Detroit Free Press: "Can MSU win championships?" Answer: It Already Has

Detroit Free Press: "Can MSU win championships?" Answer: It Already Has

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Detroit Free Press: "Can MSU win championships?" Answer: It Already Has

A fantastic piece by Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press examines a very real question.  However, the Detroit Free Press failed to include the most important word in its headline.

Contact @crowleysullivan

We like everything Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press does.

We’ve liked his work for many years.

We’ve liked all of the Shawn Windsors that work alongside of him and that have come before him.

Well, Rob Parker was not a Shawn Windsor.

But most of the folks who work hard to cover Michigan State sports from inside the belly of the beast have provided all of us with sensational reporting, unique and authentic insight, and powerfully compelling analysis stemming from hard earned credentials through honest, straight forward reporting for as long as most of us have been able to read (and for some of us, that predates Al Gore’s invention of the Interweb).

But, one of the things that some of us who have ventured out into parts of the country where people don’t know what a “Vernors” is have come to see is that the Michigan State “brand,” the Larry Nassar crimes notwithstanding, is far stronger “out there” than it is in Ingham County or the Detroit metropolitan area.

It’s true – Michigan State might not be fully be recognized as being on the “same level” as the team down the street that it’s dominated for a decade+ in football and for the better part of 25+ years in basketball.

But, what most Spartans have a hard time acknowledging is that UMAA has been, for a century, a national (and even international) “brand” due to a history that has allowed the university to earn that status.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to like any of that – but it’ just sort of the reality of the situation.

We have a lot of fun here at SpartansWire with the UMAAers and all of the dynamics related to the current run of dominance Mark Dantonio is leading for the Spartans.

That whole thing is just that – fun.

And maybe we have a chip on our shoulder.

Good for us.

It drives Michigan State and there isn’t anything wrong with that.

But, those of us who are honest with ourselves understand that Michigan State has a long way to go – just like Dantonio reminds us all on a fairly regular basis – before anyone can kick their feet up.

And it doesn’t help when it’s revealed that a man perpetrated the worst series of sexual assault crimes on a college campus for twenty years and that people at Michigan State were aware of many complaints and did next to nothing to put a stop to the crimes.

But back to sports.

I’ve often been puzzled with the way Tom Izzo – and many Spartans, in general – has had a peculiar penchant for worrying about how he and his program are covered and treated by the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, Tim Stuadt, and the Flint Gazette.

What Izzo sometimes seems (from my perspective that is flawed due to my own smelly breath and “smugness,” according to the UMAAers that see me as Public Enemy #1 now) to not understand is that it is his own work that has created a very real respect and admiration for his program (and the school his program represents) “out there” in the world beyond Ingham County.

In the halls of ESPN – where I walked and worked and chatted with people by the water cooler for ten years – Michigan State basketball and football have been respected and seen as programs that other programs should try to emulate.

I know – because I don’t have 10,000 Twitter followers and because I never logged tapes (TV stations used to use actual tapes, folks) at WLNS-TV, I don’t have the credibility to assure people of this.

I’m comfortable with that.

But, it’s a fact.

Spartans who continue to be angry with ESPN for showing a graphic that had Mark Dantonio’s face, Tom Izzo’s face, and Larr Nassar’s face on an on-screen graphic months ago fail to see the forest through the trees and need to just move on from all of that stuff.

And it all actually ties together when we examine the chances the 2018 Spartans have of winning the Big Ten Championship – and possibly more.

Shawn Windsor’s piece (below) is fantastic (as usual).

It’s informative, insightful, spot-on with regard to the way Michigan State has become a leading program in terms of identifying diamonds in the rough and mixing those unheralded guys with the LJ Scotts and other 4-star studs.

But Windsor’s piece perhaps only needs one, tiny yet essential tweak in order for me to not see a piece written (or, perhaps more accurately and more fairly, “published”) from middle of the forest –

The headline needs one word added right before the word “championships.”

If the Detroit Free Press folks plopped the word “National” into the headline, right before the word “championships,” then we’d be all set.

And I understand – there’s only a finite amount of room for words to make up a headline.

But the fact is that the headline is the reason for my longwinded soapbox session here.

Michigan State HAS won championships.

And words – or the lack of the most important words – matter.

Mark Dantonio’s Spartans have won championships with the exact mix that Windsor is expertly providing commentary on throughout the piece.

Three Big Ten Championships.

A Rose Bowl championship.

A Cotton Bowl championship.

Several other bowl championships.

And, in case anyone wants to quibble with the reference to bowl wins as “championships,” let’s at least acknowledge that a program that is, perhaps, the most successful program in the history of the sport sees the Sooners’ bowl wins as championships and touts them inside of their home stadium –

CollegeFootballNews recently named Mark Dantonio the 4th best coach in the nation – behind Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and Dabo Swinney.

We provided our own commentary on this here –

https://spartanswire.com/2018/07/14/ranking-all-head-coaches-130-to-1/

Dantonio often doesn’t even get that respect from the folks right there in the state where he coaches even though the facts are the facts.

There is only one thing Dantonio has not done.

And, I must be clear – I get that this is what Windsor is trying to ask – can Dantonio win that one, final thing that he has yet to win?

Again – put the word “National” in front of the word “championships” in the Detroit Free Press’s headline and all is fine.

