Golden age for MSU football, basketball

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As Michigan State punched its return ticket to the Final Four for the first time in five years, Spartans fans found themselves celebrating yet another significant sports achievement.

It's becoming more than an annual rite during basketball season — and football has joined the parade.

Reaching the Final Four is nothing new — it's the seventh time in coach Tom Izzo's 20-year tenure the Spartans have reached the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament — but having simultaneous success in basketball and football is a developing phenomenon.

Call it the golden age for the Green and White.

Izzo has led his basketball team to 18 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, while coach Mark Dantonio has led the football team to four straight bowl victories.

The dual success is unprecedented — Michigan State became the first team in NCAA history to have a team win four straight bowls and reach the Sweet 16 during the same time span.

It's been a unique collaboration between the football and basketball programs, rooting each other on during their ascendance. Izzo and the basketball team sat in the stands as Michigan State played for the Big Ten championship and Dantonio said that during this Tournament run, the football squad had a watch party for the Louisville game.

"I don't know if there is a pair of college football and basketball coaches that are in sync as much as Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo," said Stephen Bardo, an analyst for the Big Ten Network. "It's unusual because you don't see the cooperation and synergy at this high a level."

But during the victory celebration at Breslin Center, Dantonio was one of the first to greet Izzo and the Spartans after they got off the team bus. In the midst of the celebration, Izzo made sure to acknowledge Dantonio.

"We're going to change the culture of what happens in college athletics — that's my goal and that's why I stuck around," Izzo said. "That's why I love my football coach."

MSU balances success

There haven't been many schools that have been able to find a balance between football and basketball success. Wisconsin and Ohio State have come close lately, but Michigan State is managing to sustain it over an extended period.

"As you look around the country, it's a challenge to find institutions that can have a combination of a broad-based program with 25 sports, the success in basketball that we've enjoyed and the return to that success in football," athletic director Mark Hollis said. "At the same time, the way that football and basketball can feed off each other does nothing but generate sustainable success."

Although they go about achieving their success in different ways and have seemingly different personalities, Dantonio and Izzo find a way to share the stage without being adversaries.

"It's a beautiful situation," said George Perles, a former Michigan State football coach, athletic director and current trustee. "We've never been in better shape as a department. Here at Michigan State, it's as good as it's ever been and it will continue that way under the leadership we have."

It seems odd, but that was the goal when Hollis began looking for a football coach after the 2006 season.

"About seven or eight years ago, when Mark Hollis asked me to be on board to pick a football coach — and we got one of the best in the country — we said we're going to have a day when we both win a national championship," Izzo said. "We're not there yet — but we're getting close."

One losing season, one .500

Dantonio has one losing season (6-7 in 2009) and has been to a bowl in each of his eight years. He also won Big Ten titles in 2010 and 2013.

As for Izzo, he's yet to experience a losing season, with his worst record sitting at 16-16 his first season (1995-96). He has won one national title (2000), been to seven Final Fours and won the Big Ten seven times.

There hasn't been this level of success in football since the era of legendary football coach Duffy Daugherty from the 1950s-70s. Daugherty won a bowl in 1955 and shares of back-to-back national titles in 1965 and 1966. Around the same time, basketball coach Forrest Anderson led the Spartans to two conference championships and their first Final Four in 1957.

"Michigan State is at the top in basketball and football," said football season-ticketholder Sean Gardner, 23, of Lansing. "Nationally, they're finally getting their respect."

Hollis the mastermind

Much of the credit goes to Hollis, who formulated the plan for the athletic department and gradually built things.

That includes innovative thinking — such as basketball games on an aircraft carrier or at a military base in Germany — to help Michigan State's program make more of an impression on a national level.

"He went around a lot looking at different programs working at different places," Perles said. "He's very intelligent, very honest and people believe in him and trust him. What he does as a director is give his sports everything he can financially — and that's not easy to do.

"There's only so much (funding) available — I was an AD — but he's done a super job with that. Don't forget: when he was a student, he was a student manager, so he learned from the ground up on how programs go."

Hollis, in fact, is just starting to reap the rewards for having an open mind about how to structure an athletic program and get the most out of alumni donations to provide the best opportunities for his teams.

"Hollis has done a much better job than anybody knows — he's on top of everything," Izzo said. "I have the best athletic director in the country, but I said that five years ago.

"You look at what he's done with Mark Dantonio and what he's done with some of our other sports. He doesn't get enough credit; he's the workhorse behind the scenes."

Spartan pride contagious

And because of the success in football and basketball, as well as Hollis' innovative thinking and leadership, things are looking up financially for Michigan State.

Donations to the school and athletics have increased significantly, and there's an increased sense of Spartans pride.

"Everybody is walking around with their chest poked out," Perles said. "We're all very proud of the leadership we have and the athletes that have played well and represented this school in a great fashion. The university as far as publicity goes, is at the top."