Same Old Spartans...

Hondo S. Carpenter

With the first hint of winter in the air, the Spartans marched into Memorial Stadium on a mission. Illinois came into the game wounded after three tough losses to three good football teams. The Spartans had righted their ship with a big win against archrival Michigan after a similar 1-3 start and wanted to continue the momentum.

The sparse Memorial Stadium crowd in the first quarter showed what the fan base thought of the Illini’s coaching staff. The Spartans took the ball led by dual threat hometown kid Keith Nichol getting his first shot and ran it right down the throat and the mojo of the Illini.

The first quarter came to an end with the Spartans up 14-0, and following up on the biggest stat of the UM win, time of possession, they had once again nearly a 2-1 edge. The 14-point lead however wasn’t the story.

The Spartans went on to win 24-14 even though they were riddled with injuries, but once again that wasn’t the story.

The Spartan win brought them to 3-0 after the UM game under the leadership of Mark Dantonio, and the bitterness of the Spartan Nation’s murmurs, after their three loss skid earlier this season, was still sore.

After being flat beaten in all phases of the game against CMU, a poor loss against Notre Dame, and being manhandled by Wisconsin, Spartan fans openly murmured about the same old Spartans. They won’t talk about it publicly. They will never address it on the record if asked, but it hurt. This staff has worked tirelessly to repair the broken mental side of this program. Coach Dantonio warned until people laughed at him for reminding us, “Adversity will come.”

They came in and repaired relationships and got a group of young men to believe in themselves. They overachieved in their first two seasons. The job that they did exceeded what anyone thought they could do. With the disappointing three losses earlier in this season the cries that came reigning down on them did hurt.

When MSU approached Mark Dantonio to give him a raise he wanted none of it. He told them to come back at the end of the year. After the season his only priority was his assistants and he only took a raise when it was insisted that all of the pie couldn’t go to his assistants.

This group has done everything that previous staffs haven’t. The name Dantonio was hot and sexy last season in college football for programs looking for a new coach, and he wasn’t out there (or his agent) secretly whispering his interest for either a new job or at least trying to milk MSU for more. That didn’t happen with other the coaches in the last 30 years.

Staff members, over the past two seasons, could have easily jumped from MSU to other jobs as assistants and not one did. In fact, one of the assistants, I know for a fact, was offered a job for more money from another Big Ten team and he laughed at them. He wanted to be at MSU.

After the three losses, some fans called for the staffs’ heads, but really do you think the staff forgot how to coach? When people demanded Dantonio fire assistants after two, three or four games, did his assistants instantly become smarter about the game? Don’t tell me how much they make. These men have done this when they couldn’t afford an apartment, and knowing most of them personally, the money they make didn’t make the jeers any less uncomfortable when their children heard it from THEIR fans.

There was nothing wrong pointing out mistakes that coaches make in calls, and over those three losses I know that I certainly did. That isn’t what I was talking about. This staff was taken to the woodshed for that skid and this group responded.

The UM win was the biggest for Mark Dantonio as a head coach.  This weekend you saw MSU take it to the Illini.  It can be argued that Illinois has more talented players on their roster than the Spartans.  They do not have a coaching staff that can compete with Mark Dantonio's.

One Illinois person told me on Saturday, “If we had your coaching staff with our talent, I can only hope about how good we would be.”

The Spartan Nation has been put through so much. They have had to watch coaches profess loyalty and love, while the university rotted from within. They played the politics and they jumped as soon as they could to another dancing partner. They have seen staffs that were out of their element rot from within. Loyal Spartan fans have paid millions for tickets and donations and they have done it loyally.

This staff's performance the past two seasons, on and off the field, finally gave the games best fans hope. It wasn’t false hope; it was firmly planted in reality. The three game losing skid was only several months from the past and it brought up terrible emotions and sadly some old feelings that weren’t fair.

