LOS ANGELES — The landing gear from my flight hit the ground at LAX around 12:40 ET, or 9:40 here. Flipped on the phone to call family to let them know the trip went well. Got a few email notifications, too, that I waited to check.
Hung up with my mom and opened my inbox for a two-paragraph bombshell: MSU coach Mark Dantonio released a statement shortly after midnight ET that senior middle linebacker Max Bullough has been suspended for the Rose Bowl.
Details were scant, and the timing (12:18 a.m. ET, a few hours after the Spartans arrived in Los Angeles, late on Christmas night, with reporters either in transit or asleep for early-morning flights) adds some significant layers of complexity to getting those specifics overnight. Here is Dantonio’s statement in its entirety:
“Max Bullough has been suspended for the remainder of the season for a violation of team rules. It is extremely disappointing for all parties involved. We will stay focused and close ranks as we prepare for Stanford on January 1 in the Rose Bowl. Max will forever remain a Spartan and valued member in this team’s achievements.
“We will have no further comment on this issue.”
A neutron bomb delivered down the chimney on the eve of MSU’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 26 years. Dantonio certainly realizes plenty more questions are ahead about the situation and circumstances. The Spartans and Stanford will hold a joint Rose Bowl kickoff press conference at 5 p.m. ET at Disneyland, which will be the coach’s first availability.
Bullough’s absence all of a sudden becomes the biggest story of this Rose Bowl. This is the two-time captain and nerve center of the nation’s best defense we’re talking about. And make no mistake: Missing that Jan. 1 game – which Dantonio has pointed to since arriving after the 2006 season – will tarnish Bullough’s on-the-field legacy, regardless of what his transgression might be.
Earlier this month, Bullough was named a first-team Academic All-American (3.56 GPA in finance), so it’s highly unlikely that it is grade-related. He also took part in MSU’s bowl media day on Dec. 17.
The Rose Bowl folks obviously expected Bullough to be here. His name was listed for Friday’s MSU defense press conference (along with coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Shilique Calhoun, Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis). That email went out at 12:31 a.m. on Christmas Eve and was forwarded along with no changes about 10 hours later by MSU Sports Information.
The Detroit News confirmed early Thursday morning that Bullough did not make the trip to Pasadena with the Spartans. The team’s 269-passenger charter flight arrived early Wednesday evening.
One of the stories I spent last week reporting on for this week was about the positive change and lack of off-field issues surrounding MSU’s program since the Rather Hall fight in 2009. Obviously, this more or less torpedoes that piece. Bullough had one of the rare run-ins with the law since, when he and former tight end Brian Linthicum were arrested in Colorado on spring break in 2011. Bullough eventually pleaded to a lessened charge of underage alcohol possession and received probation. By all accounts, that appeared to be an isolated incident.
On Dec. 17, I asked him about what the change in culture around MSU’s program has been like – never expecting to use these quotes in a piece on Bullough himself. Here’s our conversation:
Q: How much of this team’s character is a result of its success, and how much of the success is a result of what’s happened with the character of this team?
BULLOUGH: “Well, I think any time you have a team that wins a lot of games – a team that wins consecutive years in a row – it comes down to the type of guys you have. We talked about handling adversity last year, handling success two years before that and this year. And those are things that come from the character of the guys. And those are things that allow you to win games, to win consistently. And those are the type of guys that coach D recruits. I think they go hand-in-hand. I think having good guys and having consistent success, they go hand-in-hand. You have to have one to have the other.
Q: Have you noticed a difference in the moral fiber of the players coming in over time? Has that changed or has it been cultivated?
BULLOUGH: “I think it’s cultivating. We’ve always had a lot of great guys come in. A lot of seniors in high school are the same – they all think they’re gonna play the first year; I was the same way. But it’s been cultivating. It’s been setting the example and then proving the example. The more times you do thing – you get things wrong, you get things right – the better you become. Ultimately, that’s what we’ve done here. And every senior class, I think, has done a better job at it. They’ll do a better job next year than we did this year.
Q: How have you guys held each other accountable to prevent things from happening that may either tear down what you’re building or may reflect negatively on the program?
BULLOUGH: I mean, it’s just about acting as a team, acting as one. It’s about not wanting to let the next guy down. You see how much they do and how much they put in for you, because you’re part of the team. Really, that guy working, he’s doing his thing, but he’s putting it in for the team. And ultimately, you’re part of the team. So you don’t want to disappoint, you don’t want to let them down. You don’t want to do that.
A little more than two hours after the MSU email arrived announcing his suspension this morning, Bullough took to Twitter and sent a message to fellow linebacker Taiwan Jones. Jones was lamenting the time difference between EL and LA and wondering if anyone back east was awake.
Bullough replied: “you kno im not sleepin bru]” (sic)
Take that for what you will. I reached out to Bullough via Twitter and asked if he wanted to talk or had a statement. No response. Didn’t really expect one, either, without knowing what the circumstances might be. He deserves a chance to give his side.
However, when the senior captain takes to social media in the wee hours of the morning after being suspended, he does open himself up for questioning. A stunned fan base is looking for answers, explanations and/or apologies.
After a long and unexpectedly chaotic Christmas night, I’m off to bed (don’t even ask me about the 2-plus hours in the LAX rental car line while this whole Bullough thing played out). Expect plenty on this story from LSJ.com, GreenAndWhite.com and Freep.com throughout the day. I will be heading to the MSU-Stanford press conference at Disneyland and (hopefully) have more then from Dantonio and others.