We won on the field. We won off the field, reaping benefits short- and long-term. We came together as Spartan Nation and showed the world the compelling saga that is Michigan State University.
The 100th Granddaddy of ’Em All may have been the Grandest of ’Em All, given all the great storylines.
The 2013 MSU football team did more than win championships and set records. Its journey was filled with inspirational stories that captivated the nation. Its rise from nowhere to No. 3 in the nation was the stuff of magic. A team that struggled to score at the beginning of the season went on to win a record 13 games, the Legends Division title, the Big Ten championship and the historic 100th Rose Bowl. Unlikely Spartan heroes emerged, adding to the lore. In the end, it was a tale of good things happening to good people.
An estimated 18.6 million viewers tuned in to the game telecast on New Year’s Day, making the Rose Bowl the highest-rated ESPN bowl game in history. What the viewers saw was this season’s most dominant defense in college football—not just statistically, but also via the eyeball test.
Just as impressive was the swarming turnout of Spartan Nation. Scribes from Hollywood might have dubbed it The Invasion of the Green and White Species, as they espied green-hued fans in every corner, canyon and seaside pier of the greater Los Angeles area. Some 60,000 made it to the game and made the Rose Bowl seem like Spartan Stadium West.
At least 10,000 Spartan faithful jammed Nokia Plaza and the streets surrounding LA Live, the vast entertainment complex adjacent to the Staples Center. Fans filled the enormous plaza and overflowed into side streets, making the crowd seem perhaps like 27,000. Whatever the exact count, it was a sea of humanity that sprawled out as far as one could see.
A similar crowd attended the MSU Alumni Association’s pregame tailgate at the Brookside Golf Course, next to the Rose Bowl Stadium just a wedge shot across the Central Arroyo. It was the largest MSU tailgate in memory—and one of the most entertaining, with Billy and the Beaters, a versatile oldies band, supplying the music.
The Spartan Marching Band, under John Madden’s direction, was ubiquitous in Southern California. They marched in the parade and looked ever so crisp and disciplined. They marched onto the stadium field with the famous kick-step, a dramatic uptempo entrance that MSU first unveiled at the 1954 Rose Bowl. They provided a stark contrast to the free-form band from Stanford.
Closely tied to football’s success have been surges in fundraising, donor participation and alumni membership, along with a probable future surge in admissions. The Spartan Fund, for example, has already registered a huge increase in the number of donors. Its total fundraising by the end of 2013 was in excess of $15 million, more than double the previous year. Similarly, the MSU Alumni Association registered over 1,400 new members at year’s end, coinciding with bowl tour activities.
The football success could enhance future recruiting, as up and coming players are likely to prefer winning programs. One inside source notes that in the future, coaches from other schools can no longer tell recruits “you can’t win at MSU”—an oft-used pitch that now rings hollow.
Countless Spartans found their way to Pasadena. Helping pave the way for many travelers were some collaborative efforts by the MSU Alumni Association and University Advancement, led by Scott Westerman and Bob Thomas and their teams, who worked with Conlin Travel to organize the official tour. The advancement teams helped stage the pep rally, the tailgate, the New Year’s Eve party at the Dolby Theatre and other gala events. These efforts provided opportunities for alumni to reconnect with the university, with their families and with each other.
“That sure was a fun few days,” writes one typical alumna, who joined the official tour with six family members. “Too bad it went by so quickly. I can’t say enough good things about the organization and attention to details. Conlin did a great job. Huge kudos to the MSU Alumni Association which added so many nice touches to everything. I’ve wanted to go to the Rose Bowl ever since I was in high school and finally, the dream came true. L.A. and Michigan newspapers, all said such wonderful things about our Spartans and our victory.”
MSU Communications and Brand Strategy (CABS) made sure to leverage the university’s exposure. CABS seized the moment with social media blitzes, billboards, ads and other publicity avenues to showcase just how Spartans Will.
Strategically placed billboards near the Los Angeles Airport and in the heart of Hollywood Boulevard, by both MSU and by local clubs, generated considerable buzz.
Alumni clubs organized 63 official game watches from Hollywood to England and Canada to as far as Hong Kong, India, China, Taiwan and Japan. Undoubtedly many more unofficial get-togethers took place.
