Dec. 30, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
LOS ANGELES - When Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis made his prophetic statement while introducing Mark Dantonio as the Spartans' new football coach seven years ago, he wasn't talking about just getting to the Rose Bowl. He was expressing the pent-up desire of the MSU community at large, from top administrators to the fans in the top row of Spartan Stadium, of belonging here on a long-term basis.
"What I said was, we will not rest until we enter each season expecting to have paint of the roses on our cleats," said Hollis, alluding to the decorations on the field. "That's always the goal. It's not something that you say: `Well, we've achieved what we set out to.'
"This is the environment we want to be preparing for each camp, each spring ball. And here we are, realizing that vision. I want to have a program that come August, you're expecting this at the end of every season, and you realize there are many other schools trying to get to that same objective. Just to be in that mix, and have this as a potential at the end of the year, that's what we want."
Beating Stanford in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl Wednesday would be a big step in that direction.
At his final bowl press conference, held Monday morning at The L.A. Downtown Hotel, Dantonio said the Spartans are well beyond being satisfied with getting a Rose Bowl "participant" certificate, reiterating an assertion his All-American cornerback, Darqueze Dennard, made last week.
"I think that comes with being a competitor," Dantonio said. "But the biggest thing, and I've said it before, we've got to be able to handle success and move forward from here. Stanford has been in this football game before; they've been in BCS games before; they've played in this type of environment with this type of media coverage, et cetera. We're sort of on a new threshold here.
"So it's important we play and make sure that people understand that we belong, and that's a big risk saying that right now. I understand that. But you need to step out there and dream big. Our dreams didn't end with a (Big Ten) Championship and coming to the Rose Bowl. We wanted to win it, and that's our intentions."
Under Dantonio, Michigan State has rid itself of nearly all of the negative stereotypes often associated with the program, such as being able to beat No. 1 one week and losing to no one the next, and a maddening predisposition for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.
"I think fans are starting to capture the ongoing success that we've had," Hollis said. "Spartan fans of the past have always waited for the `Same-old-Spartan' moniker and that is something we have fought for the last five years. You want to have program that has decades of success, not years of success. That's what we're trying to put in place and we understand what has to go in."
Getting to the Rose Bowl isn't an end to a means, it's part of an ongoing process intended to return MSU to a time when broadcasters like Bill Flemming and Chris Schenkel mentioned Michigan State in the same breath as Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama and Southern Cal.
The Spartans have risen to the top level of college football before, only to miss opportunities to maintain their position after: A Rose Bowl appearance and back-to- back national championships in 1965-66, winning the Big Ten in '78, returning to the Rose Bowl in '88, tying for the league title in `90 and finishing No. 7 in the nation in '99.
With 11-win seasons in 2010 (including a share of the conference crown) and '11 (with a trip to inaugural Big Ten championship game), and a school-record 12 victories this year, MSU is on the cusp of erasing skepticism about its staying power as a national player.
"It's what do you do with an event like this not only in the short term, but more importantly in the long term, to capture the excitement of alums, of fans, of potential recruits, and that's all part of the business," Hollis said. "Once you get here, you can't leave it here on Jan. 2 when you get on that airplane and fly back. "You have to continue to capitalize on this opportunity and move forward with great expectations that you will return here again."
The lifeblood of every major college athletic department is supplied by its football program, and a healthy, successful one benefits its sister programs - 25 varsity sports in the case of MSU.
What returning to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years has done is possibly awaken a sleeping giant, if ticket sales are any indication.
"I know for sure we're going to be north of 40,000, and I would not be surprised if we far exceed 50 percent of the stadium being in green," Hollis said. "We believe it's going to be a home field for us even though we're three time zones away." Rewarding Dantonio with a competitive financial package and making enhancements to his assistants' contracts is an obvious way to give Michigan State its best opportunity to keep trending upward.
"Mark and I have met and we know where we're at with not only himself, but with everyone else on the staff," Hollis said. "We have in our mind and have verbalized where we want to be with the entire staff, the coordinators, the assistant coaches, and with Mark (so that) those numbers insure continuity if the choice of the coaches is to remain at Michigan State.
"I think we're in a great place. We've stepped forward. I get concerned sometime about where we're going with coaches' salaries as an industry, but at the same time as a coach, you need to ensure that that continuity is in place. The worst thing that can happen to a program is to let a coach go after a period of time where perhaps you get wrapped up into short-term thinking. Success comes from having people in place that can continue to move things forward. That's where I'll always be."
The willingness by the Spartan faithful following the team to Pasadena is heartening, but continuity is a comprehensive concept, as far as Hollis is concerned.
"We look at the market. We know what's out there," he said. "It's taking all of your core values and making sure you're rising there, and to do that, you need resources. You can't have a below-average football program if you want to deliver all the things you want to deliver to student-athletes.
"We will be as good as Spartans want us to be. Every individual that comes to Spartan Stadium has to make a choice, and they're making those choices based on their own needs. When you get into a situation like this you have to blend that with what's in the best interest of the program? If fans want to continue to come games of this magnitude, continue to compete for Big Ten Championships, all of us have to do our part. As an A.D., there are concessions I have to make, there are concessions coaches have to make, but in the end everything has to rise. That's what we're anticipating."
Paying what Hollis called a "modest" seat premium fee in addition to the cost of tickets, and filling the stadium regardless of opponent, as he said championship programs do, are long-range initiatives for a program whose budget lags well behind others in the Big Ten and nation.
Dantonio, on the other hand, is barely looking beyond the decision to take the ball or defer - it's been suggested that opponents want to start on offense against the Cardinal to keep its powerful offense from getting off to a fast start - if the Spartans win the ceremonial coin flip.
Dantonio's immediate concern isn't about salaries, ticket sales or improvements to the physical plant. It's about the impact this game will have on current players and all those who have helped the program become what it is today. He even Tweeted-out a link to a highlight video he had created to recognize those who advanced the mission.
"People see the product, they don't really see the process," Dantonio said. "I wanted to take a step back (so) we showed the video to our players, and I thought that would be something to show to everybody out there who follow. I wanted to make sure that we acknowledged the presence of those people who have made a difference here. So many different players have.
"So when you saw a picture of Javon Ringer running the football, I hope everybody who was on that football team felt a part of that, or a Kirk Cousins photo or whoever the case was. We tried to put as many guys in there as we could, and I just appreciate all the work that they have done as we got to this point. They might not share in this physically, but they're going to share in this and be able to identify with what we do."
Vicariously or personally, Dantonio is about creating something Spartans have enjoyed infrequently up to this point.
"I think football has got to be played with enthusiasm and our players got to have fun doing it," he said. "So we're going to make sure on game day when we walk into that Rose Bowl that we live a moment and we remember that moment." Hollis is looking forward to his.
"I guarantee you, I'll be walking out there and rubbing my shoes on that red paint," he said. "It's pretty cool that we're realizing what we set out to do at the beginning. I'd like to be here next year, and the year after and the year after.
"This very much feels like a beginning. You got here, what's next? How do you sustain to have the opportunity to get back here?"