The only noise in the ancient home-team locker room at Spartan Stadium last Saturday afternoon was the sound of defeat. Showers droned in the background, tape was stripped off beaten bodies, butts were patted in condolence. Coaches paused at green-and-white dressing cubicles to whisper fatherly support to players with sore egos. In a distant corner, Michigan State senior co-captain Ike Reese sat on a bench and stared at the floor. "We tried," he said. "We really tried."
The investment is seven days. That's the rhythm of the fall. Michigan State players and coaches had studied like med students, trained like Navy SEALs and stoked their emotions until it seemed as if all of them would implode. Then, in front of a home sellout crowd of 79,687, they lost 23-7 to Michigan, a beating that took the Spartans out of the Rose Bowl picture, will subject them to a year of ridicule in the Great Lakes State and betrayed their preparation. It only takes three hours to lose a football game, but a week's worth of blood gets spilled.
Sunday, Oct. 19, 9 p.m.
The offensive half of Michigan State's coaching staff is in its fourth hour of sitting in a windowless meeting room at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building, watching tapes of Michigan's games unspool. From Sunday through Wednesday, when the game plan will be largely completed, the staff will spend more than 60 hours and eat all its meals at the Duffy. "Oh, I talk to my family," says running backs coach Bobby Williams. "On the phone."
In truth, Michigan Week began for the Spartans late on the previous afternoon, after senior kicker Chris Gardner's 28-yard field goal attempt had been blocked as time ran down, preserving Northwestern's 19-17 victory and leaving Michigan State players to wander the grass of Ryan Field like extras from Night of the Living Dead. The Spartans were losers for the first time in six games this season. After a traffic-choked bus ride to O'Hare Airport and a charter flight that landed in Lansing at 11:30 p.m., Michigan State video coordinator Tom Shepard and assistant Dean Olson had worked through the night in their own bunker, preparing tapes for the staff.
Now, Gary Tranquill, the Spartans' Yoda-like 57-year-old offensive coordinator, holds the remote in his hand. Around the table in the meeting room are Williams, assistant head coach and wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, offensive line coach Jim Bollman and tight ends coach Pat Shurmur. Often they prop their feet on the table, and they speak in a complex shorthand, dense with football terminology. During a break Williams walks slowly out of the room and barks to Tranquill, "Blitzes, blitzes, blitzes. They're comin' after us. I quit, Trank. Nice knowing you guys." His grim humor is appreciated by everybody in the room. Michigan, 6-0 and ranked No. 5 in the nation, is superb on defense: strong, athletic, aggressive.
It is nearly 10:30 when Tranquill stands and drapes a jacket over his shoulders. He was the first to arrive, at 5:30 a.m. "I'm tired," he says. "Let's go home." He pauses, then adds, "I believe it would behoove us to stay simple against these guys."
Monday, 6:45 a.m.
A crisp autumn wind scatters leaves through the predawn darkness as some 90 players scurry through the doors of the Duffy to watch the tape of their game against Northwestern. Offense in one room, defense in another. The sessions will last 75 minutes, and they promise to be bloody.
Tranquill works the offensive room and clicks through tape as players sheepishly sip fruit drinks. "I've been coaching 150 years, and I've never seen this many mental errors," he screams. Early in the session, he's joined by coach Nick Saban, now in his third year with the Spartans. After the film shows fifth-year senior quarterback Todd Schultz fumbling a snap from fourth-year junior center Jason Strayhorn, Saban shouts, "You should play 40 years of football and this should never happen." The rest of the meeting unfolds in a similar vein.