May 31, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - They called it the Big Ten's "Triple Crown."
The Kirk Gibson-led Michigan State football team claimed a conference championship by ticking off seven consecutive victories, starting with a 24-14 triumph at Michigan, in the fall of 1978.
The following March, Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Greg Kelser guided the Spartan basketball team to league and national titles.
And in the spring of '79, a no-name band of ballplayers put the final gem into place when they toppled the mighty Wolverines to wrap up the Big Ten baseball championship and clinch a berth in the NCAA Tournament, a feat unmatched at MSU until Monday when the current squad of Spartans earned an at-large bid under fourth-year head coach Jake Boss Jr.
Third-seeded Michigan State will open the tournament Friday against Pepperdine in Palo Alto, Calif., at the regional hosted by Stanford University and which also includes Fresno State.
Joe Lopez is reliving his glory days as a third-team All-Big Ten outfielder vicariously through the exploits of the '79 Spartans' immediate successors - albeit 33 years younger.
"Oh definitely," said Lopez, the superintendent of the Branch Intermediate School District in Coldwater, Mich. "It's been so many years, and I was kind of removed from the program, so I'm not really sure what happened after us. But regardless of what's transpired, I think they're on the right track now."
The parallels between the climate on MSU's campus three-plus decades ago and what's going on with Spartan athletics today are uncanny, while the respective baseball teams were seemingly cast from the same mold.
Boss' Spartans followed their 2011 Big Ten regular-season championship with a fifth-place finish and made it into the NCAA tourney on the strength of their body of work. They'll even open against Pepperdine, too.
Revered MSU coaching legend Danny Litwhiler's fourth-to-last team followed its star-studded run to the '78 NCAA Tournament with an unlikely league title to qualify for the nationals.
"Our team that won the championship was the one right after Kirk Gibson left," Lopez said. "He came back to play football, but we lost his star power from the baseball team. So what we had was a group of good players who played really well on certain days and made a difference in us winning. Our record, overall, was just a little bit above .500 (28-27), so we were opportunistic to a certain degree.
"We made a big deal of that and even had T-shirts that said, `The Triple Crown.' We were very proud of being included because those were the Earvin `Magic' Johnson years and the football team beat Michigan and won the Big Ten. I think it's similar to the way it is now, but and I think the foundations are a little more solid than they were back then.
"It's just a good time to be a Spartan."
The '79 Spartans even benefitted from a well-placed rain postponement from time-to-time and the clincher at home against Michigan and future major leaguers Steve Howe and Rick Leach stands out in MSU baseball lore. The tarps covering the fence surrounding Kobs Field were pulled off to accommodate the 10,000 fans who showed up.
"They were standing four- and five-deep back there," said former Spartan pitcher Phil Magsig, who is in his 19th season as the Okemos High School head baseball coach. "It was just a super time."
Right after Leach hit a towering home run that traveled some 450 feet over the centerfield fence, Magsig recalled, MSU batting leader Rodger Bastien homered in the runs that lifted the Spartans to an 8-5 victory and saddled Howe, a hard-throwing lefthander, with his only loss of the season.
"It's 302 down the rightfield line and I think Rodger hit one about 303 or 304 for a three-run dinger," Magsig said. "They both counted the same, so that was huge."
With Pepperdine, Miami (Ohio) and San Diego State traveling to East Lansing for the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, MSU was brimming with confidence even though senior starters Jim Cotter and Brian Wolcott were unable to play because of injuries.
"There was something magic about that '79 team," said Cotter, now MSU's director of admissions. "We were hero-a-day kind of ballclub."
The Spartans were playing at home and "the weather was unseasonably cold, dark and windy," said Cotter. "We thought we had those surfer boys right where we wanted them, but then it just got away from us. I'm going to bet that this team fares better against Pepperdine than we did."
Michigan State lost, 15-0, but the next day Magsig picked up the win in a 6-4 victory over Mid-American Conference champ Miami. The Redskins, as they were then called, were coached by Bud Middaugh, who took over Michigan's program the following year.
