April 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

Terry Foster

Michigan State football on path to extended greatness

East Lansing — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio flashed his Rose Bowl championship ring in much the way a bride-to-be flashes her engagement ring.

He didn’t wiggle his fingers, but he held it up for more than a moment to let everybody know what Saturday was about. On Sunday, the rest of the team will receive Rose Bowl championship rings at a team gathering.

And this is what Spartans football is all about now. It is about flashing rings and bragging. Same with the annual spring football game, which no longer is just about evaluating talent and getting players ready for the following season. It is an opportunity for the Spartans to flex their muscle and show the world they are here to stay — and to get better.

Former Spartan Flozell “The Hotel” Adams made MSU a more attractive place to come when he donated $1.5 million toward the $20 million North End Zone expansion project that will replace a dingy and too-small dressing room and add training space, a media center and recruiting lounge. It will be a 50,000 square foot, two-story facility that not only will enhance Michigan State football but will be one the shiny bells and whistles needed to attract recruits.

“This is what we are talking about,” Dantonio said, flashing his shiny and colorful Rose Bowl championship ring. “A building like this will make a huge difference.”

'The sky is the limit'

When you talk about the landscape of powers in college football, you talk about Alabama, LSU, Florida State and perhaps Oregon, a team the Spartans face in the second game of this coming season. Michigan State isn’t here just to compete for Big Ten championships. The Spartans want to join the elite insiders club.

“We are tired of talking about the Rose Bowl,” MSU quarterback Connor Cook said earlier this month.

This program is looking for the big game and flashy jewelry.

It still is hard for me to imagine MSU going big-game hunting outside the Big Ten. But Dantonio is a game changer and as long as he is around, MSU will remain a pain for teams to deal with. If you told anybody before Dantonio arrived that MSU would beat Michigan five of six meetings, play in two Big Ten championship games, beat Ohio State in a Big Ten title game and win a Rose Bowl, you would have had your head examined.

But Dantonio said his team was capable of all of this before anybody else believed. He is not a miracle worker or snake oil salesman. He simply has a vision that few others had.

“The sky is the limit for this program,” Adams said. “So we hope they keep moving forward.”

Michigan State used to be one of those programs where it peaked every four years and then fell into the depths of the bottom feeders. That is not the case now. The Spartans won’t win the recruiting battle with Michigan and Ohio State, but Dantonio doesn’t need elite talent.

The game plan is to recruit superior athletes and turn them into superior football players. Dantonio also has a system called plug and play. He plugs guys into his system and they excel, something Spartans fans saw during Saturday’s spring game.

“I feel like this is as stable of a team they have had since I’ve been around the program,” said former quarterback Kirk Cousins, who now plays for Washington in the NFL.

“There are not that many question marks. Obviously the bar has been set very high because of the success of last season. But on paper it appears they have what they need to be able to sustain the high standards.”

'It is a family'

Cousins remains a central figure in MSU football although he just completed his second NFL season. He promotes his former program even when he is in the Washington dressing room. He wears nearly as much Michigan State gear as he does Washington gear and guys get on his case about it.

In his final two seasons at MSU, he went 22-5 as starting quarterback, winning a share of the Big Ten title and playing in the inaugural Big Ten title game.

Many believed Cousins was the key to MSU football. But we saw that was not the case. His replacement, Conner Cook, went from shaky first-year starter into a dependable player that made big plays. He was part of the plug and play system that MSU is known for and helped the Spartans to a 13-1 record and Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships.

“The difference is there are not 22 individuals playing for themselves,” said Jason Strayhorn who played center for MSU from 1996-98. “It is family. He has a group of guys who are givers and willing to give up their own personal accolades for the team success and I think that is why we are a reloading team and not a peaks and valley team any longer.”

The goal is for Dantonio to sit in the press box again watching a spring game unfold, flashing more shiny jewelry before his fans.

terry.foster@detroitnews.com

Even Sparty gets in on the act during Michigan State's spring football game Saturday in East Lansing. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)