I remember the first time I read that Michigan State was a program "on the rise." It was terrifying. I think the year was 1983. I was a young, impressionable boy, devouring one of those glossy pre-season college football magazines, when I learned that the program to the north was on an inexorable upward trajectory. Soon they would match or even displace Michigan as the top program in the state. A feeling of dread enveloped me - the feeling of being chased and knowing you were going to be caught, to endure a terrible fate.
Somehow, the notion that MSU is one the rise never goes away. Brazil, they say, is the country of the future, and it always will be. The same holds true of Michigan State. It is perpetually a program on the rise, punctuated by the firing of unsuccessful coaches or the defection (to a more promising location) of the rare successful one.
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I conducted a brief search of newspaper articles describing MSU as a program on the rise. It is a very partial search, as the Detroit newspapers only go back less than a decade in my database. Still, a partial excerpt of my partial search provides some of the flavor of the perpetually recurring sentiment that frightens a new generation of impressionable Michigan fans every season:
"We're about to enter a season that could produce major changes, in perception or reality. It's huge for the Spartans because the ceiling appears to be rising."
Bob Wojnowski The Detroit News, September 5, 2009
"Everybody at Michigan State seems intent on building a consistent Big Ten contender. This is wonderful, and it is not just talk. This clearly is a program on the rise."
--Michael Rosenberg, The Detroit Free Press, January 3, 2009
"MSU is 6-2 and, apart from a bad loss to Ohio State last weekend, has been on the rise under second-year coach Mark Dantonio."
--Lynn Henning, Detroit News, October 22, 2008
"At times, they've looked like a program really on the rise under second-year Coach John L. Smith."
--Dave Dye, Detroit News, November 28, 2004
"Instead of the injury to Dortch -- he's the fourth cornerback MSU has lost since preseason camp opened -- breaking the Spartans' spirit, it actually seemed to inspire them.
"It's the sign of a program on the rise," secondary coach Troy Douglas said of MSU's ability to handle adversity."
--Dave Dye, The Detroit News, October 28, 2001
"Rumor Is Saban Has Spartans On The Rise
This could be a breakthrough year for the Spartans, who are ready to jump out of the shadow of the Maize and Blue monster to the southeast."
--Andrew Bagnato, Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1997 (!)
"He thinks the Spartans are on the rise again. That was evident last year, he said, because despite the 5-6 overall record, MSU finished third in the Big Ten with a 5-3 mark."
--Tim May, September 3, 1993
"Michigan State is the fastest-rising team in the nation."
--Tom Lemming, February 5, 1993
"They're a team on the rise right now."
--Chicago Tribune, September 5, 1985
Now, here's the thing. Michigan State has been a .500 program for the last four decades. Within that period, the program has seen natural ebbs and flows, the way a basketball player who averages 8 points a game is going to have his scoreless nights and his 27 point nights. It's at least a little bit understandable when the sports media interprets every good little run as evidence that Michigan State is about to join the Big Ten elite.
But the amazing thing about the latest "MSU is on the rise" cycle is that it's based on nothing. At Cincinnati, Mark Dantonio compiled an 18-17 record. In his first season, Mark Dantonio finished one game above .500. His team did lose several close games, and could easily have done a game or two better.
And there's no evidence of improvement. Dantonio's next Michigan State team performed any better. The 2007 Spartan scored 33 points a game and gave up 27. The 2008 team scored 25 points a game and gave up 22. (In conference games, they were outscored, 26-25, and managed to finish third only with the benefit of numerous breaks.)
And this year we see that Dantonio's third team is even worse than his second.
So we're looking at a head coach with a .500 record, who has a pretty good but unlucky first team, a decent but very lucky second team, and a bad third team. The evidence that he's actually a good coach is limited to his firm jaw, angry demeanor, and frequent talk of physical play, which fans frequently confuse for the reality of physical play. (MSU finished 77th nationally in rush offense last year.)
The one thing Dantonio has accomplished is to convince the world that his team is on the rise, which has actually allowed MSU to started bringing in high level (by Spartan standards) recruiting classes. But what happens when if his team goes, say, 5-7, and people figure out that MSU actually isn't on the rise?