When Michigan State fired football coach George Perles in 1994, the program was in disrepair.
Eventual sanctions loomed over East Lansing, the facilities were among the Big Ten’s worst and the Spartans were completely off the national radar after a 5-6 season.
Faced with the pressure of salvaging Michigan State football, school president Peter McPherson perused his options while holdover players eagerly awaited his decision.
“They had their list of candidates that the media was broadcasting,” former wide receiver Nigea Carter said. “Us as players, we had our favorites. We wanted a guy named Gary Blackney from Bowling Green. Especially as receivers because we knew we were gonna get the ball.”
Gary Blackney never arrived.
Instead, the university landed former employee Nick Saban, the defensive coordinator on Michigan State’s 1987 Rose Bowl team and most recently the defensive coordinator on Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns staff.
“We had no idea who the guy was,” Carter said. “We literally had no idea.”
One of Michigan State’s graduate assistants played for Saban in the late ‘80s. He quickly briefed the team.
“He’s a beast,” the assistant said, according to Carter.
Players wanted to know: “What do you mean by ‘beast’?”
The answer: “He doesn’t take any crap.”
“Are your socks properly folded?”
Saban moved quickly, splitting time between a Cleveland playoff run and Michigan State duties in December 1994.
By the time the Browns’ season ended, Saban had his Spartans staff in place, and he swiftly introduced the program to a new culture.
Nigea Carter, wide receiver: He pretty much set the tone when we first met him. That tone was: Hey, it’s about accountability now. In every area. Going to class. Doing the right thing outside of football. And then on the football field, doing your job.
Tony Banks, quarterback: He wasn’t a big, gregarious guy like George Perles, that’s for sure. That was one of the reasons I went to Michigan State, cuz I just really loved Perles. (Saban) was more of a take-care-of-business type coach. George was pretty close to his players.
Demetrice Martin, cornerback: He harped on the fine little technique points. He was a John Wooden-type of coach in that aspect. All the little things. Are your socks properly folded? Did you tie your shoes correctly?
Ike Reese, linebacker: He was trying to change it into a winning culture. So in order to establish that, there has to be a no-nonsense sort of aura about him. The players must know that, anything they do that’s out of line, there’s gonna be hell to pay for it from the head coach.
Banks: He’s not just “attention to detail” on the field. I went to Michigan State to major in football. So Nick Saban wanted me to be more well rounded. Even though he wasn’t the guy to give you a hug, he still, in his own way, showed that he cared about your future.
Dean Pees, defensive coordinator: The thing about him was he was just so thorough. Even in recruiting and every aspect of the game. It wasn’t all about just X’s and O’s. It was about recruiting players and how to recruit ‘em and when to recruit ‘em. Just all those things. That’s one of the things about Belichick that I couldn’t believe, either. When he drafts, he knows stuff that’s coming up two years down the road. Guys that are gonna be free agents. I don’t know how they do it.
Brad Salem, graduate assistant: You really saw from day one the organizational skills. The details. It was very meticulous, everything we did. We’d sit and watch practice — both offense and defense — and he knows everything. As a GA, you’re going, “This guy knows everything about football.”
Ken Mannie, strength and conditioning coach: One thing I learned from Nick, is you write everything down. Have your own personal notes on every single item that is talked about at the meeting. Because he does. I’ll bet Nick has notepads — and I’m not sure if he’s gravitated toward the iPad craze — he always had this spiral notebook. I’m talking about the long spiral notebooks where the spirals are on top of the notebook, not on the side, you know what I’m talking about there? And I’ll bet he has those going back to the first day he coached. I’ll bet he saved every one. And he can go back and find any staff meeting he’s ever conducted in his entire career and tell you exactly what was talked about in that meeting.
Carter: A lot of players kind of looked the other way. Who’s this guy? Who’s this guy? Those guys were out the door. But I sat there and listened to the guy because I was a guy that liked that kind of stuff. You have no choice but to either adapt or get out of there.
“You had to wait for him to smile”
Among Saban’s hires was secondary coach Mark Dantonio, whose current Michigan State team will face Saban’s Alabama team in Thursday’s Cotton Bowl.
Back in 1995, Dantonio was a 39-year-old assistant from the University of Kansas.
Gary Tranquill, offensive coordinator: We used to tease him because Nick’s a secondary coach. He got after Mark a lot on the field. So we said Mark was Nick’s GA.
Demetrice Martin, cornerback: Shoot, you’ve got the head man at your position, and you’re his position coach. Obviously, there were some times that things were hard or uncomfortable or things like that. I was a just old enough to pick up on some of those things, and I could say (to Dantonio), “Hey coach, don’t worry about it. Just put me on a guy and he’s not catching the ball.”
Ike Reese, linebacker: I remember him being very quiet and observant. When he spoke, it often had an impact. During the winter conditioning programs, when all the assistant coaches had their own stations — that was the only time I can remember coach Dantonio getting after players. You knew he was a coach that, if he had to get on, he could get on you.
Jim Bollman, offensive line coach: He was very, very intense. Tough guy. Very meticulous, demanding his players should be accountable.
Martin: He was real stern. Never a yeller. Never a screamer. We had enough of that from other coaches on the staff. It was cool because he was a calm sounding board.
Reese: The funny thing is: Much like coach Saban, coach Dantonio has that stern look about him. So when he did crack a smile, it was certainly rare. And when he told a joke, sometimes you didn’t know where the punchline was just because you had to wait for him to smile to know that he just told a joke.
Dean Pees, defensive coordinator: The biggest thing about Mark was, he had such a great rapport with players. And with the staff, but especially with his players. He’s just such an honest, down-to-Earth person and a good coach.
