From West Michigan to Pasadena, my journey to the Rose Bowl

Tribune sports writer chronicles trip to Rose Bowl
Nich Wolak
Jan 7, 2014

It started out as a joke.

“We’re going to win out and go to the Rose Bowl.”

A small part of me thought it could happen, but I was mostly just trying to balance out the room.

Among friends and family, I have always been the Michigan State skeptic, the unbiased journalist who won’t let emotion get in the way of how I see my school’s team.

But at this point I needed to be the opposite. My friends and family had just about had it after the Notre Dame game, their green blood boiling to the point of almost firing Dantonio.

Maybe that’s why I could say it out loud — because optimism at that point was much closer to reality than doom.

The ball had not bounced the Spartans’ way in 2012. They lost five games by a total of 13 points.

It did not bounce their way that Saturday in South Bend, either, as multiple pass interference penalties were called against them. 

I had the misfortune of being there that day. My night was further ruined as the bar my friends and I went to was lame; I realized that Connor Cook had not been hurt when Dantonio pulled him out (the reason my friends and family were so down on the Grinch-lookalike folk-hero of a coach); and that I had missed out on perhaps the greatest UFC fight ever (Jon Jones versus Alexander Gustafsson for the light heavyweight belt) and the love of my life (Theresa, a Notre Dame student whose number I should have gotten before heading into the stadium).

But I still had hope. I knew the Spartans had a great defense, and saw glimmers of what a Connor Cook-led offense might look like that day.

Starting to believe

The transformation was better than expected.

As the season wore on my remarks about the Rose Bowl took on a more realistic tone.

On Oct. 31, my friend Mike texted me to ask if I would be interested in going with him to the Michigan State-New Orleans game on Dec. 28.

I said no, that there was a good chance I’d be in California, and proceeded to make a joke about the influence Tom Izzo had over his life.

It was another Rose Bowl joke, but these jokes were starting to take on a tone of seriousness.

On the back of a vicious defense and an ever-improving offense, the Spartans had won four straight.

We decided that day that we'd head out to Pasadena if they made it.

A decisive victory over Michigan the next week only improved my confidence that it could happen, and my belief was not misguided as Michigan State did not pull a "Same Old Spartans" against Nebraska, Northwestern or Minnesota.

Still, a date with an Ohio State team that had not lost in nearly two years loomed, and I thought the Buckeyes would win.

That changed when I watched Ohio State give up 41 to a Michigan team that Michigan State had sacked seven times and held to -41 yards rushing. 


My buddy Jake and I headed to Indianapolis with optimism, but we didn't need it to secure Rose Bowl tickets.

Mike called while we were on a bus to Lucas Oil Stadium. Michigan State was probably going to the Rose Bowl win or lose, due to Ohio State's role as the No. 2 BCS team, so why not buy them now?

We figured prices would go up later, and we were right. The final details were worked out over the phone at the famous Shapiro's Deli (This is also the spot where I realized I had lost my ticket. Luckily the staff was gracious enough to let me to use their computer to print off another one).

I sat in my seat at Lucas Oil knowing that I would be sitting in the California sun in a month.

Now to see if my Spartans could earn their way, rather than backing in.

Michigan State jumped out to a 17-0 lead, but Ohio State followed with 24 points of its own, as a Buckeye fan who looked like my old neighbor on steroids continued to remind our section.

I began to fear the worst for my team, and guilt that I had perhaps played a part by failing to approach a former classmate of mine at halftime (think a cross between the Little Red Haired Girl from Charlie Brown and Marilyn Monroe).

But once again, Michigan State proved the doubters wrong, rallying to score 24 straight. Jeremy Langford's 26-yard touchdown run made it finally sink in — we were going to Pasadena — and we had a good chance to win.


The in-between time was a mixed bag. Trying to plan an expensive trip with four guys who have very different schedules (teacher, researcher, graduate student, sports reporter) in three different cities and two different states was definitely stressful, but there was an unbelievable sense of excitement that we were actually going to make the trek.

A bit of that enthusiasm was tempered when senior captain Max Bullough was suspended for the game. The linebacker was the Peyton Manning of the Michigan State defense — more affectionately known as the Spartan Dawgs. How were we going to handle a physical and unique Stanford run game without him?

In order to replace Max's shaved head, I buzzed off my hair. It was the talk of my family Christmas. 

California Love

On Dec. 29, my roommate Eric and I made the journey to Chicago to fly to Los Angeles. An overnight layover in Minneapolis — which included a two-and-a-half hour journey to get Subway — left us weak and exhausted, but the California sun changed that quickly.

Dec. 30 was mostly spent stalking celebrities. We meandered around the Walk of Fame and took a bus tour that showed us a lot of celebrity homes and the surround Los Angeles area. Our buddy Joel met up with us to go to get Pink's Hot Dogs and see a show at the Laugh Factory, where Dane Cook surprisingly showed up (Our reaction? "We don't really like Dane Cook, but it's pretty cool that he's here").

On New Year's Eve day, we headed out to Venice Beach and Santa Monica. Eric mostly wanted to get cool pictures. I mostly wanted to pretend I was in the Disney Channel original movie Brink.

We were both successful.

Eric and I picked up Mike early that afternoon, and Jake later that night, and somehow managed to find the pants necessary to get into a Santa Monica night club we had reserved tickets for (there aren't many Wal-Marts around Los Angeles).

We woke up at the crack of dawn to see the Rose Bowl parade. I'm not a parade guy, and I don't think I'd ever go again, but if I was going to recommend a parade, that would be the one.

The Rose Bowl itself was sheer chaos, a sea of green fans, with a smidgeon of red ones in between.

It certainly felt like Christmas. Christmas in July that is, with the warm sun beating down.

I'll remember the long lines to get in, how all the concessions and restrooms were outdoors (mind-blowing for a resident of a state as cold as Michigan), the soccer mom to the side of me who called me out for not drinking and the guy behind me who had a variety of interesting stories about his ex-wife.

But mostly I'll remember that last play. Seeing Bullough’s replacement, fifth-year senior Kyler Elsworth, leap through the air to stuff the Stanford run, watching the replay to be sure, and celebrating with my friends as Michigan State ran out the clock.

I had picked against my team after finding out about Bullough, but once again the Spartans found a way.

I'm still that skeptical MSU fan, though.

While the Rose Bowl victory was a huge accomplishment, I have found the media's coronation of the Michigan State program (after years of not giving it enough attention) troublesome. 

I don't think Urban Meyer is going to sit around eating Twinkles all offseason and Michigan will inevitably come back (with or without Hoke as coach). Every true national power has gotten it done on the recruiting trail, and Michigan State still hasn't shown it can consistently win battles against their soon-to-be East Division rivals.

But for the first time in my life, I'm starting to believe that it's possible.

And no matter what I'll always have my trip to Pasadena, and the glorious season that made it possible.


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