Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hail Sparty. And Hail Mark Dantonio.

Kyler Elsworth (#41) soars over the pile to make the clinching play as
Michigan State beats Stanford 24-21 in the 100th Rose Bowl.
Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—Curmie writes about something good that has happened. And so we start the post-Curmie nominations 2014 posts with such a story. It’s about college football, which could certainly use something positive. Of the last four Heisman Trophy winners, for example, one almost certainly demanded a huge (completely verboten) payoff from universities for his services, one violated a handful of NCAA rules with little to no punishment and is one of the most colossal assholes on the planet, and one is quite likely a rapist. Not that the talking heads at ESPN (or any of the other networks, for that matter) ever deviated from the script that anything a jock (well, a sufficiently accomplished jock, at least) might do is perfectly permissible. Similarly, coaches like Chip Kelly (formerly of the University of Oregon, now of the Philadelphia Eagles) and Pete Carroll (formerly of the University of Southern California, now of the Seattle Seahawks) escaped punishment for their recruiting violations simply by fleeing the jurisdiction: taking jobs in the NFL, where NCAA sanctions mean nothing.

So it came as something of a surprise that Mark Dantonio, head coach of the Michigan State Spartans, suspended Max Bullough, the best player on the best defensive team in the country, on Christmas night for an unspecified violation of a team rule. That just doesn’t happen to star players on big-name teams, at least not for games that matter. Sure, there’s occasionally a suspension about now, but it’s for the first game of next year (when the team is playing the Little Sisters of the Poor or some equivalent gridiron powerhouse), not for (shudder) the bowl game.

For confirmation of this assertion, we turn to Ohio State, where defensive end Noah Spence was recently suspended for three games, including this week’s Orange Bowl game. “But wait,” you say, “that’s an even greater penalty than Bullough faced. Doesn’t that prove that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is the same kind of stand-up guy as Dantonio?” Actually, it proves the exact opposite. As anyone who follows college football at all seriously understands, Ohio State and Coach Meyer have both had win-at-all-costs attitudes for a very long time, and did so long before the Buckeyes hired Meyer a little over two years ago. They’re perfect for each other, in other words.

And Meyer simply doesn’t suspend players who richly deserve it… not if they’re good players, at least. No, it was the Big 10 Conference that suspended Spence. Translation: Spence broke the rules (allegedly for using an unapproved dietary supplement, although the official reason for the suspension has not been announced), and Ohio State, rather than take action of their own, sought rather to keep their player eligible. Meyer’s staff actually helped Spence with the appeal process, and the coach pronounced himself “disappointed” that the player’s appeal hadn’t been approved: “he’s one of my favorite players.” Curmie is tempted to wonder if Meyer would have been quite so helpful had Spence been the #3 punter instead of leading the team in sacks.

Or look at South Carolina. Jadaveon Clowney, the team’s star defensive end, received two speeding tickets in a three-week period prior to the Capitol One Bowl, one of them for going 110 mph, both for exceeding the speed limit by over 25 mph. One of the reports, by the way, specifies that Clowney was driving a Chrysler 300—not the standard transportation for undergraduates. But there were certainly no illegal payoffs while Clowney is still technically an amateur athlete. No, of course not.

Clowney’s recklessness and self-entitlement would once have been cause for concern. Not in Coach Steve Spurrier’s universe. Suspend Clowney, or even bench him for a single series at the beginning of the game? Are you kidding? This is Steve Spurrier we’re talking about, and Clowney is a really good football player, almost certain to be the first defensive player chosen in the upcoming NFL draft, possibly even the first overall pick. Spurrier’s response to Clowney’s escapades, which resulted in the possible loss of his driver’s license and several hundred dollars in fines: “He needs to go to driving school, doesn't he? …. At least he'll have enough money to pay for it a week or so from now.” Cute.

Which brings us back to Mark Dantonio. No, he’s not the only coach who thinks rules matter (Boise State, for example, suspended their starting quarterback before the Hawaii Bowl, supposedly for urinating off the hotel balcony. He indignantly denies the charge, by the way). But he’s certainly in the minority in the ranks of coaches in the best programs in the best conferences.

Of course, the sorry collection of ex-jocks and talking heads that passes for sports journalism these days ululated at length about how Michigan State could possibly survive without the “heart and soul” of their defense. Not a word praising Dantonio for doing the right thing: if a player does something that should lead to a suspension, he should be suspended. Nope. Just veiled criticism implying that the coach had jeopardized his team’s chances of winning the big game.

The thing is that Dantonio actually seems to believe that stuff about sports helping to create better people—those who are willing to work hard toward a goal; who recognize that being a good teammate often demands sacrifice, but the rewards are plentiful and sometimes extraordinary; who truly believe that no one is irreplaceable; who value community, loyalty, and goal-orientation, but who refuse to substitute any of these for ethical behavior. He’s looking long term, in other words.

But it’s also true that there are short-term advantages to such an approach. If I’m in the locker room when the coach tells us that one of our star players has been suspended from a game that matters, I start thinking a little more clearly about the pragmatic as well as ethical advantages to playing by the rules. If bad behavior can get even Max Bullough suspended, maybe when Coach says he expects discipline from us, he means it. Maybe there’s even a life lesson to be learned here… you know, like all the over-produced promotional videos say there is.

And if I’m the guy who’s going to take Max Bullough’s place in the lineup, I’d better be ready. That guy, by the way, is Kyler Elsworth. He’s a fifth-year senior and former walk-on, getting his first and last collegiate start, replacing an All-American in the 100th Rose Bowl game. He draws confidence from his coaches and his teammates. He spends the week between Christmas and New Year’s studying film, going to only required Rose Bowl activities. He notices that when Stanford’s linemen get into a particular stance, the only way to stop what’s coming is “for me to go over the top.”

And so, with his team having trailed early on by 10-0 but now protecting a 4-point lead with a little over a minute and a half left in the game, it’s his job to help stop Stanford’s vaunted rushing attack on a 4th and less than 1. He hurtles over the prostrate bodies of linemen on both teams, arms outstretched, bearing no little resemblance to a condor launching itself from an Andean crag. He meets fullback Ryan Hewitt in the backfield, stopping his forward progress. A couple of Michigan State buddies arrive a moment later, completing the play… and the Spartans win the Rose Bowl for the first time since the Reagan administration. Oh, and Elsworth was named the Defensive Player of the Game.

This is storybook stuff. It may be that Mark Dantonio is as big a jerk as the other guys. But he (and Max Bullough, by the way) handled the announcement and aftermath of the suspension with professionalism. He got his team ready to play. And for one brief moment, as Kyler Elsworth slammed into Ryan Hewitt, we saw a flash of what college football purports to be.

It may have been fleeting. It may even have been illusory. But it happened. Oh, yes, it happened.

No comments: