East Lansing — Something important happened for Michigan State last Saturday in an otherwise pedestrian Big Ten football game at Maryland.
The Spartans nailed their sixth victory. They got stamped for a bowl game in late December or, if wild and unforeseen events occur, on Jan. 1.
This was good news, and the good news stems not exclusively from the fact it was an in-state school, MSU, that gets an extra game.
Some of us simply cheer any college football team getting its clearance for a bowl trip.
Bowl games can be surprisingly contentious. Some people are of the persuasion too many bowls abound and too many teams win bowl bids. Advisory: These probably are not folks who will need to bunk in the guest room next time you throw a wine-and-dinner party heavy on the wine. They’ll be headed home at 9 p.m.
Critics can become elite, stuffy — mean, if you prefer — about other people having fun, particularly if they’re college athletes. Why should they be entitled to a holiday trip? Isn’t that scholarship enough of a reward? And so on.
Killjoys is among this gang’s more charitable labels.
It’s when you consider the gamut of bowl-game dividends, not only to the players, but to a team, to a university, and to fans — at least those who aren’t overly miffed about a 6-6 team traveling during the holidays — that bowl games begin to crystallize as a sports blessing.
Begin with those college kids. They’re out of bed at 5 a.m. or earlier during winter for a wonderful pre-dawn exercise known as offseason conditioning. Oh, it’s great fun.
They have spring football, and summer dates with the weights, and then in August they get to work out in 90-degree heat for three weeks before they play a first game. They then have two-hour practices, meetings, and more weight-room frolic that extends to Thanksgiving. All before it cranks up again in December — which, in fact, is a benefit to the players and to the team, overall.
Those extra December practices that a bowl-ticketed team craves? They leave their mark on a team for the following season. It’s like a self-enrichment class. It’s extra time and instruction absorbed for a team’s and a player’s greater good.
Those add-on workouts might in fact clash with exams. But by the time you’ve acclimated to a typical year of melding college courses with football rigors, the drill has been nailed down tidily.
It’s handy to remember that academics are more than a concept. Check the graduation percentages. These guys are doing their homework, writing papers, digesting a few books along the way. And hitting classes, with regularity.
Then, assuming a team’s record is at least break-even, comes a trip to someplace in America, usually exotic.
Nothing broadens and enhances quite like travel, particularly when a person is young. It extends boundaries, inspires the mind and senses, nourishes the soul, expands future topics of conversation for men who need to talk about more than sports. For football players, these treks to other places and ports achieves, to the extent possible, what travel abroad can do for students who study overseas.
It’s a bonus you only wish more students, and more college football teams, could know during their early adult years.
This thought was run past a couple of people Tuesday during conversations in Spartan Stadium’s north-end interview room.
Joe Bachie, the marauding linebacker who was Big Ten Player of the Week for his work Saturday at Maryland, is from Brook Park, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. He was wearing on his shirt sleeve a “Holiday Bowl” logo courtesy of last year’s bowl trip to San Diego, which involved a 42-17 waxing of Washington State.
“That was my first time to San Diego,” said Bachie, not surprisingly, as he mentioned a handful of firsts after deciding to play football in East Lansing.
“My first plane trip was to Indiana my freshman year.”
This is what anyone should want for college athletes — at any campus — today. MSU’s head coach, Mark Dantonio, no surprise, agrees.
“I do think it’s an opportunity for your young people to go and experience life in a different area,” Dantonio said. “It’s a reward for them. It’s a reward for our staff, as well.”
He mentioned how extra practices and the bowl adventure can be “a springboard to greater things.” Meaning, of course, that you can benefit from the luster and mettle a 13th game delivers.
What the coach didn’t need to say is that bowl games tend to work niftily for a school’s customer base. Instead of fans saying goodbye to a team at Thanksgiving, with nine long months until the lads next tee it up, there’s another game. That duel generally involves an enchanting team from another conference and corner of the country.
It’s a sweet piece of dessert, these bowl dates, after the main courses have been polished off.
Best of all, it’s a treat for players. Their lives, after all the practices and weights and running and, yes, studying, can be imprinted with the good that comes from a bowl-game adventure.
For the Spartans, when those holiday plane tickets were sewed up Saturday, it was nothing to take lightly. Too many college football teams will head home for the holidays. Too many college teams that know how tough it is to win will envy those still working — and traveling.