January 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

Matt Charboneau

Michigan State football catches up to basketball in national prominence

Missing coach Mark Dantonio on an attempted Gatorade bath is the only thing Michigan State's players got wrong at the Rose Bowl. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

East Lansing — Even two days after Michigan State’s Rose Bowl victory over Stanford, it wasn’t hard to bump into a Spartans fan.

For more than a week, green and white gear engulfed Southern California, and on a crowded shuttle bus to LAX last Friday morning, it was no different. Complete strangers, caught in the miserable crowds, were connected simply by their euphoria over Michigan State’s season.

If you were wearing the colors, that meant you got a smile, maybe a high five.

On the bus, the talk was light, filled mostly with fresh memories of the best play of the game or the somewhat fuzzy memories of the tailgating.

But then a simple question was posed: Was the Rose Bowl victory bigger for Spartans fans than the basketball national championship?

The handful of friends crammed into the back row paused and the bus lurched. They didn’t take long.

The Rose Bowl was bigger.

Memory lingers

Granted, this was a small sampling, and the average age of the folks on hand was around 25. At a young age, Tom Izzo’s 2000 national championship team didn’t feel like “their” team. As alums, this football team was.

And that’s fine for a small group, but it is an interesting question to pose to all Michigan State fans, young and old. Izzo has talked about how big football is to a college’s athletic success. He always has understood how big his program is in East Lansing and on a national scale, but also insisted when the football program catches up — and he always believed it would — it would prove his belief football is king.

The Rose Bowl victory has shown that to be pretty sound logic.

Even on a bone-chilling day in East Lansing, when students were asked to forgo camping out to get the best seat for No. 5 Michigan State’s showdown against No. 3 Ohio State, football was still on the mind of many.

The BCS national championship game had just been played, and the final rankings were out. Michigan State was No. 3, its highest rating since 1966. That got the interest flowing again as fans debated if Michigan state should have been No. 2 or if it could beat Florida State.

But the overriding theme was the same — Spartans fans are still ecstatic over the football season.

“People keep asking me does the (Big Ten) championship feel better, all these different things, these levels of excitement,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said last week. “I’m just so excited for our football team and our players and our Spartans fans and our families of our coaches.”

Committed coaches

Izzo and the basketball team are part of that, too. Izzo had his team at the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, days after they had suffered their first loss. He loved what it did to his team — watching a champion get the job done.

He hopes it carries over. His team has all the pieces to win another national title and not only cap an amazing year for Michigan State sports, but perhaps truly answer the question: Is Michigan State a football or basketball school?

Perhaps it is both.

In the marquee sports, Michigan State has it all. Its coaches are winners. One is the charismatic leader who will sit with students during a football game while elevating his program to elite status. The other will stare down the traditional powers without flinching, maybe crack a wry smile and then invite a rap star into the locker room.

Different men, but both are after the same thing and they are delivering. Each of their programs is at the top of its game.

Goals are still there

The ultimate prize is still out there for the football team and many lamented how a few bad breaks are all that prevented the Spartans from playing for the national title. For the basketball team, a new trophy could come in late April.

It’s what Michigan State has been shooting for.

“One game win or loss by one of us isn’t going to change what we’re building here,” Izzo said in early December. “But that’s that dream of, why can’t you have a successful football and basketball program on the same ground? There’s been a couple, but it’s few and far between.”

It’s all there for Michigan State, and that might be what’s most important.

The Rose Bowl victory or the basketball national title? Which is bigger? It’s a fun debate to have, but when things are this good, who cares?

Both programs are on the same ground now, and that might not change for a while.

“It’s sort of living the dream,” Dantonio said.

One Michigan State fans hope is becoming reality.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com
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