|MSU takes pride in its NFL players, but the Spartans want to get to the Rose Bowl. (CBSSports.com)|
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- At 5:30 in the morning, motivation takes a thousand different forms at a thousand different schools in a thousand different ways.
Its proper name is winter conditioning. Its clinical definition is something close to torture. To hammer the message home, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has placed a conspicuous sign inside the Spartans' indoor practice facility.
Champions Are Built On a Thousand Invisible Mornings
Dantonio is big on signs. They're everywhere you look around Michigan State football facilities, all of them making the Spartan/warrior connection.
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"That's what he is about right there," says strength coach Ken Mannie, pointing at another sign, this one billboard-sized in the weight room. "Effort, Toughness, Knowledge. If you're lacking in one of the three you're probably not going to play here."
If only the snooze button for those 5:30 workouts could be pushed a thousand times. That's obvious as Michigan State players come straggling in for two hours of running, jumping, cutting, pulling and pushing.
"I set my alarm for about 4:40," safety Isaiah Lewis says. "I have to force myself to get up."
They all do, these Spartans. They have to leave time to get taped before birds awake, loosen up before the Dunkin' Donuts manager has poured the first cup of coffee. Before they can dream about a Rose Bowl, they have put in the work while most everyone else is ... dreaming.
In that sense, these Spartans are no different than, well, a thousand of their peers around the country. These pre-dawn drills set the throttle on a program. Next stop: spring practice, which by Friday a quarter of FBS had started.
This, though, is where it starts -- places like Michigan State's Duffy Daugherty Football Building at vampire hour. This is where heart is revealed, lungs are burned and egos are corralled. The Spartans won't start their spring practice until March 27, but storylines are already forming for 2012.
A female kicker is trying out at LSU. Lane Kiffin landed his best class ever, if you consider that USC quarterback Matt Barkley is returning for his senior season. Urban Meyer takes over at Ohio State while West Virginia and TCU take their talents to the Big 12. The SEC is shooting for championship No. 7 in a row.
But here questions are being asked without a word being spoken. After consecutive 11-win seasons, is Michigan State finally going to break through to its first Rose Bowl in a quarter century? What will life be like without inspirational quarterback Kirk Cousins? Are these early-morning Spartans going to be slackers or brothers? All in, or just sometimes? Spartan warriors or the conquered?
"That's something that will be mentioned when it's Friday night before a game," says Cousins' replacement, junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell. "Listen guys, this is why we pushed those sleds in February. This is why we ran those gassers in July when it was 100 degrees.
"Don't think that it was nothing. It was for this moment, right now."
Like all coaches, Dantonio is big on weeding out those slackers this time of day. During a recent morning, Michigan State videographer David "Diff" Diffenderffer spotted two players vomiting into trash cans. Diff has worked for the NFL Network and helps make the Michigan State website's video features state of the art. But puke will not make the cut on this day.
"This is my third winter conditioning," says junior linebacker Max Bullough, a third generation Spartan who probably bleeds green. His father and grandfather played here.
"You can tell the type of guys that Coach D brings in. It's a different atmosphere. It's a different chemistry. As soon as they walk in, they're ready to work."
They'd better be ready. Embarrassment lurks at every early-morning session. There is no good reason Jerel Worthy should be here at 5:30. The Spartans former All-American defensive tackle just returned from the NFL combine. Soon, his pro paychecks will be supporting a father recovering from a stroke and a mother with health issues of her own.
Their plight was the primary reason Worthy left early for the draft after last season. But working out for future employers at the combine is one thing. Torturing yourself for free before the crack of dawn is another. Worthy is one of three former Spartan pros training on this morning.
"I feel like this is my home," said Worthy, the Spartans' first All-America D-lineman since Bubba Smith. "This lets guys know that you haven't forgotten where you came from. This is always going to be my program.
"This is something I'm going to do for years to come."
Michigan State is one of those programs with in-state self-esteem issues. It lives in the shadow of Michigan. ("Little Brother" is the derogatory term most often heard.) It hasn't been to a Rose Bowl since 1988. With a trip to Pasadena in the balance, the Spartans lost a three-point game to Wisconsin in the first Big Ten championship game.
"It was honestly one of the most devastating losses I've been a part of in my entire life," Bullough said.
Devastating, not final. Michigan State beat Michigan last season for the fourth consecutive year. That tattoo that Worthy sports on his left bicep of a Spartan stomping a Wolverine will be undefeated for life.
"It's a long time coming, and it just showed that our program has overcome a lot of adversity ...," Worthy said. "Walking the streets, kind of having it thrown in your face a little bit that you were always second place."
At the end of that epic win over Michigan, "Little Brother" had turned into a mocking "Little Sisters" chant from the Spartan Stadium fans at the Wolverines.
But the Spartans are on the brink, and there are a lot of folks who agree. Entering his sixth season, Dantonio built a top-10 defense. The school paid top dollar to retain defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who was being courted by Texas A&M. As gutty as Cousins was, Maxwell might be a better athlete.
"We're becoming one of those top programs," Maxwell said. "We're becoming one of those programs when people hear Michigan State, they think 'elite.'"
Slightly less than two hours into this particular slice of early-morning conditioning heaven, all the Spartans are thinking is "sleep." Mannie calls them together for the final thought of the day.
"Good is the enemy of great. We're good. We're very good. But we're talking about being great. It's not OK to be good," Mannie said.
That's what former Spartans stress when they call the strength coach to inquire how vampire hour is going these days.
"They're still getting up for winter conditioning, right? Keep doing that. That made us tough."
"Is it that it made them tough," Mannie wonders of the graduates of his green and white boot camp, "or is it, 'Don't get soft on those guys?'" There's only way to find out. Set your alarm.