The Freshmen

When I arrived in East Lansing in 2007, there was a distinct sense of pessimism surrounding our football program. Michigan State was coming off of three straight losing seasons — and trending in the wrong direction: five wins; five wins; four wins. We’d finished 1-7 in the Big Ten the season before. You’d hear it all the time: We were a basketball school with a football team.

As an incoming freshman, you want to have a positive outlook. You want to be a part of something. You want to believe that you can play a role in helping to turn things around. To be honest, though: I don’t know if any of us actually were convinced that we would.

Well, except for one freshman.

There was this one first-year guy who just wouldn’t be dissuaded. It was the strangest thing. It was as if he refused to acknowledge what the team’s record had been in those previous seasons. I remember him talking about how we were going to “win big, win against the top teams, and win the right way.” And I’ll admit: Hearing him say that — it got me pretty pumped up. But at the same time … it was, like, “Does this guy even understand what ‘1-7’ is?”

The other thing about this freshman was that he would ask all of these questions. I swear, with every guy on the team, he’d sit down next to them, and he’d just … ask stuff. He’d ask about everything. He’d ask about their family (“How are things at home?”) … about their love life (“You seeing anyone?” — and if they were: “How’s that relationship?”) … about their spiritual life. He’d ask about what sort of classes they were taking, and about how they were doing in those classes. And whether they were doing poorly or well, he’d dive into that subject with them and want to know all about it.

And again: We’re talking every guy. And we’re talking a whole football team. Like 100-plus players, easily. It was crazy. But this guy just cared. I don’t know how else to explain it. And he was so committed to caring. To see that from anyone would have been impressive. But to see it from a freshman? It was inspiring.

That freshman’s name was Mark.

You might know him better as Coach Dantonio.

Okay, so, you’ve got me: Coach D wasn’t technically a “freshman.” But his first year at Michigan State was the same year as mine. I was the first quarterback that Coach Dantonio recruited, and we arrived in East Lansing that same summer in ‘07.

The rest is true. The thoughtful outlook, the supportive attitude, those personal conversations — they’re not a stunt. Rather, they’re examples — just a few of many I could give you — of the culture that Coach D has built at Michigan State over these last nine seasons. It’s a culture that values people as people — not athletes, not blue chips, not superheroes, not scapegoats — and uses relationships, more than anything else, as its positive energy source.

And while that culture started with Coach Dantonio, it wasn’t long before it permeated through the entire program. Trust me on this one: When the head coach acts like that … you notice. Everyone notices. The coordinators pick up on it. The position coaches pick up on it. The strength coaches, the team leaders, the other players — they all pick up on it. And then pretty soon, you have an entire culture where everyone has bought into this one, big idea.

Coach convinced us that being better people would, literally, make us better football players.

If you know football, then you know how incredible that is — and how radical. Football’s default culture is one of “win at any cost.” It’s one of machismo, and “battle” metaphors, and cutthroat competition. Coach Dantonio decided that he was going to have a program of good people first, and winners — well, somehow, also, first.

And it worked.

Coach’s very first year in East Lansing, we jumped from four wins to seven — and reached Michigan State’s first bowl in four seasons. His second year, we jumped from seven wins to nine — including a 6-2 conference record, MSU’s best Big Ten finish in nine tries. And then, in my junior and senior years, we strung together back-to-back 11-win seasons — the very first two in school history.

We won big. We won against the top teams. And we won the right way.

Now it’s five years later, and Michigan State is in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.

With Shilique Calhoun and Connor Cook graduating, this will be the last year where there are players on the team whose time at school overlapped with my own. To see these guys I knew as first-year redshirts turn into fifth-year leaders … and earn the right to compete for a spot in the National Championship Game … it’s extremely gratifying.

And, of course: I remember them as freshmen like it was yesterday.

Shilique was a defensive end from New Jersey — and because he was redshirting, the coaches put him on scout. This meant that every day in practice, he would play on the scout-team defense against me. In Coach D’s system, they really stress that they don’t want the scout guys to take it easy — and that’s for two reasons. First, they want to see what those guys have to offer. And then, second, they really do want them to challenge our starters.

So every day in practice, Shilique would line up on scout team at defensive end. And every day, he would just … go off. I mean it. Dude was a terror — working his way through our starting offensive linemen, over and over, and getting to the quarterback. As in — getting to me. I had a red jersey on, thankfully, so he couldn’t hit me. But it seemed like he was in that backfield on almost every down. Day, after day, after day, in practice, no matter what wrinkle our line threw at him — Shilique was able to solve it, and get past them, and find his way to the quarterback.