"I was just a sophomore who had a hot hand at the time and we played well in that game," Magsig said. "The part I remember most is Bud Middaugh coming out of his skin with his pitchers. One guy would walk somebody and then he'd put another pitcher in. That guy would give up a base hit, and he'd put another pitcher in, and I was going, `We've got these guys.' It was fun.
"One of the only feathers in my cap is I beat him at Miami and I beat him at Michigan my senior year. Bud Middaugh didn't get beat very often."
The Spartans were a perfectly hit double-play ball in the last inning away from beating San Diego State, with Tony Gwynn in right field, to set up a rematch with Pepperdine. The relay to first was high; however, and the Aztecs rallied to end MSU's season with a 5-4 defeat.
"I played three years and I think honestly we had more talent my first two years," said Randy Hop, a third-team All-Big Ten second baseman as a Spartan senior and now a materials manager for Haworth Inc., an office furniture company in Zeeland, Mich. "But my final year when we won the Big Ten title and went to the NCAA Tournament, we were probably more of a team. I think we were closer-knit and maybe overachieved because of it."
The same couldn't be said of the program in the years that followed, and the success drought took a toll on former player like Magsig.
"I guess it's been kind of frustrating because I don't how much support (the program got)," he said. "But then all of the sudden, Boss comes in, they build a new stadium and he gets some players. I think Jake does a nice job, he has a good crew around him and he's had some players for a couple years in a row.
"I'm proud being a Spartan and wish them the best. Pepperdine is always loaded and all three teams out there play some good baseball. They're going to have to play their A-game to be competitive, but I think they'll play well."
Cotter is just happy to see MSU back on the national baseball map. He indicated the scheduling of tough games against St. John's, South Florida, Louisville, Texas A&M and Baylor in February and March boosted the Spartans' profile.
"One could argue against a team that finished fifth in the Big Ten getting in, but Coach Boss has shown he's not afraid to play anybody anywhere," Cotter said. "Those are things that caught the attention of the selection committee. I think there was always the belief that cycles reverse themselves, but in some ways this may be a perfect storm.
"Jake is a great baseball man and a great man, period, and that makes for a very good coach. He believes in the players and they believe in him."
The success of men's and women's basketball, followed by an upsurge in football and hockey, and gains in other sports like women's golf and rowing, is contagious.
"It goes back to creating an aura of success and getting people to believe it can happen," Cotter said. "Winning breeds winning, and the momentum has shifted with baseball. There's a tremendous winning attitude in that athletic department right now. It's always nice to win, but it's even better when you win with good people, and these are really good people.
"Now the challenge is to have an impact, and I think they can do that. The conditions are right for them to potentially win that region."
Despite the obstacles facing Northern teams, MSU has proved it should be taken seriously on the national level, and there's no reason for that to change.
"I wouldn't say making the NCAA Tournament every year now becomes an expectation, but taking this program to the next level is now a realistic goal," Cotter said. "I'm hoping we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I truly don't think these players will be able to appreciate the mark they've made for five, 10, 15 years."
Hop said he finally "breathed a sigh of relief" when he heard the Spartans made it into the tournament.
"I didn't think it would take this long, but it did," he said. "When you'd see your old teammates we'd talk about it and say, `Man we're the last team that's gone, and it's been way too long.'
"I haven't seen a lot of games over the years, but you'd keep track of them, always hoping they'd turn it around and for years they didn't. It's good to see that Boss is doing a pretty good job. I hope it continues."
Big Ten teams no longer talk about winning the "Triple Crown," but Michigan State is the only team in the nation to have its football, basketball, hockey and baseball teams qualify for postseason competition.
Can all that even fit on a T-shirt?
"I think Jake Boss Jr. is doing a great job," Lopez said. "I think he fits the mold of what's going on at Michigan State by building a foundation like the other programs are. Who knows how far they can go this year, but you just get the feeling there's not going to be that huge gap between winning Big Ten Championships in baseball and going to the playoffs anymore.
"I think it goes back to the top - who you bring in, and what kind of programs they run and what kind of kids they bring in. It's just solid."