9:51 PM EST, December 30, 2013
This season's college bowl schedule is reminiscent of how it used to be in the last months of the year in pro golf, or the last five minutes of an NBA rout.
ESPN fills airtime and sells ads, but there is no compelling reason to watch or buy. Find a good book to read.
Then there is the Rose Bowl, Stanford versus Michigan State on Wednesday, a sign that all is not lost. These are two excellent teams, finishing off compelling seasons played in tough, competitive conferences.
No, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten are not the SEC, but there will be time a few days hence to start facing south and bowing a lot.
Right now, the Rose Bowl — as is so often the case despite politics and shenanigans of college football's power brokers — is worth heavy anticipation.
For starters, oddsmakers have Stanford a 31/2-point favorite. No romp expected.
More telling, the game features coaches who champion the credibility of their schools, and do the same for the game itself. If you named this Rose Bowl in the image of the men coaching it, you'd call it the Solid Citizen Bowl.
Mark Dantonio is 57. He has coached Michigan State since 2007. He is tough, less serious than he appears to the media, and quite articulate about how his Spartans are approaching their first appearance in this legendary game since 1988.
"We are going to make sure on game day," Dantonio says, "that when we walk into that Rose Bowl, we live a moment and we remember that moment."
David Shaw is 41. He has coached Stanford since 2011. He replaced the meteoric Jim Harbaugh and kept the Cardinal climbing. He is poised, hard to fluster, smiles a lot more than Dantonio and will be taking his team into its second straight Rose Bowl, where it beat Wisconsin in last season's game. Much has been made about that advantage, but Shaw handles that easily.
"The only real advantage is during the [leadup] week," he says. "...Once we get to game day, Michigan State has played big games.…I don't think the game is going to be any different."
Dantonio grew up in an Italian Catholic family in Ohio and was a Notre Dame fan. Coincidentally, it was the Fighting Irish who spoiled the Spartans' chance of playing whichever deity the SEC offered this season in the national title game. Notre Dame beat Michigan State, 17-13, on Sept. 21, the Spartans' only loss.
Dantonio was a defensive back at South Carolina in the mid-1970s, has bachelor's and master's degrees in education, and moved through college football's assistant ranks until he landed the head job at Cincinnati in 2004. Three seasons later, he took over in East Lansing.
Shaw was born in San Diego but bounced around with family as his father, Willie, moved from one coaching job to another. Those were mostly NFL jobs, but Willie had two stints as a Stanford assistant, and David Shaw says those made him a Stanford fan, at age 3 or 4.
"Those are some of my earlier memories," he says, "playing in the eucalyptus grove and that eucalyptus tree smell.…"
He eventually played in the nearby stadium as well, catching 57 passes for 664 yards and five touchdowns, and earning a Stanford sociology degree.
Shaw's coaching experience includes nine years as an assistant in the NFL, which puts his name into conversations about NFL jobs, especially as they become abundant this time of year. He handles that subject smoothly too.
"I think that is really cool," having his name out there, he says. "It keeps eyes turning toward Stanford.…I don't mind it, but I have no desires to pursue another job."
Both are disciplinarians, Dantonio most recently with his suspension of star linebacker Max Bullough. No reason has been given or uncovered for the suspension, other than the usual non-explanatory "violated team rules."
Shaw had a similar situation in 2012, when he suspended star linebacker Shayne Skov. Skov was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in February of that year and Shaw's "heartbeat of our defense" was banned from team activities until the second game of the season that fall. He is now a fifth-year senior and will be key for Stanford on Wednesday.
"I applaud Coach Dantonio," Shaw says. "It's a sign of who he is, and that there's still some really, really good disciplinary coaches that believe in setting discipline for college athletes, which is vital to the success as a team, but even more their success after football."
Shaw says Skov has told him the suspension helped him mature.
Both coaches have built formidable programs.
Shaw got on an already moving treadmill when he replaced Harbaugh and now is 11-2, 12-2 and 11-2 in his three seasons.
Dantonio had a tougher construction obstacle. It is called Michigan, the dominating archrival.
In Dantonio's first season of 2007, the Spartans led the Wolverines in their annual bloodletting for most of the game, then lost at the end, 28-24. A Michigan player, Michael Hart, likened the game afterward to how you treat your "little brother," that you let him lead for a while and think he can win, but then you take it away at the end.
A few days later, Dantonio was asked about Hart's "Little Brother" comment. He tried not to react, then did. "It's not over," he said. "It's just starting. I'm gonna be here a long time."
Actions have backed those words.
Little Brother beat Big Blue the next four years and has now won five of the last six.
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