And in a way, I guess, it’s bittersweet. On one hand: I was bummed that we redshirted him — it was pretty clear early on that Shilique didn’t need it, and that he would have been a real difference-maker that year. But on the other hand … oh, man: I feel a lot better about this semifinal game knowing that Shilique is on our team. You just watch — he’s going to step onto that field Thursday and be what he’s been since those first snaps on scout team: a terror.

Connor, on the other hand, was a quarterback from Ohio — and you could see right away that he was a social, friendly, talkative guy. He was young, but he already had the sort of personality where, with enough experience under his belt, you could see him one day becoming a leader of the team. Even before he played a down for us, Connor had that “QB1” charisma down pat.

But like I said: He was young. And at 18 years old, you don’t even know what you don’t know. Connor had a lot to learn — and he’ll be the first to tell you that. At this level of football, there’s just no way of predicting whether a guy’s going to sink or swim. Connor was no different: He had all of the raw potential in the world … but no one really knew what would come of it. I didn’t know. The coaches didn’t know. And — if he’s anything like I was — Connor definitely didn’t know.

Now, we know.

Connor’s got “it.” I’m not even sure what “it” is, but, yeah — Connor has it. He makes all of the throws. He manufactures plays with his legs. He handles protections. He has great command. From a scouting perspective, Connor’s the total package.

But what’s most impressive to me is the way that he’s played in big games. Once they get to college, it’s pretty often that you’ll see quarterbacks — even star quarterbacks — take a step back in big games. It’s just a different level of atmosphere, and a different level of competition — especially on the defensive side. Those are tough adjustments for a young kid to make. Big games are usually where elite college quarterbacks “meet their match.”

Connor, somehow, only plays better.

Just look at his postseason record — it’s unreal. The guy’s played in two Big Ten Championship Games … and won them both. He’s played in a Cotton Bowl … and won it. He’s played in a Rose Bowl … and won that. And although this will be his first “official” playoff game — listen: If anyone has the right to think, “Been there, done that” about a big-game environment, it’s Connor.

That 18-year-old kid is long since gone. Now, at 22, I can safely say that Connor is the most valuable asset you can have on the field in a college football game: an NFL quarterback.

Shilique and Connor’s journey — and this entire team’s road to the Playoff — is a testament to the program that Coach Dantonio has been building since that first day, nine years ago, when he and I arrived in East Lansing. It’s a testament to the degree to which Coach has gotten incoming class after incoming class to buy into the same, big idea: That great football can come from good people.

On Thursday, one of Coach D’s best teams ever will face off in the national semifinals against the latest Alabama juggernaut led by Nick Saban. Coach Saban, of course, is one of the greatest coaches of all time. And what he’s built at Alabama is nothing short of a dynasty: Year in and year out, they’re in the national championship conversation. We actually faced them once, at the end of my junior year, in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. At the time, we were the winningest team in school history; they were in a “down” year. They beat us 49-7.

People have asked me all month about how that game is going to factor into this one. And my honest answer is: It won’t. It really, just, won’t. Because that game was five years ago — and a lot has happened at Michigan State in the last five years. A lot of program-building has happened. A lot of gap-closing has happened. And, most of all, a 65-13 record has happened.

The truth is, I’m glad we’re playing Alabama on Thursday. And the reason I’m glad is simple: They’re the measuring stick. When we talk about “closing the gap” at Michigan State — Alabama is what we’re closing it to. When freshmen football players walk onto campus in Tuscaloosa, all they know is winning. All they know is a program whose absolute standard is to compete for national championships. And that’s exactly what we’re working toward at Michigan State.

When Coach Dantonio and I arrived in ‘07, all we knew was a program that was competing for .500 records. When Shilique and Connor arrived in ‘11, all they knew was a program that was competing for Big Ten Championships. And a few months from now, when that ‘16 class arrives in East Lansing, all they’re going to know is a program that competes for national championships.

And that starts Thursday night.

We beat Michigan at Michigan. We beat Ohio State at Ohio State. We beat Iowa for the Big Ten Championship. And now we’re playing Alabama for a chance at the national title.

Before the game on Thursday, I imagine I’ll shoot Coach D a text.

“We’ve come a long way since we were freshmen,” I’ll tell him. He’ll probably laugh.

But it’s true — we have.

Now let’s go a little further.