It is never wrong to ask questions. These coaches aren’t perfect and do not expect to be treated as such. It is wrong to call for jobs of good men when a football season in a massive rebuilding project doesn’t go as planned. It is wrong to call out the character of people because of a win loss record and not off the field character issues; something this staff has not even had a hint of.

I have a friend who is an orthopedic surgeon. He told me a story once about a pediatric patient who was struggling learning to walk after a major operation. It bothered him greatly as he is a compassionate man. He told me that day, “What makes it hard is that I have seen so many who have had that surgery and many even worse, that get back walking fast. They just have that ability to handle pain and that will to walk. They are willing to go through the pain of recovery to walk again.”

As I stood on the sideline yesterday I looked over at Mark Hollis, the MSU AD, and his son. Hollis’s leadership at MSU has been nothing short of miraculous. He wasn’t in control under the same old Spartans, but he attacked it when he took the lead. I looked at the staff coaching like it was the BCS championship even while Kirk Cousins was about to take his final knee in the victory formation. I saw the smiles of players and the silence of beaten fan base and it wasn’t ours. I heard echoes of Go Green and Go White in an opponent’s stadium and it was sweet to the ears.

I saw a head coach, who is a man of character and integrity, that only a few short days before had people calling for his head. He has traveled border-to-border and coast-to-coast of this state trying to fix the damage he didn’t do and heal and repair relationships that he didn’t break. I saw the man who took a dream job at MSU that he NEVER applied for. MSU approached him.

I saw a program that may wear the colors and have the mascot of the same old Spartans, but those Spartans are gone. Those Spartans are not a part of this program. They are gone. Questioning this staff for decisions is fine; sadly the only same old Spartans I have seen are some of the fan base. It is unfair to shoulder this staff whose exemplary efforts have done nothing but dispel those demons with those same monikers. I have heard from several Spartans before that MSU is famous for eating its own, for attacking from within. I agree.

I think the Spartan Nation is, in a lot of ways, like my doctor friend’s patient. We have been wounded, but are on the road to recovery. We aren’t and won’t be perfect, and when that happens, it is fine to talk about, but it doesn’t mean that we are in the same place as before. I think the Spartan Nation needs to man up, police itself, and have to possess the want to, so we can walk again and get healthy.

This staff has earned it. This staff has proven they aren’t the same old coaches, and many of these players weren’t even here for the ‘Same old Spartans’ or weren’t players then. It is time for the Spartan Nation to keep high expectations, to want excellence, but to stop the post mortise temper tantrums that aren’t fair and, more importantly, detrimental to success.

My wife and I have a good friend who married a lady whose previous husband had been less than ideal. He told me a few months after their marriage that he was “Trying to make her realize that I am not him. Stop punishing me for him.” The same is true for this staff.

We are three and three after the ILL game, not what they or we wanted. There isn’t one coach or player that would have told you in July that they would be happy with this and their isn’t a fan either. What we do have is a group of kids that when injures were all over the field, when mistakes happened on Saturday, not one quit. Not one player or coach was part of the same old Spartans since Duffy left.

They were, however, the ‘Same old Spartans’ from the days of Duffy; hard working, tough-nosed and thrilled to be at MSU. I guess the next time I hear the ‘same old Spartans’ mantra, I will think of the glory years, not the past thirty.

This staff and these players deserve better, so do the fans. The staff and players are doing their part, now it’s time for the fans. 3-3 at MSU is not our destination. In year three of a major rebuilding project, one that isn’t fixing just the JLS years, but the last 30, it is understandable.

Recently Mark Dantonio set a Detroit media member straight who tried the throw the same old Spartans mantra in his face. Granted the media member was a UM guy, but imagine how coach must feel when he hears it from his fans?

I am glad we are fixing the past 30 years. I am glad that we are on our way back to being the ‘Same old Spartans’. Three and zero after the UM game and 2-1 against UM in his first three years tells you all you need to know. Time to get healthy people. Time to fight through the pain of getting healthy. This is our team and is being led by our guys. Thank God we are getting back to being the ‘Same OLD Spartans’.

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