Can Dantonio force the Detroit Free Press to publish a headline with “Michigan State Wins National Championship” in bold type and massive font style this coming January (or ever)?

The fact that the question is even being asked says a lot.

And, if it ever happens, the people “out there” in places where nobody knows how beautiful Michigan State’s campus really is or that the Spartan Marching Band is every bit as sensational as any other great marching band in the nation or that The Peanut Barrel is among the greatest college town joints in the nation or that Michigan State’s cyclotron rocks or that The Kellogg Center is as great of an on-campus hotel and gathering place as any in the nation will all say things like, “Yeah – Michigan State just won the CFP National Championship – seems like a natural progression for Dantonio. I wonder if Notre Dame will try to hire him now….”

Now, enjoy Shawn Windsor’s excellent piece from today’s Detroit Free Press – and pretend not to notice that the headline doesn’t have the most important word included in it…..

Can MSU football’s mix of walk-ons, recruiting stars win championships?

EAST LANSING — Michigan State’s best defensive end is a former walk-on. This shouldn’t shock anybody. Not even Kenny Willekes, who arrived on campus understanding that at MSU, anyone can be a star, and stars can come from anywhere.

That’s a nice American notion, and it makes for stirring screenplays. But can it make for a stirring national championship?

Head coach Mark Dantonio wants to find out.

The last time he had a team with similar sneaky potential was 2013. That Rose Bowl squad remains Dantonio’s best team, and had there been a playoff that year, his Spartans might have won it.

And yet winning the program’s first Rose Bowl in a quarter-century wasn’t that team’s most powerful legacy. Nor was it the way that team cemented Dantonio’s reputation as a finder and developer of talent. Even though that roster had a bevy of future pros who arrived in East Lansing without much expectation.

That Rose Bowl run kicked open a lot more doors on the recruiting trail for Dantonio and his staff. And with more access to top players, MSU’s recruiting success changed.

But the deluge of more highly regarded prospects began to change the locker room, too. Not to mention the chemistry within the program, which led to the 2016 debacle when MSU won only three games.

I’m not going to relitigate Dantonio’s worst year again. Last season’s team showed it was a blip.

Still, at MSU’s media day Monday, you could hear that the players and coaches still feel the ripple effects of 2016, and that’s a good thing.

No one wants to go back.

Especially players like Willekes.

The junior end wasn’t supposed to be the starter when Dantonio put together his recruiting classes a few years ago. But the players who arrived with more hype are no longer with the program.

Yet here he is.

Ready to keep reminding us that Dantonio’s old ways are the best ways, and that a recruit’s ranking doesn’t always tell us what kind of Spartan he will be.

“No offense, but how much (do recruiting rankings) really matter?” wondered MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten.

That’s a fair question with a complicated answer. Because, obviously, they matter. Teams don’t win championships without a lot of stars on the roster. And by stars, I mean recruiting stars.

And yet, teams need actual stars, too, and in the end, it doesn’t matter where they come from. That was something MSU needed to remind itself of.

“We are all looking for the why of 2016,” said Staten. “Like, how did that happen? How did that unfold? We spent a lot of time after that disastrous season trying to figure it out. I don’t want to say we got back to (our roots), but these last two classes are really tight, not just with each other, but with the rest of the team.”

As I moved from table to table during media day, chatting with coaches on both sides of the ball, talking with players who got to campus with lots of stars — L.J. Scott — and players with none of them — Willekes — I heard a few words again and again.

Togetherness. Chemistry. Brotherhood. Family. Identity.

These can be cheap words. Meaningless words, too, especially when they’re not backed up with anything real.

But these are the words that propelled MSU’s program forward, along with a near-inexplicable ability to find difference-makers where others aren’t always looking.

“They are phenomenal at recruiting,” Scott said of his coaches. “Coach D might not pick the four and five stars like Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer, but the guys that he gets — maybe not that first or second year — but by the time they get to their third or fourth year … they always come out.”

It stuns him, he said. And he’s been in East Lansing three years.

Scott remembers coming in with Willekes in the same class and recognizing quickly that he wasn’t an ordinary walk-on.

“I used to talk to him every single day about how good he could be, about how (his) name always came up in film,” he said. “To watch somebody like that, to have to work for everything … people can do it, (and it’s) a huge eye-opener.”

The effect of a player’s ascent from anonymity is hard to quantify. But when Dantonio stuffs his locker room with overachieving personalities, and mixes in a handful of four-star talents like Scott, he’s had his most complete success.

On and off the field.

Yes, it’s difficult to keep unearthing the Jack Conklins of the world and hope that everything comes together in a year like 2013. Even then, it might not be enough.

But Dantonio knows the formula will give him a chance, and that if everything aligns, well … who says it can’t be 2013 all over again?

Will it be?

That’s hard to know. What we do know, though, is that a run to something special isn’t going to knock the program off its axis again, and send the coaching staff in search of shinier recruiting rankings at the expense of its locker room.

Dantonio has worked too hard to repair the fissures in his program and redouble the foundation he’d built.

Hes got the best chemistry hes had in years, maybe ever, he said.

And if that means relying on a former walk-on to become a consistently disruptive force for opposing quarterbacks? One who needed 25 extra pounds this off-season just to get to 260?

So be it.

That formula got MSU really close in 2013. And can get them just as close again.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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