The year was 1988. I was 9.
Yes, it’s the last time the Michigan State Spartans were in and won the Rose Bowl.
I don’t remember the details; I was merely a dyed-in-the-wool, green-bleeding Spartan. We lived just fifteen minutes away from campus, and my father taught there, with several family members attending. So, not only did they put food on my table, but the Spartans were family. A Spartan is who I am. Trips to the MSU Dairy Store, nights at Munn Ice Arena, walks in Beal Gardens–this was my childhood at MSU.
In 1988, I didn’t understand football yet, but I understood the significance of the Rose Bowl–who didn’t? They had a parade made entirely of plants, for pete’s sake. I couldn’t tell you what players were on the field, though I know George Perles was the coach. I have no idea what the game was like, but I remember green and white pompoms and some serious envy that a gal pal down the street actually WENT TO PASADENA to see the game. I mean, who does that at age 9? I also remember pride; my team–MY TEAM–won the thing! And everybody was happy and admitting that they loved my team!
Michigan State’s football universe is complicated, and always has been. We’re never the best in the nation. We have an infuriating tendency to build up and then fizzle or explode. We dare to hope. Sometimes, our hopes seem justified. Amazing things happen. Other times, it’s like we talk ourselves out of succeeding. Then, too, it’s hard to compete with the shadow cast by basketball, a Spartan team that is consistently good, often great. When I see folks wearing Spartan gear around the BGSU campus in Ohio, I feel a little shiver of joy, but also instinctively I think they must be basketball fans. Even in hockey, a sport in which the Spartans have been at the apex and the nadir in a ten-year span, success is more expected, even taken for granted.
It’s not that I don’t like football; it’s not even that I don’t like our football team. I watched a whole lot of it in college and after. It’s just not the priority at MSU–we love football, will set aside Saturdays for it like anyone else, but our expectations are seldom, if ever, for dominance.
But in 1988, my Spartans, my family, won the Rose Bowl, on top (the only football top that mattered) for the first time in 22 years. And now, 26 years later, they’re on top again. My mother broke out her 1988 Rose Bowl socks for the occasion. I understand football now, and I know the Rose Bowl is not the absolute acme I once thought it was, but I’m still pretty proud, maybe even more proud than I would be if we were crushing all our competition year after year. Sparty is wearing Roses again.