December 27, 2013 at 2:25 am

John Niyo

Suspension turns into sad distraction for Michigan State at Rose Bowl

Michigan State is preparing for its first Rose Bowl appearance in 26 years without senior captain Max Bullough. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

It’s nearly impossible to script a perfect ending.

And that much was obvious as Michigan State’s football team began writing the final chapter of its dream season Thursday.

The Spartans started their first full day of Rose Bowl preparations in southern California on the practice field, where something was missing. They ended it back at the team hotel after a trip to Disneyland, where something was missing, too: A voice, a teammate, a friend.

The stunning news Mark Dantonio had delivered in a press release shortly after the Spartans had arrived in Los Angeles was impossible to ignore. Senior linebacker Max Bullough, a team captain and one of the leaders of the Michigan State’s vaunted defense, didn’t make the trip and won’t play in the Jan. 1 bowl game due to “a violation of team rules.”

By late afternoon, that nebulous bit of news still hadn’t been explained any further by team leaders or university officials, perhaps simply out of respect to Bullough and his family, which has done as much — or more — for the program than any other.

About all athletic director Mark Hollis would say when asked by reporters Thursday was, “Any time you have adversity in an athletic department it’s a difficult time.” He went on to point out that his focus remained on ensuring the other 100 or so players — and as many as 40,000 Michigan State fans expected for the Jan. 1 game — had “a great time.”

To that end, it appeared Disneyland was doing its part to ease the tension, at least based on the photos some of Bullough’s teammates posted on social media.

'Heart of our defense'

Still, the announcement of Bullough’s suspension, delivered to the players Wednesday before they departed East Lansing, left players “shocked and speechless,” according to junior punter Mike Sadler.

“We didn’t really know what to say,” Sadler added. “Max has been such an integral part of this team for the last four years. To lose him is tough.”

Fifth-year senior Kyler Elsworth, the most likely choice to step in as the starter at middle linebacker, said he’d texted with Bullough, whom he also referred to as “the heart of our defense.”

But while he acknowledged the loss, he declined to address the reasons for it, saying, “(Bullough) wouldn’t want us dwelling on that, talking about this. He wants us to focus on the game, not focus on what happened, whatever it was.”

Well, it’d help, obviously, if someone cleared up that last part. Whatever he did to get suspended, the best thing Bullough could do right now would be to offer an explanation or an apology or something — he’ll have to explain it to prospective NFL employers eventually — that might help shift the focus away from his absence in Pasadena.

And back to his team’s presence there, for the first time in more than a quarter-century.

'There are no winners'

Dantonio, who surely agonized over this decision and presumably deserves credit for making it if it was indeed his call, can scold the media for asking about Bullough’s absence. But it’s news, obviously. And he has to understand that.

“It’s extremely disappointing for all parties involved,” Dantonio said Thursday, reiterating what he’d said in the official release the night before. “There are no winners here.”

No, there aren’t. But it’d be unfair — and more than a bit ridiculous — to suggest Bullough’s suspension necessarily tarnishes this season for the Spartans. We’ll see what happens against Stanford on Jan. 1, but as even Bullough was saying earlier this month, “I know when I came here I wanted to win games, wanted to go to the Rose Bowl, wanted to be recognized. I wanted to leave Michigan State a different place than it was four years ago.”

And he certainly had a hand in doing all of that, a third-generation Spartans football star who only added to the Bullough legacy here.

But the storybook ending? As Elsworth was telling reporters at Disneyland on Thursday, “It’s senior year and you want to leave with great memories. And no better place to do it than here at the Rose Bowl.”

Hank Bullough played in Michigan State’s first Rose Bowl back in 1954. His grandson figured to play a starring role in this program’s triumphant return to Pasadena. Instead, Max Bullough finds himself at home, left behind by the team he helped lead.

Talk about a script in need of a rewrite.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/JohnNiyo