Michigan State knew it would be in a BCS game about 24 hours ago when it beat Ohio State for the Big Ten championship.
Mark Dantonio spent the rest of the evening celebrating in the lobby of the team hotel in Indianapolis, sharing the special moment with his players and their parents, his staff and their families.
The reality that the Spartans finally made the Rose Bowl a reality didn’t hit the MSU coach until the wee hours of Sunday morning when he got to his room.
“When I laid down at 4:30,” Dantonio said, “I just sat there and said, ‘Wow, we’re going to the Rose Bowl.’”
His chase finally became tangible. So did the dreams of a generation of starving Spartan football fans. After 26 years, and in Dantonio’s seventh season, MSU will return to Pasadena.
The Spartans didn’t back into it, either – they won the Big Ten Championship Game by ending the 24-game reign of Ohio State as the conference’s star program. MSU’s first outright conference title since 1987 will be something every alum of the school and football team can and should celebrate for some time.
But, borrowing Dantonio’s word of the day, there is one minor asterisk with all the joy.
Without the loss to Notre Dame in late September, MSU legitimately might be playing for the BCS national championship. And if this were 2014, they almost certainly would be competing in the new four-team playoff for it. The Spartans finished fourth in the final BCS rankings, behind title game participants Florida State and Auburn and third-place Alabama and former Spartans coach Nick Saban.
“You’re in the hunt,” Dantonio said. “With the playoff system next year, that will be very exciting to go all of us. So the possibilities remain. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. We were 7-6 last year. It just gives you a great example of the difference between good and great is not very much.”
Think about just how mammoth the hype would: Dantonio vs. Saban, MSU vs. Alabama, winner takes all for the national title and college football supremacy. Heads would explode. (As an aside, Dantonio put Urban Meyer and Ohio State at No. 4 in his coaches poll ballot, one spot ahead of Saban and Alabama. He voted his own MSU team second.)
The past two or three weeks, Dantonio adopted the “Why not us?” mantra. Back when MSU stood outside the top 10 of the BCS rankings. Back when it appeared fait accopmli that Ohio State would be in the national title game. In some ways, it purely seemed motivational chatter for his team. In others, it felt Walter Mitty-ish.
Then again, so did the thought of MSU making the Rose Bowl this year in the dog days of September.
Even though that chance never materialized this season, everything that has occurred in the past 15 weeks continues to build upon the foundation Dantonio established when he arrived more than seven years ago.
What began Nov. 27, 2006 will complete one circle on Jan. 1, 2014. MSU will return to the Rose Bowl.
But Dantonio knows there remains more to accomplish. One major step.
“(The Rose Bowl) was the primary objective,” he said late Sunday night after the whirlwind weekend. “The next was a national championship. We’ve always thought to dream big.”
For the first time since the 1960s, that doesn’t sound like pure hyperbole. The Spartans now see and feel that their national title dreams, too, can legitimately become a reality.