Unfinished Business

“What’s going on in East Lansing?”

I considered responding to my colleague’s e-mail with a hyperlink to Twitter: “He’s back! Miles Bridges returning to MSU: ‘I have unfinished business.’”

After all, that’s what I told my wife when she saw me staring at my iPhone.

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” I told her.

“Start with the bad news,” Tammy replied. “Did you talk to Aaron or Sierra?”

“Miles Bridges is coming back!” I screamed. “Good news for me, but since you ‘hate’ March Madness I suppose it’s bad news for you.”

“Great,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Is that the one guy?”

To be recognized by Tammy, even if only as “the one guy,” means a lot. I can count on one hand the number of athletes Tammy knows by name. Once people at the office were talking about Joe Theisman and Tammy said, “Is he the guy the Theisman Trophy is named after?”

My wife is often heard to say, “I HATE sports!” Nevertheless, she dutifully wears Spartan apparel on game days, she respects my superstitions, and she’s stopped going to the grocery store on game days. (Last February the Facebook community unfairly chastised me for refusing to unload groceries as the Iowa game tipped off.)

MSU’s tournament game against Kansas coincided with supper, leaving Tammy with no choice but to watch. When the camera showed Bridges heading to the locker room holding his side, she asked, “Is he the one guy?” When I nodded, she said, “I’d say you’re in trouble.”

With Bridges forgoing the NBA and returning for his sophomore season, the Spartans are now co-favorites to win a national title.

Getting back to my colleague’s e-mail, I knew he wasn’t asking about the prospects for Spartan hoops. He’s a football fan.

“Spartans coach doesn’t say much,” the Detroit Free Press headline read, “but his work is cut out for him to clean up after 3-9 season followed by controversies.”

The “controversies” involve claims that as many as three MSU football players are the subject of sexual assault allegations. Earlier reports of a linebacker leaving the program for making “an insensitive and totally regrettable comment” and a scholarship offer being pulled after a recruit was charged with armed burglary pale in comparison to the sexual assault charges. (In law school we called it rape, but whatever the nomenclature it’s unacceptable.)

The situation serves as a stark reminder about what really matters in college sports. It’s not about having another bowl game shirt in my closet. It’s about helping shepherd young adults. While I never played sports in college, my experience at Michigan State University helped bridge the gap to adulthood. Nothing prepares a shy 18 year-old-kid for life like being dropped off at a campus with a student population of 44,000.

Mentoring young people is my avocation. I freely dispense advice to young people, whether or not they ask. Over spring break my niece noticeably cringed at dinner when I turned to my “lawyer voice” to offer unsolicited advice. The 20-something-year-old kids I coached in youth basketball remember me more for being a mentor than for teaching them the cross-over dribble.

Which brings me back to the controversies currently surrounding the football team. As I told my colleague in response to his message, “the University is not going to tolerate the misconduct.”

Michigan State’s athletic program has a history of success both on and off the field. Many avid college football fans know about the legendary 1966 game 1966 between MSU and Notre Dame. Before the days of the BCS and CFP, the national championship played out in the regular season. The game ended in a 10-10 tie, and while the polls declared the Irish as national champions, today the Spartans are remembered for playing for the win.

But the true legacy is the Underground Railroad. The story is told by Tom Shanahan in Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the Integration of College Football, and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. Shanahan writes that one alum from that team says that ‘[t]he standing that he values the most is Michigan State’s role in the integration of college football — a station in history that is secure, if sometimes overlooked with the passage of time.” (Shanahan, Tom, Raye of Light,” Middleton, WI, August Publications, p. 154)

“Raye of Light” is a great read and a reminder that college sports is about more than winning games. As Shanahan notes, “Daughterty may have failed to win games at the end of his career, but his larger contribution was the opportunities he provided 44 Underground Railroad passengers in an era of segregation.” (Shanahan, p. 143)

Coach Mark Dantonio has continued that tradition. “[M]y passion has been to lead a program that fosters a culture of integrity, respect and accountability, both on and off the field. That will never change. … Our goal is to develop young men of character who graduate and make a positive impact on society.” As he tells reporters, “Who is going to be our quarterback right now is trivial compared to what we’re dealing with.”

I’m confident that Coach Dantonio will continue Duffy’s legacy, serving as a positive role model and molding young adults of character.

I agree that on-the-field matters are trivial in comparison, but admittedly I’m also looking forward to a bowl game. The Rose Bowl remains high on my wish list, though I’m also leaning toward the Citrus Bowl. (My son lives near Orlando. Free lodging means better seats.)

And it goes without saying that I’m entertaining visions of finishing March Madness at the Alamo. After all, this is our chance!

I have no illusions that Miles Bridges will stay in college beyond his sophomore year. When I was 10 years old I learned that not all college athletes leave with a degree. Leafing through my dad’s 1950 Gopher year book I spotted a picture of Bud Grant, the coach of my beloved Vikings. I ran to find my dad and exclaimed, “You graduated with Bud Grant?” Without looking up, he deadpanned, “I went to college with Bud Grant. I don’t know if he ever graduated.” I used the same line when my son asked me about Magic Johnson.

At the same time, I’m also excited about a 19-year-old kid getting another year of mentoring to prepare himself for the challenges of what promises to be a long career in the NBA.

After all, that’s the real unfinished business.




“Mark Dantonio speaks, but says football matters are ‘trivial'” (http://www.mlive.com/spartans/index.ssf/2017/03/mark_dantonio_speaks_but_says.html

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