If you asked the Spartan Nation to name off their favorite football seasons of all-time, a lot of people would throw 1999 into the mix. Here we are upon the tenth anniversary of the 10-2 season that ended up as one of the most memorable in Spartan history. That team finished second in the Big 10, and ranked in top 10 rankings in the final national polls. I’m sure 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 in 1998, the Spartans failed to make bowl game. The team was inconsistent, engaged in too much finger pointing, and lacked the focus and discipline to finish. They simply weren’t mature and disciplined enough to handle the season’s expectations of success. Yet, the ’98 season did include two of the biggest individual wins in Spartan Football history.
The ’98 night game with Notre Dame was Spartan Stadium’s first under the lights in years. The atmosphere had been building around Spartan Stadium all day 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 dogs in the second 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 ’99 was the road upset of the #1 Ohio State Buckeyes. I still contend that Ohio State was the best college football team in America that season. Many around college football feel the same. Anytime an opposing team wins inside the Horse Shoe, it’s a notable accomplishment because it doesn’t happen often. The road upset of Ohio State proved that MSU really could play with anyone in America, anywhere.
The ’98 Spartans worked to bridge the gap from playing with anyone to beating anyone, but lacked the consistent ability to win the games the team was really supposed to win. By the end of ’98 it was clear that there was real talent in the program, but certain steps were needed 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 program organization had continued to make strides towards the top tier of college football.
So much of the 1999 season was about making right on the disappointments and lost opportunities of the previous year. Coming into the ’99 campaign, expectations of the Spartans were slightly tempered in relation to the previous couple of years. But spring practice had been noted as a success, and perhaps the best since Saban had taken over. Still many in the national media felt they’d learned their lesson about MSU, and would not overestimate the Spartans again.
Running Back Revolution
Perhaps the key positional transition entering the ’99 campaign was at Running Back. Sedrick Irvin was one of the most touted recruits of the Saban era, and had put up huge numbers during his first two seasons in green and white. Midway through his eligibility, Irvin threatened to rewrite nearly all of the all-time MSU rushing records. But somewhere in the ’98 season, Irvin’s relationship with Nick Saban seemed to really 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 and eke 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 should still haunt Sedrick Irvin today because he wasn’t ready to give the NFL his best shot and sadly never fully reached his football potential.
An incoming freshmen super recruit named T. J. Duckett adequately replaced Irvin’s departure in the backfield. National recruiting services in the late 90s were barely recognizable compared to what they are today. There was no ESPNU or CBSCS, and the Big Ten Network was then only a pipe dream. Sports radio was in its relative infancy, and the Internet was not nearly as easy to access, nor populated with so many recruiting sites. Outside of outlets like ESPN’s Scholastic Sports America, USA Today, and a handful of recruiting magazines, there wasn’t much available rating high school football players. Yet, 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 known exactly 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 ’99 though, he more than made up for any lost time with regular demonstrations of size and athletic ability previously foreign to the Running Back position.
Going into ’99, the transition at Running Back position left Sr. Lloyd Clemons first on the MSU depth chart, with little experience behind. I can remember going into the season wondering if the football season would end up doomed with a sub par running attack after the loss of an NFL talent in Irvin. 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 Clemons to prove so dependable and consistent all year.
Duckett’s first recognizable impact might have been on the ’99 schedule. I remember sometime later in the summer learning 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 strong memory, you’ll 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, the Spartan Nation went into the ’99 opener hoping to make a strong opening statement.
Sometimes the 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, that ’98 shellacking came at an added expense as then Jr. Defensive Back Amp Campbell got into an unfortunate position while attempting a tackle in Spartan territory, and ended up breaking his neck. His season was over, and at the time of the injury, no one knew if 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 many memorable games from the 1999 season, but probably none could match the dramatic turnaround that happened in the southern end of Spartan Stadium as Amp Campbell picked up a fumble and took it back to lead the Spartans to 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 warmly received and celebrated by the eager Spartan Nation. I remember quickly realizing this game wouldn’t be as easy as the Notre Dame blowout. In fact, it was a pretty tight contest deep into the second half, when things took a fortuitous turn in the Spartans favor.
How many of you shared the feeling that the Ducks were about to pull away towards the end of the third quarter? Oregon had the edge for most of the game, and 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 RB Reuben Droughns had carried the Ducks down the field and was wearing the Spartan defense down when he came up limping early in the fourth quarter. Oregon was forced to put in back up RB Herman Ho-Ching deep into the most important scoring drive of the night. Ho-Ching hadn’t been too active in the game to that point, and was simply not ready for the intensity of the moment.
I can remember realizing that Droughns had to come out of the game, and a cold back was coming in, but the Spartans were still in serious trouble. When Ho-Ching took the critical handoff, it looked like he was running in slow motion towards the Spartan pursuit. In a flash, DE/LB Julian Peterson popped the ball out of Ho-Ching’s grasp and it quickly ended up in the hands of Amp Campbell. In that split second, all Campbell saw ahead of him was 8o plus yards of open Spartan Stadium turf leading to a welcoming end zone.
The Spartans had 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, everything changed. Had that Oregon scoring drive ended differently, the outlook and direction of the ’99 season would’ve been drastically different. The Ducks, who thought they were rolling back to regain a comfortable lead they had lost to the hard charging home team, were never the same. And the once sluggish and struggling Spartans were suddenly playing inspired and confident to a new level. Within an instant, the 14-point swing reenergized the entire program and changed the whole trajectory of the ’99 season. 1999 was going to be special for Spartan Football.
This is part one of a four part series. Part two will be up on Sunday and part three next Saturday and the conclusion (part four) next Sunday.