Typical was the club of Denver, CO, which gathered some 700 Spartans at the Blake Street Tavern. In Austin, TX, some 150 Spartans gathered at Third Base Sport—and the club reports that no one wanted to leave after the game. In Taipei, 31 Spartans and eight Stanford alumni gathered at the Brass Monkey at 5:30 a.m. local time. At game’s end, reports club president “Tiger” Han-Wei Chang, ’09, everyone hugged and high-fived each other. “Coach (Dantonio) is the man,” writes Tiger. “I almost cried.”
Similar emotional outpourings were undoubtedly shared by Spartans around the globe. A T-shirt campaign netted some 1,000 new members for the MSU Alumni Association, according to Maria Giggy, director of membership and marketing for the MSUAA. Hundreds more joined in order to be a part of the official tour, which sold out in a record 12 hours—to the chagrin of thousands who had to find alternate ways to Pasadena.
Spartan Central, the alumni website dedicated to postseason sports activities, helped promote Rose Bowl events, tour and activities. From December 7, 2013 to January 6, 2014, the site received 192,269 page views, making it the highest viewed University Advancement web page for that time period. Spartan Central saw the greatest traffic on December 8, 2013, the day after the B1G Championship, with 40,459 views.
Included in Spartan Central were a series of blogs that included highlights, anecdotes and memories of previous MSU Rose Bowl glory.
The University Advancement social media team created some viral activity with the hashtag #MSURoses, which was used by 449 different accounts and was visible to over 624,178 people.
The actual football game produced not just a win but also great storylines that support the image of MSU as a place of great opportunity. Just as many graduates leverage their MSU education into success sagas. The game’s two MVPs reinforced the university as a place of opportunity. Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook was not even a starter when the season began, and senior linebacker Kyler Elsworth was a former walk-on who started only because of a teammate’s suspension. Their stardom resulted from their hard work, effort and tenacity.
Few tales are more heart-warming than Elsworth’s. A fifth-year senior, he chose to pay his own way at MSU over scholarship offers at other universities. His hard work and loyalty paid off, five years later. When opportunity knocked, a punster might say he “rose to the occasion.” His flying tackle to stop Stanford’s fullback on fourth down late in the game helped seal MSU’s 24-20 win. The play became an instant viral sensation on YouTube.
MSU is about team and about family. Helping Elsworth make the tackle were two teammates, defensive end Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Damien Harris, who hit the Stanford fullback low. Paving the way for those tackles were the defensive linemen who dove low to neutralize the Cardinal offensive line push. It was a total defensive team effort—but the glory went to the former walk-on who had labored in obscurity his entire career. Elsworth had taken the place of suspended senior co-captain, Max Bullough, an MSU legacy who played a key role in bringing the football program along this far. Hollywood scribes couldn’t have made this up.
There were so many other storybook angles. Cook, who struggled with passing accuracy early in the season, emerged as the second-string All-Big Ten signal caller. He won MVP honors in the Big Ten Championship game and again in the Rose Bowl, throwing 22-for-36 for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns. MSU wide receivers, criticized for a penchant to drop passes, made critical plays all season long; junior Tony Lippett caught the winning touchdown.
In September, the coaches were trying out a number of players at running back to replace Le’veon Bell, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Junior Jeremy Langford, who had auditioned at cornerback and wide receiver, emerged—leading the team with 1,210 rushing yards and the Big Ten with 16 rushing touchdowns. He tied a record set by Lorenzo White of gaining over 100 rushing yards in seven consecutive games. Many of his late touchdown wins helped seal victories.
Langford’s success is due to a greatly improved offensive line and to co-offensive coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner, along with Brad Salem and Terrence Samuel.
MSU’s defense led the nation in most statistics. Outside linebacker Denicos Allen, who has made so many critical plays in his career, played like an All-American. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard—winner of the 2013 Thorpe Award—anchored the so-called “No Fly Zone,” along with Isaiah Lewis, Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes.
Beyond statistics, the “Spartan Dawgs” looked the part. Just ask the University of Michigan, which they held to minus 48 yards in rushing. It was the lowest rushing output in the history of a team that likes to tout its history. They also stymied Stanford players, who after the Rose Bowl gave due credit to the stalwart unit led by coordinator Pat Narduzzi, winner of the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant football coach, and Harlon Barnett, Ron Burton and Mike Tressel.
The heart and soul of this great story is Mark Dantonio, in his seventh season as MSU head football coach. From day one he has stated that his goal was to lead MSU to win the Rose Bowl.
Right after the win, Dantonio was asked by ESPN’s Chris Fowler, “What are you most proud of?” He answered with one word, “Completion.”
