amassed several records, he is something of a symbol for MSU’s future. If Maxwell steps in and delivers, the Spartans will likely continue their prosperity. All that’s missing from the offense is a proven wideout. Michigan State fans have waited a long time for the kind of sustained success that the team seems to be on the verge of achieving. Some say the next chapter begins Aug. 31 against Boise State. Those who know realize it started more than five years ago, when Dantonio arrived on campus.

The story continues this fall, and Spartan fans are hoping that each turn of the page brings something wonderful — and new.

— by Michael Bradley

This article appears in Athlon's 2012 Big Ten Preview Annual.

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