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Dallas — Thirty years ago you would watch him at Michigan State football practices and see the exceptionalism. The fire. The intellect. The ability to mold football players in a fashion not common among assistant coaches.

Ten years later, that man, Nick Saban, would be the Spartans’ head coach. And now, 20 years after what could have been a grand chapter in MSU football history was botched by a then-clueless administration, Saban and the Spartans are once again matched, this time as opponents, in Thursday night’s Cotton Bowl.

There will be countless MSU rooters holding in their hearts dual hopes Thursday as the Spartans and Alabama duke it out at AT&T Stadium.

They will want MSU to win and move on to college football’s national championship showdown.

And they will want, just as much, for Saban to lose.

It is all so unnecessary, so unjustified, this hostility too many from Michigan State’s world harbor for a man who left the Spartans in 1999 for a new job at LSU.

What was true then is true yet today. Saban never fled MSU because he wanted more money, or didn’t think he could beat Michigan, or any other of the wrong and shopworn reasons ascribed to a coach who was ready to stay in East Lansing, a place he genuinely loved and still loves, during those final days of November 1999.

And he would have stayed — fact — for no immediate pay raise.

This is the story that too many in East Lansing never understood, never accepted, or never have wanted to believe. That’s because, in the incendiary world of fan zealotry, it sometimes feels better to feel persecuted, to feel as if not only the world, but your previous coach, is against you.

So, they made it about money. And, to a degree, money had its place in the Saban departure, but not in a way as simple as people perceived.

In fact, Saban had been jobbed out of a bonus late in his time as head coach. The late 1990s stock market zoomed and an annuity that’s often part of coaches’ contracts was suddenly worth an extra $150,000. It was money MSU’s then-president, M. Peter McPherson, didn’t believe he could, politically, get his board of trustees to digest.

Saban viewed this as a bait-and-switch maneuver by MSU. And yet, with a contract that hadn’t yet been adjusted, Saban was still willing to sit tight in East Lansing in those closing weeks of 1999 and carry on with reconstructing a football program that was about to finish 10-2 and become something of a power.

That is, until a long rift with McPherson became, for Saban, untenable, when the president turned more bellicose than solicitous when LSU approached.

What was forfeited in those days following Thanksgiving 1999 is incalculable.

But it hurt the Spartans deeply. Saban confounded the critics who said he’d never win in the Southeastern Conference by winning a national championship at LSU.

He has won three more at Alabama and could very well be en route to his fifth if, as anticipated, his guys beat MSU and then handle Oklahoma or Clemson in the Jan. 11 title game.

But tell way too many of the Spartans camp that these championships could have been part of MSU’s past 16 years and they go nuts. It’s easier to ascribe treason to Saban than to deal with facts.

One of those truths is that Saban finally had it going in East Lansing after dealing with an inherited mess: NCAA probation handed down during Perles’ final years. Scholarships were cut and personnel consequences were dire.

MSU had, in 1998, only 71 players on scholarship. It meant the Spartans were playing at about 80 percent capacity. Not good for teams obliged to play four quarters of football.

But after five years, Saban had re-stocked the shelves. He had put his stamp on a team. He was about to do with the Spartans what Mark Dantonio has since crafted in East Lansing. It’s no coincidence Dantonio was hired by Saban and has borrowed heavily from his old boss in making MSU a national jewel.

What each man knew is that Michigan State was one of those places waiting, merely, for football stewardship. For a man who would maximize a place flush with resources.

Today, that coach is Dantonio. Sixteen years ago, it was, and should have continued to be, Nick Saban.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

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