Dantonio’s success illustrates the process of “Boldness by Design” that President Lou Ann K. Simon has long advocated for Team MSU. Not many coaches would have laid out such a lofty goal so publicly. Two years ago, Dantonio adopted the acronym PFRB—for Prepare for Rose Bowl. He came so close. But seven years into his head coaching career at MSU, his bold quest has reached completion.
Spartan fans may wonder, “What is next?” Dantonio has not stopped being bold. He recently hired an assistant to put in place some innovative plans in recruiting. He has stated that his next quest is to win the national championship.
Speaking of completion, there is history that has come full circle. Just as MSU won the 100th Rose Bowl, there is another centennial milestone that should not be ignored. The last time MSU football had such unexpected success was a hundred years ago, in 1913, when Michigan Agricultural College upset Big Ten powerhouses Michigan and Wisconsin in back-to-back weekends and entered the national championship conversation.
Yet another piece of history coming full circle is that the first ever Rose Bowl, in 1902, was won by another team from Michigan. They also beat Stanford.
MSU’s win over Stanford also struck a huge blow for the Big Ten, which had lost nine out of the previous 10 Rose Bowls. In 1988, similarly, MSU’s win over Southern California ended a humiliating 6-game conference losing streak. MSU now boasts an 80 percent win percentage in the Rose Bowl. Only one other Big Ten team has a winning record in the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten should salute MSU—even going beyond football. MSU is not only the last Big Ten team to win the Rose Bowl, it is also the last Big Ten team to win an NCAA championship in basketball (2000) and in ice hockey (2007).
Remember when the Big Ten was caricatured as the Big Two and the Little Eight? How quaint does this phrase sound now? Both “Big Two” marquee teams suffered bowl losses. Today we have the Green Meanies and 11 teams that play nice on defense.
Speaking of completion, MSU is finding ways to leverage this season the same way the late John Hannah leveraged football to help MSU get into the Big Ten Conference in the late 1940s.
President Lou Anna K. Simon, who often refers to “borrowing a page from John Hannah’s playbook,” reminded those attending the pep rally at L. A. Live that MSU boasts many other “Rose Bowls” in academics—such as the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, the new world-class Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, and many other achievements in academics, research and culture.
With the university poised to launch a new capital campaign, the win has without doubt served to energize the volunteer leaders and drawn the attention of prospective donors. At the very least, alumni will be more predisposed to reconnect with their alma mater.
Speaking of alumni, how impressive was alumni head servant Scott Westerman as emcee at the pep rally and other events? A former broadcaster, he boasts impeccable timing and contagious enthusiasm. He knows just what to say and when. He also knows how to get out of the way and let the stars like Mark Dantonio and Kirk Cousins shine—which they did at the pep rally.
Dantonio’s a man of few words, but every word he utters counts. “Move the rock.” “Pride comes before the fall.” “Create and extend plays.” “Chase it.” “Find the inches.” “Complete the circle.” “Let the lion out of the cage.” “You are the ones.” “Dream big.”
Here’s his mission statement, simple yet so powerful: “Our teams will play consistently with great effort, toughness and passion while working daily to again become Big Ten champions. We will graduate our young people and look forward to having a lifelong relationship with each as they move forward to impact our society. We will not rest until our dreams of a Rose Bowl victory and a national championship are met. This is our tradition and our heritage. We are Spartans, and this is our destiny.”
Many Spartans rued the plethora of flags that referees threw against MSU in an early game against Notre Dame—the only loss of the season. Mark Dantonio, however, did not dwell on the setback. Instead, he put all the focus on what he could control—winning the remaining games.
At every critical juncture, things worked out for MSU. To paraphrase Dantonio, MSU was able to “find the inches.”
As college football moves from its BCS to a playoff system, MSU goes down in history as the last “traditional” Rose Bowl winner. And as the Big Ten goes into East and West divisions, MSU goes down in history as the dominant Legends team, winning the division in two of its three years of existence.
The Rose Bowl of 2014 will clearly be a part of the MSU narrative for a long time, but it does not mark the end of anything. As President Obama reminded his audience at MSU’s McPhail Equine Center, where he signed the Farm Bill on February 7, Spartans look forward to more possible success in April’s NCAA basketball championship.
“You already got a Rose Bowl victory,” Obama says to the MSU audience. “You guys are…. You’re greedy. You want to win everything.”