Sparty Like it’s 1999: MSU’s Special 10-2 Team Celebrates Twenty Years Part V

Hondo S. Carpenter

BCS Blunders Began with Michigan State

After the fine 1999 regular season wrapped up, Spartan Nation turned its attention to the Bowl selection process. Twenty years later you can look and easily confirm that the Spartans should have been selected in the second year of the Bowl Championship Series, but Michigan ended up being slotted to face a relatively ho-hum Alabama team in the Orange Bowl. In reality, the Spartans earned that slot by beating Michigan head to head and finishing higher in the conference standings. But College Football was a good bit different back in 1999. Back then, the process of selecting teams for a Bowl was more intricate than it is now. It was a lot more the about perception of how many fans a program would bring from out of town and how each school could be marketed within a given Bowl city. Bowl Games were more competitive with each other than they have become today and operated more independently of one another than they do in 2019. There was no long line of games already slotted, and clearly tiered system of 40 different Bowl Games..

Michigan had just won a National Title in 1997, and would go on to milk that thing for as long as they could while fighting to hang around the top of the sport through the early 2000s. The Spartans, on the other hand, were just back on the national scene for the first time in more than a decade. It was no shock that the BCS committee in 1999 chose the Wolverines over MSU. That doesn’t mean they got it right. They did not take the better team that year, they did take the better travel-draw for Miami, Florida. Though it might have stung the ’99 Spartans a bit at the time, the positive feeling of the ‘99 season would not take a back seat. MSU was on its way to a New Year’ Day bowl game with the ‘Ole Ball Coach Steve Spurrier, and his fun n’ gun Florida Gators.

Saban’s Surprise Spurns the Spartans

Before getting deep into bowl preparations and recruiting again, Nick Saban went looking for a contract adjustment from MSU. Twenty years later we still don’t know exactly what actually happened between Saban and MSU, but we do have more information about those failed negotiations than we did even ten years ago. Still, it’s not entirely clear what happened to change the shape of College Football for the next twenty years, and all parties to the story have yet to publicly discuss it far enough for anyone to make total sense of.

We say safely assume that Saban asked for more money, to be delivered in a different way than it was already scheduled to arrive to him, at different points during the ’99 season. He also reportedly asked for other adjustments to be made to his MSU contract at that time. Keep in mind, this was 1999. Nick Saban was not the force he is in the sport today, and things in the world of College Football were quite a bit different than they have become since. Then MSU President M. Peter McPherson ultimately balked at Saban’s demands, and reportedly challenged him to see if he could find a better deal elsewhere. To his surprise, Saban found a much better financial deal with the LSU Tigers, then shocked just about everyone in Spartan Nation when he took it. Whether Saban ever wanted to take that deal remains in great debate now twenty years later, though more than a few times over the last five years or so, Nick Saban has strongly indicated that if he could do it all over again he would’ve stayed in one place for a long time instead of hopping around a bit.

Less than a week after accepting bid to play Florida in the Citrus Bowl, Saban called a team meeting at 7:30 a.m. to inform the team he was leaving for the Bayou Bengal Tigers of LSU. Saban claimed that decision wasn’t based on money, but more about an opportunity that was too good to turn down. Most around Spartan Football did not believe his story. Senior Running Back Lloyd Clemons might have been the only member of MSU Football to publicly state that he believed Saban had left for the money. That kind of statement was a big deal in 1999 because the college sports world was so different, and College Football had such a different statute in the world compared to what it has become today. While it might not have been as simple as dollars and cents at the time, it has always appeared that the Sabans left MSU in part because of how the money situation was handled by the MSU Administration. That still burns a number of folks around Spartan Nation two decades later.

Based on various accounts going back to the first days after Saban left, to as recently as a detailed biography on Saban that was published a few years back, Saban didn’t really want to leave MSU. And once he got to LSU and saw what he would be facing in Baton Rouge, he immediately wanted to come back. History suggests that Saban and MSU began to consult with lawyers, public relations firms, and even looked into scheduling press conferences to announce their divorce was not permanent, and that Saban was coming back to MSU.

Ultimately, there was no turning back. Not a few days after quitting on his team, not eight years later after a failed NFL experiment in Miami, and not any time since turning his back on the vast Spartan Nation has Nick Saban returned to Michigan State University to test the waters for his appreciation again. After establishing Alabama as a super power once again, MSU and Alabama actually scheduled a home and home series that would’ve seen Saban leading the Crimson Tide into Spartan Stadium during in 2017, but Alabama cancelled it in 2013. It’s not hard to speculate why Saban had second thoughts about wanting to return to East Lansing. Spartan Football was never be the same after Nick Saban left, and MSU spent the better part of the next decade trying to replace him before finally filling the void with one of his old assistants, current MSU Head Coach Mark Dantonio. Dantonio’s record at MSU stands at 107-51 to date. Saban left MSU at just 34-24-1.

