Sparty Like it’s 1999: MSU’s Special 10-2 Team Celebrates Twenty Years
If you asked the vast Spartan Nation to name their favorite football seasons of all-time, a lot of people might throw the 1999 Spartans into the mix. This fall marks the twentieth anniversary of the 10-2 season, which remains one of the most memorable in MSU history. The 1999 team finished second in the Big 10, and ranked 7th in the final national polls. Surely many media, fans, and associates of the program will revisit 1999 throughout the coming year. So why not kick off those festivities and take a look back at the 1999 team, how the year unfolded, and how the season arrived at its dramatic finish on New Year’s Day.
A Year For Redemption
Going into the 1999 season Spartan Football was coming off a year of real disappointment. After being hyped as a Top 25 squad before the 1998 season, the Spartans failed to make bowl game. The ’98 team was inconsistent, engaged in too much finger pointing, and lacked the focus and discipline to finish on a weekly basis. Remember that “The Process” that Nick Saban has become so famous for, had not fully been developed prior to that 1998 win at #1 Ohio State. The ’98 Spartans simply weren’t mature and disciplined enough to handle that season’s expectations of success. Yet, that season did include two of the biggest individual wins in Spartan Football history.
The ’98 night game against Notre Dame was Spartan Stadium’s first under the lights in years. The atmosphere built around Spartan Stadium all week, and was absolutely electric on the inside by kick off. The first half of that game was probably the most dominate in the Nick Saban era at Michigan State. Had Saban not pulled off the Spartan Dawgs in the second half, up 42-3 at the half, Notre Dame could’ve been blown out by more than four scores (> 32 points). MSU destroyed Notre Dame that night, and demonstrated the underlying potential that was inside the program
The other game from the ’98 season that forecast the potential success of 1999 was the road upset of the #1 Ohio State Buckeyes. Many still contend that Ohio State was the best college football team in America that season. Had there been a College Football Playoff twenty years ago, the Buckeyes would’ve been clear favorites to win the National Championship. To this date, anytime an opposing team wins inside the Horse Shoe it’s still a notable accomplishment. It just does not happen that often. The road upset of Ohio State in 1998 proved that MSU really could play with anyone in America, anywhere.
The ’98 Spartans tried to bridge the gap from playing with anyone to beating anyone, but lacked the consistent ability to win the games that team was really supposed to win. By the end of ’98 it was clear that there was real talent in the program, but also clear that certain steps needed to be taken in order to bring MSU football to the next level. Under Saban’s leadership discipline in the program had gradually returned to a more competitive level, while the quality of coaching, recruiting, and overall organization in the football building had continued to make strides towards the top tier of college football.
So much of the 1999 season was about making right of the disappointments and lost opportunities of the previous year. Coming into ’99, expectations of the Spartans were slightly tempered in relation to the prior couple of years. Many in the national media, which had a lot of clout twenty years ago, felt they’d learned their lesson about MSU, and would not overestimate the Spartans again. The Spartans of ’97 and ’98 had over promised, but under delivered. Yet, the spring practice sessions for ’99 had been noted success, perhaps the best of the Saban era. There was quiet optimism within Spartan Football.
Running Back Revolution
Perhaps the key positional transition before the ’99 campaign was at Running Back. Sedrick Irvin was one of the most touted recruits of the Nick Saban era, and put up huge numbers during his first two seasons in green and white. Midway through his eligibility Irvin threatened to rewrite almost every all-time MSU rushing record. But somewhere in the ’98 season Irvin’s relationship with Nick Saban seemed to sour. Saban even began to suggest that Irvin wasn’t playing tough enough, and was too easy to slide out of bounds instead of turning up field to take a hit while eking out a few extra yards. If those views were being aired out in public, it’s probably safe to assume there was more of a disconnect inside the program. As a result, Irvin decided he had enough after ’98 and declared for the NFL Draft. That decision probably still haunts Sedrick Irvin today, who ironically later became an assistant on multiple Nick Saban coaching staffs, because Irivin simply was not ready to give the NFL his best shot when he turned pro. Sadly, Sedrick Irvin never fully reached his football potential.
An incoming, home grown Linebacker super recruit named T.J. Duckett adequately replaced Irvin’s departure in the backfield during 1999. National recruiting services in the late 90s were barely recognizable compared to what they are today. There was no ESPNU, NBC or CBS Sports Network, and the Big Ten Network was then only a pipe dream. Sports radio was in its relative infancy, the Internet was hard to access and not nearly the 24/7 informational tool we live with today. And recruiting sites? They barely existed beyond outlets like ESPN’s Scholastic Sports America, USA Today, and a handful of recruiting magazines. There just was not much out there for fans that wanted to get an idea of how high school football players stacked up. But there was a pretty clear consensus that T.J. Duckett was the #1 football prospect in the nation, as a Linebacker. While the casual MSU fan might not have realized what the program had coming in another Duckett, Saban and the rest of the college football world knew they were adding a potential difference maker.
