Michigan State: Basketball or Football School?

As I watched Michigan State dispatch Louisville on Sunday to head to the ninth Final Four in program history, while the pro-MSU crowd broke into their alternating “Go Green! Go White!” chant, an age-old question entered my mind:

Is MSU a basketball or football school?

The other three schools in this year’s Final Four don’t have the kind of debate Sparty does. Kentucky and Duke have always been basketball powerhouses with unimpressive football teams. Wisconsin has made the NCAA Tournament 17 years in a row to help fans forget about their football team not winning a major bowl game since the 2000 Rose Bowl. The predominant sport at each school is no longer in question.

On the banks of the Red Cedar River, however, fans have encountered a dilemma hundreds of universities would love to have: their basketball and football teams are both ridiculously good.

The hoops team has made the NCAA Tournament 18 years in a row, made four Final Fours in the last decade and owns a 375-150 record since the millennium began. The Spartans have sent a total of 41 players to the NBA, and coach Tom Izzo is arguably the greatest coach in the modern NCAA Tournament era, as FiveThirtyEight details here.

The Breslin Center averaged 14,797 fans for State home games last season, good for 18th-best in Division I. The Izzone, MSU’s fabled student section, sells out about as quickly as you can say “East Lansing.” And who will you find at the games? One mainstay is alum Magic Johnson, one of ten players to win an NCAA title and NBA title.

A win over Duke on Saturday would put Michigan State in sole possession of 32nd on the all-time NCAA team wins list. They are currently tied with Alabama with 1581 wins; Izzo accounts for 28 percent of those wins.

So MSU is a basketball school, right? Not so fast.

The football team has made a bowl game in eight consecutive seasons, winning four straight- Outback, Buffalo Wild Wings, Rose and Cotton. The Spartans have compiled a 114-76 record since 2000, with a 75-31 mark since Mark Dantonio was hired as coach in 2007. Dantonio is second to only Duffy Daugherty in coaching wins in school history as he has brought the program back to prominence.

299 Spartans have been drafted into the NFL, 16th-most in college football. MSU is tied for 39th in the all-time Division I (FBS and FCS) with 669. Dantonio ranks 40th among active D-I coaches in career win percentage at .660 between his time at Cincinnati and his current tenure at State. The hard-nosed coach has seen players such as Le’Veon Bell, Kirk Cousins and William Gholston make an impact in the pros.

Spartan Stadium averaged 72,328 fans a game, good for 20th in the FBS. 9.086 million viewers tuned in for the team’s victory over Baylor in New Year’s Day’s Cotton Bowl, third to only the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl, which were both College Football Playoff contests. The year before, 18.6 million viewers watched the Spartans beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. When bowl season rolls around, you can bet that MSU is going to generate big ratings despite their ground-and-pound, defensive-minded style.

The successes of Michigan State’s basketball and football teams have helped the school set an unprecedented mark as the only school to have won a college bowl game and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the men’s basketball tournament in each of the last four years. That is a remarkable feat in today’s day and age of universities excelling at one sport and funneling all their money and focus into that one sport. The Spartans have the resources and coaching to compete at the highest level in both each year.

Basketball or football school? While sportswriters debate, MSU chooses to just keep winning.


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One Thought to “Michigan State: Basketball or Football School?”

  1. Jeff

    Decent article but why can’t it be both a football school and a basketball school? Plus, you talk a lot about Wisconsin, which has more players in the NFL and the NFL Hall Of Fame than State. And Wolverine fans might argue that you’re not looking at the history of the subject. They have won more football games and more football national championships than any other school, while their basketball team has played in six national championships. Yes, right now Michigan is struggling at both sports, but that’s how recruiting and the balance of college sports works. Eventually the tables will turn again. Meanwhile, I have to wonder if this is even a story. Michigan State is good at both sports? Okay? Please let me know when they crack the top ten for national championships in either basketball or football.

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