Saban Playing Second Fiddle?…Please

Nick Saban was mostly a home grown Michigan State Spartan in 1999. After he coordinated the 1987 MSU Rose Bowl team, Saban dabbled in the NFL a bit, took the University of Toledo job for a year, then worked under Bill Belichick at the Cleveland Browns as their Defensive Coordinator for four years before returning to MSU with plans to bring the program back to the national stage. After grinding hard for five season and finally getting Spartan Football to that point, he all of the sudden splits for completely foreign lands? Everyone around Spartan Football from those days has a handful of Nick Saban stories that add up to the stuff of legend. By leaving MSU when he did, how he did, Saban truly began the process of becoming the type of coach that ends up becoming a true “Legend,” aight? As a modern day Saban would say.

There was no great build up to his exit. Sports media in 1999 was nothing like it is in 2019. There was no great chatter about Saban leaving for LSU on sports radio, or any mention of it in various sport blogs. It wasn’t speculated in the press or on message boards and social media of the day that Nick Saban might leave MSU. It just popped up unexpectedly one evening. In an instant, Saban walked away at the peak of his professional career, from a program he brought back to restore, with no guarantee of what would happen in his future. There was no indicator back then that Nick Saban would go on to become arguably the best coach in NCAA Football history, just questions about why he would walk away from what he had just buiilt.

At the end of Saban’s reign MSU was moving towards making a serious run at championships. Recruiting had gained national steam with Saban’s staff successfully identifying talent, organizing itself for sustained success, and by getting commitments from the likes of Elite 11 Quarterback Jeff Smoker, and another #1 National recruit in Wide Receiver Charles Rogers. Nick Saban’s best years at MSU were ahead of him. Depth in the program was returning to full steam after probation damages wore off, and the staff had enough time to begin gathering talent from all over the region. And even though Saban continually lost assistants to the NFL and other top college jobs, he was never short on competent replacements to keep a stellar coaching staff. To date, that tradition remains among the strongest points of his legacy. Just look at the current-day work destinations of that 1999 staff.

Ever since he left MSU, a lot has been made about a couple of comments Saban supposedly made after leaving about MSU. Saban was essentially quoted as saying that at MSU, he would always being second fiddle to the other major programs in the neighborhood. With Michigan, Notre Dame, and Ohio State having been long established as national powers, no one would’ve exactly blamed Saban for stating the obvious at that point. Yet, to this date we don’t know if Nick Saban ever really said anything to that effect. There’s only really one quote out there form that era, that was taken from a distant source, who has never provided audio tape of the quote, and has never spoken to the context accuracy of that quote as far we know. Fortunately, I got to ask Nick Saban about that very question before the 2015 College Football Playoff. Remember that one?

If you forgot, or have not seen that exchange in a while, which Saban reportedly did not enjoy based on how wild his foot started to go under the desk as we spoke, check it out right here at the 2:43 mark and decide for yourself

Are we really supposed to believe Nick Saban left MSU because he feared always playing second fiddle in Big Ten country? Right after he beat all those big boys a few months earlier? Michigan State competes with Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and now other major programs every single day that ends in “y.” And those programs do the same with MSU and all the others fighting to compete at the top of College Football. Twenty years later it seems more ridiculous to suggest that Saban, one of the most competitive coaches around in 1999, let alone since, would throw his hands up and run from the fight towards the friendlier fields of the lazy and then underdeveloped SEC. Since being asked about what he said back then nearly four years ago now, that issue has finally seemed to be put to bed, for good. And nothing Saban has done since leaving MSU refutes the notion that Spartan Football would’ve only gotten better from that point had Nick Saban stayed as Head Coach.

Surely, there was always a chance Saban would’ve been lured off to the NFL again. But in 1999 it came as a bold surprise that Saban would leave for another college program, especially one that had been so down for so long. In the end, there must be the Saban side to the story, an MSU side to the break up, and the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Maybe after Saban retires, in another ten years or so, we’ll get a fuller picture of the saga that went on around MSU in late 1999. Fortunately, the ’99 team that Saban left did not let his quitting ruin their closing statement.

Gator Bait

Coming off the best regular season in more than a decade the Spartans had a lot to prove in the 2000 Citrus Bowl against Florida. Not only did they want to finish the season on top for their own sense of pride, they also wanted to send a message to the country about what it meant to be a Spartan. It’s hard to quantify the efforts and sacrifices made by young men who play College Football at the highest level of the sport. It’s more than an all-year commitment, and it’s clearly not always easy. The same goes for the coaches and support personnel of the program, many of whom faced a big-time life decision after Saban left, and new opportunities were presented to them. Many of those folks have yet to shine much light on those days ever since, but there’s a great chance the build up to the Citrus Bowl was a little more unsettled around Spartan Football than it seemed at the time. When the ’99 team was left high and dry by their Head Coach bolting south before the Bowl Season, the impact had to sting a lot of Spartan players, but it also probably inspired them just a little bit more to prepare for such a tough, road Bowl Game.

