With all due apologies to fans of the Michigan State Spartans, any discussion revolving around the suspension of linebacker Max Bullough has to start with a notable quote from late Michigan Wolverines’ head coach Bo Schembechler.
“No man is more important than the team. No coach is more important than the team. The team, the team, the team.” Quite possibly, it could be the only quote which accurately sums up sports in its entirety.
It’s the same reason why Mark Dantonio suspended Bullough in the first place. Simply, without Bullough in the fold as the Spartans prepare for the Stanford Cardinal in their first Rose Bowl since 1988, it’s clear the team is all that matters first and foremost in East Lansing, and that’s a fantastic sign. Nobody is above reproach.
The loss of Bullough, a member of Michigan State football’s first family and a captain, will certainly matter as well. He’s the heart and soul of the defense, with a mind to call out plays and a body to snuff out a power run attack or passes over the middle of the field. Anyone who thinks the Spartans are better off on the gridiron without Bullough is wrong.
Off it, however, is another story entirely. Michigan State might become a stronger, more galvanized team mentally, and from a personnel standpoint, they’re still in excellent shape defensively. For the Spartans, the rally cry will become “next man up.” In situations like that, players and teams often find a great deal of pride in picking up the slack left by a player that isn’t making the trip. Who is the man which could be leading the charge in this instance? Likely, it’s Kyler Elsworth, another senior linebacker.
Just because Elsworth’s last name doesn’t come with immediate recognition to most or the pedigree of Bullough’s doesn’t mean he’s not capable of delivering a big game in the Rose Bowl. Just last year, Elsworth delivered half a sack and two tackles in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Two seasons ago, Elsworth’s blocked punt helped spark a turnaround against the Wisconsin Badgers, as did a key tackle on third down. He’s played big in important moments in the past, giving him experience to fall back on.
Elsworth plays on the scout team, special teams and is a former walk-on who’s been forced to earn every opportunity he’s been given. In other words, there’s no better person to take over on the field when the Spartans play in the Rose Bowl next Wednesday. At 6-1 and 225 pounds, he’s a bit smaller than Bullough, but can still pack the smash with perhaps a bit more agility.
Thankfully, while the same might not be said for Bullough back at home dealing with his family, the team is still well in Pasadina. Missing the Rose Bowl will be the worst punishment for Bullough himself, no matter the situation he’s found himself in. Human beings can find forgiveness or be forgiven for crimes big and small. Time passes. The senior captain will always have to live with the sadness of missing the biggest game of his career, though, and that’s not going away easy.
Michigan State enters and exits the stadium as one prior to warmups, before the game and after the contest has been decided. That’s not changing. The Spartans are in Pasadina, are alive and well. With a good effort next week, they’ve got a wonderful chance to win the Rose Bowl and finish the season in the top five, even with a loss of a major contributor.
That’s a testament to the accomplishments of the entire team, and not Bullough himself. Between December 31, 2013 and January 2, 2014, their biggest moment in recent history, Michigan State football will still remain bigger than any person that walks through the door, win or lose.
It’s the best silver lining found in a frustrating situation.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax