Sometimes football games entail so much more than what takes place on the field. The Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., tomorrow, pitting Alabama versus Michigan State, is one such example.
To understand why, let's start in December 1989, when future University of Alabama football star Mark Ingram was born. He was named after his father, who played football for Michigan State and the New York Giants. Twenty years later, Ingram Jr. would win the Heisman Trophy, annually given to college football's supposed best player (although, unfortunately, great players from poor or mediocre teams are regularly bypassed in favor of players from winning teams).
In December 1999, when Ingram Jr. was 10, Nick Saban left his job as head football coach of the Michigan State Spartans, taking over as head coach at Louisiana State University. One of his MSU assistant coaches, Bobby Williams, assumed the helm at MSU, but got the ax three years later when the program was in disarray. After one season as a Detroit Lions assistant, Williams joined Saban at LSU. The two of them left after a few years, going first to the NFL's Miami Dolphins, then to Alabama, where they remain today.
Additionally, one of Alabama's assistant coaches, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jim McElwain, worked as receivers and special teams coach for the Spartans from 2003-2005.
So, tomorrow we have a tilt between Michigan State and the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, coached by former Michigan State head coach Nick Saban and two former MSU assistants. Alabama boasts a star running back from Flint, Mich., whose father and mother both attended Michigan State. Some Spartan fans are still bitter toward Saban, who they believe abandoned them strictly for more money, leaving their program floundering for several more years until Mark Dantonio took over in late 2006. They see the New Year's Day matchup as an opportunity to exact revenge on Saban for spurning their beloved school. But they ought to grow up and realize that, hey, college football is big business, and coaches are entitled to offer their talents to the highest bidder.
Aside from the present day unique relationship between these two programs, let's go one step further. Alabama and Michigan State also had something of a symbiosis back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Spartans won several national championships.
In those days, blacks were prohibited from attending Alabama, let alone playing for its football team. Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was friends with MSU coach Hugh "Duffy" Daugherty, and would regularly steer talented black athletes toward East Lansing, Mich., supplying the Spartans with loads of talent during their glory years. Many of the Spartan stars of the era, including Bubba Smith, George Webster, Gene Washington, and Charlie "Mad Dog" Thornhill, were southerners who headed north for an opportunity to get an education and play big-time college football.
Tomorrow at 1 p.m. EST, the Capital One Bowl will pit one of the Southeastern Conference's premier football teams against a Big Ten squad that is finally beginning to assert itself after decades of mediocrity. The teams, their fans, and the regions of the country they represent may bear few similarities. But there sure are a lot of common threads running between the two programs.
May the best team win.