Many remember Saban’s recruiting process of Duckett, and how MSU explained to T.J. that he would have the biggest impact on the MSU football program as a Running Back. The main concern was Duckett’s lack of running experience. Some can remember Duckett playing early in ’99 as a Linebacker, and also on special teams, while he developed a running game during the practice week. By the end of the special 1999 season he more than made up for any lost time early as he pounded his was through the back end of the schedule with the kind of size and athletic ability the Big Ten had really yet to see from a Running Back.
Going into ’99, the transition at Running Back position left Senior Lloyd Clemons first on the MSU depth chart, with little experience behind. Fans can remember going into the season wondering if the ‘99 would end up doomed with a sub-par running attack, since Irvin had gone to the NFL and MSU didn’t exactly have anything lined up to replace him. It would’ve been quite the stretch to expect Duckett to burst onto the scene with the raw power and production he would soon display, and probably just as big a stretch to have expected Clemons to become so dependable and consistent all year.
Duckett’s first recognizable impact to the program might have been on the 1999 schedule. Late into that summer MSU announced that the opening game of the ’99 season with Oregon was being moved to a Thursday night, in part because of the arrival of the nation’s top Freshmen. If you’ve got a really strong memory, you might remember the promos that ESPN ran, which had Duckett’s picture and name in the caption screen that promoted the game’s time and date. After the previous year’s stomping of Notre Dame under the Spartan Stadium lights, Spartan Nation went into the ’99 opener hoping to make a bold and loud opening statement.
Turning Point Comes at the Beginning?
The Spartans first shot at redemption arrived in an Oregon Ducks squad that had absolutely thumped them the prior year, 48-14, in Eugene, Oregon. Worse, the ’98 shellacking came at an added expense as then Junior Defensive Back Amp Campbell got into an unfortunate position while attempting a tackle in Spartan territory, and ended up breaking his neck. That season was instantly over, and at the time of the injury no one expected that Campbell would ever play football again. Fortunately, Campbell recovered quickly, and was back on the field at Spartan Stadium to start the ’99 campaign.
There were so many memorable games from the ’99 season, but there may be none that match the dramatic turnaround that happened late in the southern end zone of Spartan Stadium as Campbell picked up a fumble and took it back to the house to complete a season-opening comeback victory. The atmosphere in Spartan Stadium that night wasn’t exactly the same as it had been against Notre Dame in ’98. It was, after all, only a Thursday night game against a Pac-10 school. But another night game so soon after the epic Notre Dame triumph was really special at that time, and celebrated by the eager Spartan Nation. The Oregon game was a pretty tight contest deep into the second half, that felt like it was about to slip away like the ’98 opener against Colorado St. had, when things took that miraculous turn in the 1999 Spartans favor.
How many of you shared the feeling that the Ducks were probably set to pull away towards the end of the 3rd Quarter? Oregon had the edge, and had opened up a ten-point lead earlier in the game. The Ducks were driving deep into Spartan territory looking to regain control when suddenly, their luck drowned out. Future NFL Running Back Reuben Droughns had carried the Ducks down the field by wearing out the Spartan Defense, but then started to limp early in the 4th Quarter. The Ducks were forced to put in backup Running Back Herman Ho-Ching, deep into Spartan territory, and into the most important scoring drive of the night. Ho-Ching had not been too active in the game to that point, and was clearly not ready for the intensity of the moment,
Inside Spartan Stadium some realized that Droughns was headed out and a cold Duck was coming in, but the Spartans were still in trouble. When Ho-Ching took the critical handoff of the game, it looked like he was running in slow motion towards the Spartan pursuit. In a flash, Spartan legend Julian Peterson popped the ball out of Ho-Ching’s grasp and it quickly ended up in the hands of Amp Campbell. In those few seconds, all Campbell saw ahead of him was 80 plus yards of open Spartan Stadium turf leading to a welcoming end zone. As Spartan Stadium erupted, the first chapter of the great 1999 season was being set in ink.
Spartan Football has probably never had a season’s ultimate turning point occur in the opening game, but after Campbell picked up that fumble and took it to the house, it seemed like everything changed. The trajectory of the 1999 team went from “here we go again,” to “maybe we’ve got something going here,” in less than 20 seconds. Had that Oregon scoring drive ended differently, the ’99 season would been different. Who knows what would’ve happened to individually players from that point, and who knows if Nick Saban would’ve been on plane to the bayou before the year ended. The Ducks, who thought they were rolling over MSU late to finish off a road opening win, were never the same team. The sluggish and struggling Spartans were suddenly playing with a burst and confidence that Spartan Football had not seen for more than a decade. Within an instant, the 14-point swing at the end of the Oregon game jump started the entire program, and gave the ’99 team the boost to realize they could be the kind of team they thought they were. Walking out of Spartan Stadium that night, you could already feel that 1999 was going to be something special.
You can follow the terrific Spartan Nation senior writer Jon Schopp on Twitter @JPSpartan
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