The Michigan State football team entered the conference title game dreaming of roses.
At Lucas Oil Stadium, the Sparty bus faltered. The drive gave out late in a thrilling 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game on Saturday.
The momentary prestige and superiority that fueled the engine finally ran dry on Sunday night with the BCS bowl selection:
Michigan State — Outback Bowl.
Michigan — Sugar Bowl.
It was a Spartan double-whammy, courtesy of the BCS. It wasn’t fair. Michigan was beaten fair and square at Spartan Stadium earlier this season and finished as the clear No. 2 in the Big Ten Legends division.
“Michigan sat home tonight on the couch and watched us,” said Michigan State senior quarterback Kirk Cousins following the loss to Wisconsin. “We played our hearts out — you saw it. I don’t see how you get punished for playing and someone else gets to sit on the couch and get what they want.
“If this is the way the system is, I guess it’s a broken system.”
Cousins is right, of course. It is a broken system pockmarked with holes and inconsistencies. But the injustice this season just might be payback.
On Nov. 26, 1973, an equally flawed system crushed Michigan’s season. That day, the Daily ran the headline: “We never promised you a rose garden: Everything’s coming up weeds!”
It was two days after a titan clash between Michigan and Ohio State, a pair of unbeatens. They tied, 10-10. At 2:01 p.m. that Monday, the Big Ten announced that the conference athletic directors voted, 6-4, to send the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl.
The deciding vote came from Michigan State.
Bo Schembechler was incensed. Michigan had earned the right to the Rose Bowl.
“They did everything I ever asked of them,” Bo said. “They outplayed Ohio State.
“The Big Ten will live to regret this decision.”
Bo took no time in diagnosing the faults of the Big Ten selection system — there were grudges and biases galore.
Wisconsin’s Elroy Hirsch voted for Ohio State. Bo claimed it was due to the Wisconsin Athletic Department receiving an unfavorable mention in his book that had just been released, “Man in Motion.”
Northwestern’s Tippy Dye voted for Ohio State. Then-Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham had made enemies in his earlier days as athletic director in Evanston after not allowing the Chicago Bears to play at Northwestern’s Dyche Stadium.
Michigan State’s Burt Smith voted for Ohio State. The Spartans and Wolverines had battled for over a year over television rights to their annual rivalry game. On top of that, the vote was a perfect retaliation for Michigan being the only school to vote against the Spartans’ admission to the Big Ten in 1949.
But the pot was stirred most by Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke. Before the decision was made, he volunteered information on Michigan quarterback Dennis Franklin’s collarbone injury.
Illinois’s Cecil Coleman heard the injury status of the Wolverines’ star player and flip-flopped. He voted for Ohio State.
“(The decision) was based on ignorance, petty jealousies and the exaggerated issue of Franklin’s injury,” Bo fumed.
It’s easy to see how Michigan went down. It was anything but fair.
“We got screwed,” said senior tackle Doug Troszak. “It’s a damn shame.”
What, you say, the system is flawed?
“It’s nothing but goddamn politics,” said senior defensive end Don Coleman. “The athletic directors were playing with us and we really got screwed in the end.
“I hope Southern Cal beats the (expletive) out of Ohio State. I’ve got nothing against Ohio. I won’t be rooting against them, but against the Big Ten.”
Thirty Michigan seniors missed out on the Rose Bowl in 1973. Today, in the BCS era, 18 Michigan State seniors were left out of a prestigious bowl.
Why? Not necessarily because of the running feud between the programs. It’s because the NCAA can’t find a just postseason system.
“I feel like we deserve (a BCS bid),” Spartans receiver B.J. Cunningham said. “We earned it, we got to the championship game and we beat Michigan.”
Unfortunately, today’s equation considers much more than simple wins and losses, B.J.
Michigan jumped the Spartans and will play in the Sugar Bowl — not because of talent or head-to-head success, but because of prestige, fan bases and money.
In a word, it’s still about politics. No matter what, there’s no way to get it right. Either way, it always seems wrong.
“I want to know a team that’s better than the Michigan State Spartans in the Big Ten (other) than Wisconsin,” said Michigan State senior wide receiver Keith Nichol.
“It just gets ripped out of your hand. I could literally taste that rose in my mouth and it’s not what I have right now.”
The Spartans have exploded for two brilliant seasons. Michigan is rewarded for 132 seasons as the winningest program in college football history. The two programs still aren’t even.
In this day and age, wins still give you roses, but prestige and money still drive the bus.