ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Michigan State football party was coming up on three consecutive weeks, a rollicking celebration of the Spartans’ first Rose Bowl in 26 years – and then the needle screeched off the record, leaving a team and its supporters in stunned silence.
On Wednesday, MSU players found out senior linebacker and captain Max Bullough is suspended for the Rose Bowl, as the team flew to California without him. They talked at a Thursday news gathering at Disneyland of moving forward and getting ready for Stanford, but that’s what they were supposed to say.
“It’s been pretty tough,” admitted senior linebacker Kyler Elsworth, who is competing with sophomore Darien Harris to replace Bullough in Wednesday’s game in Pasadena. “It’s only one day in, but I talked to Max and he said he doesn’t want us to dwell on that. He wants us to focus on our job here at the Rose Bowl.”
MSU gave no further word Thursday on why Bullough was suspended. He has been the face of the program, an All-American and Academic All-American who is part of the only three-generation family in program history.
He was to take the same field on which his grandfather, Hank Bullough, played every snap for the Spartans in their first Rose Bowl 60 years earlier, a 28-20 win over UCLA on Jan. 1, 1954. That was the storybook ending that awaited Max Bullough before his unspecified transgression.
“Obviously, in the statement I made, it’s extremely disappointing, for all parties involved,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said Thursday. “There are no winners here.”
The statement, e-mailed to reporters shortly after midnight Thursday, quoted Dantonio as saying Bullough had been suspended for the rest of the season for a “violation of team rules” and added: “We will stay focused and close ranks as we prepare for Stanford. Max will forever remain a Spartan and valued member in this team’s achievements.”
Thursday’s event was to be a feel-good affair, an annual tradition before the Rose Bowl. Dantonio emerged from Sleeping Beauty’s castle with a smile on his face, as his family sat in a large crowd along with athletic director Mark Hollis and his family, and several other MSU players.
Dantonio, Stanford coach David Shaw and five players from each team took the stage and chatted with a moderator for a few minutes before reporters were allowed to approach and ask questions. Dantonio immediately faced a flurry about Bullough.
“Like I said, I stand by the statement I made, so really we’re not gonna comment any more about the issue,” he said. “Let’s move on.”
Asked how much this will hurt No. 4 MSU (12-1) against No. 5 Stanford (11-2), he replied: “We’re gonna play. We’re gonna rise up and play.”
Asked again about the effect on his team, he said: “We’re gonna stand by our issue, guys. I’m not gonna talk about that anymore. We’re gonna move on.”
Finally, asked to explain what he means about “closing ranks,” Dantonio said: “Simply put, there’s a void. There’s a void left and you move forward. You close ranks.”
MSU sophomore center Jack Allen refused to talk specifically about Bullough, but he said he expected MSU’s other two captains, senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard and senior offensive guard Blake Treadwell, to make up for some of the lost vocal leadership.
“And Denicos (Allen) and Fou (Fonoti),” Allen said. “A lot of guys. We’ve just got to bring an extra chip on our shoulder that day.”
Fonoti said Bullough’s teammates were “shocked” when they heard the news, “just like everyone.”
“That just gives us that much more reason to play,” Fonoti said. “That’s our brother, and we love him. We’ve got his back. We’re gonna play this game, and we’re gonna play with his mentality. We’re definitely gonna do it for him.”
Bullough has had one incident in his MSU career, a bar fight on March 10, 2011, in Aspen, Colo., that earned him nine months of probation for a reduced conviction of minor in possession of alcohol. He and then-MSU tight end Brian Linthicum were suspended for a portion of the following spring practice.
At the time, a freshman Bullough said: “It’s just about thinking before you do something, and realizing before you do something, ask yourself, ‘Is it really worth it? Is it worth giving away all this?’ Because when you’re sitting up there in the Smith Center watching practice, watching your teammates out there, it’s hard. Because you’re letting them down.”
After Thursday’s brief event, the MSU players who made the trek wandered around the amusement park in search of roller-coasters. Hollis said it is “critical” that MSU’s focus is on rewarding them and the thousands of MSU fans who will attend the Rose Bowl.