Michigan State's familiar fall draws ire of loyal fans
Posted: Thursday October 5, 2006 4:13PM; Updated: Thursday October 5, 2006 4:56PM
After a strong start in 2005, Michigan State QB Drew Stanton is struggling to regain his form this year -- something not lost on fans.
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Yielding to the same urge that causes one to slow down and get a good, long look at a smoldering wreck on the freeway, I am devoting this column to the woes of the Michigan State Spartans, a program that calls to mind what the elderly man says of Kramer in the Seinfeld episode "The Letter":
"He is a loathsome, offensive brute, yet I can't look away!"
Things go from bad to worse with the Spartans, who have been in a free fall since gagging up a 16-point fourth quarter lead and losing to Notre Dame 40-37 on Sept. 23. They followed that with last week's collapse to Illinois, a team that had not won a game in the Big 10 since 2004. As it says on spartantailgate.com, "Here we go again."
If ever a team could use a couple of éclairs on the schedule to get its mojo back, it would be Michigan State. So let's see, who's up next for Sparty? Oh. That would be Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday, followed by Ohio State a week later. Can you say 3-4?
When I visited East Lansing a year ago, it was to write about quarterback Drew Stanton and the Spartans, who ran their record to 4-0 with a 61-14 demolition of the Illini. By completing 20 of 26 passes, five for touchdowns, Stanton had "thrust himself into Heisman contention," I wrote. I made noise, further down in the story, about how Michigan State would contend for the Big 10 title.
The Spartans lost six of their next seven games. Two weeks later I was looking in amazement at replays of head coach John L. Smith's halftime meltdown at Ohio State, as he snarled to Jack Arute, "The kids are playing their tails off and the coaches are screwing it up!"
It was fascinating, in a perverse way, to see Michigan State implode against Notre Dame. Fascinating unless you are a long-suffering Spartans fan, such as Mike Valenti, class of '02, who sat in the rain in the upper deck at Spartans Stadium, shouting himself hoarse, pleading with elderly fans in his section to get off their desiccated backsides and cheer.
Valenti took the loss hard. He brought it to work on Monday, which is not surprising, considering that he is a sports talk radio host for WXLT 1270 in Detroit. Valenti came to the studio via the Detroit Metro Airport, where he'd dropped off his father, who'd flown in from upstate New York to see the Spartans once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
What resulted is the single finest rant I've ever heard on sports talk radio, a 12-minute, Old Testament philippic in which Valenti takes a flamethrower to the entire roster. A sampler of his sublime obloquy:
Now, I love Drew Stanton. ButI can't defend you when you play that way ... you HAVE to make better decisions.
And you know what? It's time for Drew to step up in a big game. It's time for Drew to play [in a big game] the way he plays against Kent State and Indiana.
On Stanton's teammates:
Every single stereotype about Michigan State football came true on Saturday night. They CHOKED. They ABSOLUTELY GAGGED. While Notre Dame played with fire, emotion, poise and tact, Michigan State sat there, and CHOKED ON APPLESAUCE. They CHOKED.
I'M DISGUSTED WITH THE GUYS WHO STRAP ON THOSE UNIFORMS. MAKE PLAYS! YOU'RE AT HOME. AT NIGHT. THIRD-LARGEST CROWD IN THE HISTORY OF THAT STADIUM. WITH A 37-21 LEAD. MAAAKE PLAAAYS! [Verging on derangement] DON'T SIT THERE AND PUCKER. MAKE PLAYS. [Thumping the desk in front of him] DON'T SIT THERE AND TURN TO YOUR QUARTERBACK WITH A PUPPY-DOG LOOK AND SAY, HELP US! WE DON'T KNOW WHAT WE'RE DOING OUT HERE! HELP US!
On Smith, the beleaguered head coach:
MSU is pounding ND, and they took off the accelerator. They mismanaged the clock -- AGAIN -- they didn't use their timeouts right -- AGAIN -- and they allowed an opponent to get into halftime and make adjustments, AGAIN.
IT'S THE same tired-ass story. Note to John L. Smith: Learn the effin' rules, and understand that your timeouts ARE NOT LIKE CELL-PHONE MINUTES. THEY DON'T CARRY OVER!
And so on. By the end of his scorched-earth oration, his voice is all but gone. I used to live in New York City, and it was fun to listen to WFAN's Chris (Mad Dog) Russo on Saturdays. With no Mike Francesa to check him, Russo excelled at working himself into a lather on whatever hot-button topic was at hand.
Valenti's cri de coeur transcends its genre, reaching the level of performance art. The guy had to go home early, and didn't come to work the next day. He'd lost his voice.
I gave him a week to calm down, then gave him a call. He was rational, reasonable, off the ledge -- nothing like the guy in The Rant.
Valenti had earned the right to be upset. He told me about how, growing up in upstate New York, he'd somehow cultivated a passion for the Spartans. "There was something about them," he told me. "They fought hard. I was drawn to them. I like pulling for the underdog.
He raked leaves to earn the money to buy a Spartans windbreaker -- to buy, get this, Michigan State football games on pay-per-view. By the time he was 13, he knew he wanted to go into sports talk radio. When he was 16, he and his father visited East Lansing.
"Once we set foot on campus," he recalls, "we looked at each other and I said, 'This is where I want to be.'" He was there from 1998 to 2002. "I saw the Mateen Cleaves national championship, saw the Nick Saban 10-2 season," he says.
State football is tied up, somehow, in Valenti's bond with his father. "I carry the torch for him, 'cause he never got to go" to college. Thus, Valenti feels the program's failures on a personal level. "I feel, in some twisted way, that if State could just get it right, my dad would be able to enjoy it the way I do."
When the Spartans spit the bit against Notre Dame, Valenti saw the disappointment in his father's face, and felt responsible. "I got him into this," he explains.
This being Michigan State, it's going to get much worse before it gets better. There were the Spartans, pratfalling against Illinois. There was Smith, slapping himself in the face to end a press conference two days later, a reference to Charlie Weis' alleged claim that the Notre Dame coach was slapped on the sideline during a fracas in the first half of that game against the Irish.
Smith was probably just trying to be funny, but he came off as something else entirely. SportsCenter led its show that night with the clip of a slightly wild-eyed man striking himself in the face, leaving viewers with the impression of a coach, and a program, coming undone before our very eyes.
It is painful to watch, and yet, we can't look away.