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December 22, 2010There was a time when University of Alabama running back Mark Ingram Jr. wanted a set of Michigan State bed sheets for Christmas.
It wasn't that surprising of a request for someone growing up in Flint, Mich.
"I had a Michigan State bedspread and a beanbag chair," he said. "We had Michigan State stuff all over the house, sweaters and stuff."
How fitting will it be then not only for Ingram to face his former favorite team in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 1, but in possibly his final collegiate game. Although Ingram says his focus is on the Spartans, he has until Jan. 15 to decide whether or not to declare himself eligible a year early for the National Football League draft.
"I'm definitely excited," Ingram said. "My mom went there, my dad went there, played there. My grandpa played there. My grandma got her master's there. My aunt got a degree from there as well.
"I grew up loving Michigan State, watching them. I still cheer for them when I see them on Saturdays, especially in basketball. It'll just be exciting to go up against a childhood favorite team."
Ingram's grandfather, Art Johnson, was a running back for the Spartans, rushing for 826 yards on 164 carries (5.04 average) from 1956-58. When he died earlier this year at the age of 75, the grandson he called "Big Dog" left the Crimson Tide's training camp to attend the funeral and serve as a pallbearer.
"It was tough," Ingram said after returning to Tuscaloosa. "He taught me how to compete."
One of his favorite memories was his grandfather's reaction after winning the Heisman Trophy.
"He was the happiest dude ever," Ingram reflected. "We were taking pictures and stuff and he was talking in the middle of the pictures, so we have pictures and he's just running his mouth. He was smiling, grabbing the trophy like it was his. He had three daughters so I guess I was like a son to him.
"He's like my second father."
Mark Sr. lettered three times for the Spartans (1983-86) before moving on to a successful NFL career, and still ranks ninth in MSU career receiving with 1,944 yards, and is tied for eighth in career touchdown receptions with 14. At the time, Nick Saban was Michigan State's defensive coordinator and would check with the receiver's girlfriend and future wife to make sure he was going to class - which she remembered when it came time for her son to sign with a school.
"It was real close," Ingram said. "It was Alabama, Iowa and Michigan State. I just had to go with my heart.
"I think I committed to Coach (Saban) on Super Bowl Sunday. I think I called him at halftime. All the coaches were at the house. All of them were excited."
Of course, Saban eventually became the head coach of the Spartans from 1995-99, when one of his first moves was to hire Mark Dantonio as his secondary coach.
"Tremendous respect for Nick as a coach, as an organizer," said Dantonio, who eventually took over the program in 2007. "I wouldn't be standing here at this podium as the head football coach of Michigan State had I not been hired by Nick, Coach Saban. Feel very, very good about our relationship. Look for him for guidance throughout my career."
After succeeding Saban in East Lansing, tight ends and special-teams coach Bobby Williams promoted Dantonio to associate head coach in 2000. While he eventually left to be Jim Tressel's defensive coordinator at Ohio State and became Cincinnati's head coach in 2003, Williams followed Saban to LSU, the Miami Dolphins and then the Capstone.
"Bobby is about as fine a person as you're going to find," Saban said. "He's a hard worker, bright guy. He knows the game and has a lot of experience. He's very good in terms of chemistry on a team as well as dealing with players. I think the players like him. He can get on a player and they don't take it personally. He does a good job."
There are numerous other coaching connections as well. Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain was Michigan State's assistant head coach/receivers/special teams from 2003-05. Assistant head coach and offensive line coach Joe Pendry was the offensive coordinator from 1980-81. Linebackers coach Sal Sunseri was in East Lansing in 2000 as the linebackers/special teams coach. Even associate athletic director for football Mike Vollmar once had the same role there.
So when sophomore running back Trent Richardson says about Ingram: "This game is kind of personal to him. Big game for him," he really could be taking about a number of people on either side, including the Michigan State fans who finally get a shot at their former coach.
"Yeah, people there are excited about the game," he said, "A lot of my friends are like, they want me to do good, but they cheer for Michigan State. They don't know if they want to go for Alabama."
But they do take pride in the hometown son who now has his name on the scoreboard overlooking the field he played high school football and brought the Heisman Trophy back to the home that used to be covered in green.
"Everything in the house is crimson now," Ingram said.