After the Saban dust had settled and the man that preached to players to take ownership of their program had left the building before the season’s job was even done, it was up to new Head Coach Bobby Williams to steer the ship home. His Citrus Bowl bound Spartans wanted to send a message that true Spartans don’t bail on each other before the end of the fight. The ’99 Spartans were far from short on motivation as they headed into hostile Gator territory for the Citrus Bowl. There was no mistaking it, MSU was playing a true road Bowl Game in middle of the Gators’ home state.

As motivated as the Spartans were to play on New Year’s Day in Orlando, it wasn’t clear how the Gators felt about playing a home game against a Top 10 team. The Gators had a lot more to lose, with a very good Big Ten team coming into turf for the holiday, than MSU did coming in off the Saban departure, and fine 1999 regular season. Worse, Florida had dropped their last two games and was on the verge of closing a season on their first three-game losing streak since 1988. They were feeling added pressure of facing the first season without 10 victories since 1992, and would surely fall outside of the final Top 10 for the first time since 1990 if they did not beat the Spartans. All of that plus no clear starting Quarterback made for a rather anxious group of Gators. While the Spartan Football was dealing with some newfound growing pains, the Gators were trying to avoid slipping to a new low, in front of their own crowd.

The Citrus Bowl turned out to be pretty evenly matched as the supposedly “slow of foot” Spartans proved to be just as athletic and fast as the flashy Florida Gators. This one reminded some of the Michigan game from earlier in ’99 because of the intensity, and number of big plays that were made all day. It was a pretty wild one from the start. And if you recall, ABC even had an in-game phone interview with Nick Saban, who accidentally referred to the Spartans as “we” more than a couple times before finally correcting himself. He sounded like a lost dog at times on that bizarre phone call. There’s a reason those kind of interviews have not happened much in the twenty years since, as dozens of coaches have left for other schools at similar junctures. It did not go so well.

One memorable on-field exchange between the Gators and Spartans ended up in a fit of anger, confusion, and accompanying ejections. After a Gator touchdown pass, Florida Quarterback Doug Johnson started jawing at Michigan State defensive end Hubert “Boo Boo” Thompson, who decided to take issue with both Johnson and Gator Offensive Tackle Kenyatta Walker. A large pile grew in the middle of the field and the scrum did not end until coaches came off both benches to break it up. As the officials tried to make sense of the incident and assign necessary penalties, there was a mix up as to which Spartan player was to be held responsible. After a few tense moments and looks down a lineup card, the officials seemed to get it right and ejected both Walker and Thompson.

The game filled with big plays seemed to go back and forth throughout as the clock got deeper into the 3rd Quarter. This one had the look of one of those that would be won by the team with the ball in their hands at the end. After Plaxico Burress split Florida’s zone early in the 4th Quarter for a 30-yard touchdown catch, MSU needed a 2-point conversion to tie. Bill Burke went to his Senior classmate Gari Scott again for the conversion to tie the game at 34 with 10:36 left.

From there the Spartans and Gator shut down all scoring opportunities until the Spartans final possession. With only a few minutes to play and the ball in hand, the Spartans made one last memorable drive to victory. MSU relied on Lloyd Clemons’ legs, and the Senior ground out carries of 12, 6, 2, and 8 yards set up a Field Goal with just seconds to play. As Florida native Paul Edinger set up for the try to win it, Spartan Nation held its collective breath for the season’s final magical moment.

Edinger’s 39-yard game winning attempt came off the foot clean as time expired. As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Spartans capped off their most successful season in decades with a 37-34 victory over Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, in Florida. The Spartans ran off the sideline to celebrate their special 10-2 season by lifting Head Coach Bobby Williams up onto their shoulders to celebrate across the Citrus Bowl. You could see and feel the burst of emotion from the ‘99 team in Williams’ face as he was carried off during what was arguably the highlight moment of his time as MSU’s Head Coach. After all the ‘99 team had been through between the end of the Penn St. game and the final Edinger kick, that Citrus Bowl win meant much more than your typical Spartan Bowl Game.

Twenty years later it’s amazing to look back at where Spartan Football was before the 1999 season. It’s remarkable to track how that year took such a turn for the better late in the season opener, how the crazy times were between the end of the Penn State game and the Citrus Bowl walk off victory, and not only how that season shaped Spartan Football for more than a decade to come, but how those events ended up changing the direction of the entire world of College Football for the next 20-plus years. Twenty years later, 1999 still stands out a Spartan season for the ages.

It turns out Prince really knew what he was talking about. 1999 was quite the wild party around Michigan State Football.

Take time right now and follow Spartan Nation senior writer Jon Schopp on Twitter @JPSpartan

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