Tranquill: He’s a lot like Nick in a lot of ways. He was really a good recruiter on that staff. A good teacher. A really detailed guy.
Reese: The only difference between the two was, coach Dantonio is not a yeller. He’s not gonna do a lot of cursing. Coach Saban is the complete opposite. It’s like 180 degrees, man. Coach Saban wears his emotions on his sleeves. Coach Dantonio is more of a guy… all you had to do was look at him, and you sort of tensed up ‘cause you knew he was about business. So when you got that rare smile from him or that rare joke from him, you certainly appreciate it.
Reese and several other stars were thrown into an open competition for their jobs, as Saban brought in freshmen that took practice reps right away.
Mushin Muhammad, wide receiver: There were a lot of jobs up in the air, on the line. Including secretaries, managers — people who were probably pretty comfortable with what the previous regime had in place.
Tony Banks, quarterback: We had a couple All-Big Ten preseason guys that were almost relegated to backup roles because of some of these young freshmen. I can’t speak for those guys, but that always kinda got under my skin because a couple of those guys are good friends of me.
Demetrice Martin, cornerback: You had to fend new guys off that you would title “Coach Saban’s guys.” Which, you know, he was trying to create culture change. He wanted bigger, longer guys. Me being a 5-10 corner back then, it wasn’t to his liking coming from the NFL.
Ike Reese, linebacker: We knew that we weren’t Nick Saban’s guys. Anytime you get a new guy in, he’s gonna want to bring his guys in eventually. He recruited several linebackers that came in.
Banks: Freshmen in ’95 were usually guys who didn’t contribute. So these were guys that were contributing, taking snaps away from juniors and seniors. But looking back on it, that’s just how it is, and a few of those freshmen turned out to be pretty good players.
Reese: Coming off that redshirt freshman year of being a starter and leading the team in tackles (in 1994) — to have him basically tell everybody that no job was safe and that everybody was gonna have to compete for playing time — I think that sort of drove me.
“Nobody had ever asked me that before”
Saban hired Ken Mannie to build a strength and conditioning program from scratch. When he arrived from the University of Toledo, Mannie found his new domain to be… lacking.
Mannie: Toledo’s weight room was larger and better equipped than the one at Michigan State.
Pat Shurmur, tight ends coach: I don’t want to make it sound cliché, but it was kind of a Spartan setup.
Mannie: There was a lot of stuff missing, quite frankly. Some of the equipment that was there was not of the highest quality.
Ike Reese, linebacker: The weight room was maybe a quarter of the size that it is right now. We were out of date with a lot of the equipment that we had. A lot of it was archaic.
Mannie: I was flying solo on that trip because there were no assistants here. No graduate assistants. It was a Big Ten program with just me trying to get things going, primarily for the football team, and trying to give other sports their fair share of time and effort as well. I was in this building about 16 hours a day, seven days a week, just training guys and working with people. I can’t even use the term “limited staff” — there was no staff.
Nigea Carter, wide receiver: The machines were there. There just wasn’t enough of ‘em. And the dedication from the strength coaches wasn’t there. Me personally, I was a skinny receiver, so I did my best to try and hide and get away from the weight room. And I was successful. But under coach Mannie, you could not do it because of the accountability rule.
Reese: Coach Mannie came in and instilled a program. He put a program together, and you had to follow it. There was no working out on your own. You had to be there at a certain time. Being punctual. The way you dressed when you came in there. All those things became just as important as if you were in a meeting room with your position coaches. He was more than just a strength and conditioning coach, man. He was like a father figure to a lot of us players.
Gary Tranquill, offensive coordinator: He’s been there for 150 years, now. He took care of his business and the kids loved him and they worked hard for them. He should be patted on the back for that.
Reese: The best thing Nick Saban’s left there outside of introducing Mark Dantonio to the program — he brought Ken Mannie to Michigan State … 1A and 1B. Love coach Mannie, man.
On the field, Michigan State’s hopes were pinned to an explosive offense that featured quarterback Tony Banks — a junior-college transfer in 1994 — and a trio of NFL-bound wide receivers: Derrick Mason, Mushin Muhammad and Nigea Carter.
Saban brought in Gary Tranquill, his 55-year-old former boss at Navy, to run the offense.
Banks: I remember the first question Gary Tranquill asked me — this is a quarterback going into his senior year thinking he’s an NFL-caliber quarterback — he had me draw up my favorite play, and then he asked me, “What’s the first thing you look at when you walk up to the line of scrimmage?” Nobody had ever asked me that before. So I looked back at him, kind of with a puzzled look, and I’m like, uh, I’m looking for, uh, to see if I can hit Nigea deep. He’s like, well who’s gonna tell me that? I’m like, uh, the corner? And he’s like, no. And then he starts telling me, “Look, Tony, the safeties tell you everything.” Just starts breaking it down. And in one meeting, my outlook on football changed. It was so much easier. I could see spacing. I could see levels. All because of whether the safeties would move or not move.
Tranquill: He came the year before and just kinda got thrown to the wolves right away. He had no real background to fall back on.
Banks: My junior year, even though statistically it looked decent, I was just an athlete back there throwing the ball around, like a point guard that can get anywhere on the court but don’t know what he’s doing. So, I knew right away that it was gonna change football for me.
Tranquill: Tony was as talented as anybody I’ve ever been around, physically. I would’ve liked to have had him around for a couple more years. I think he progressed. But I’m not sure how important football was to Tony at that time. But he was a big guy who could run, and he had a big-time arm.
Banks: We were confident. We had three of the top receivers, I thought, in the country: Derrick Mason, Mushin Muhammad and most people thought Nigea Carter was the best of the bunch.
Carter: I would always tell Tony I was open. Even on run plays. “Tony, I’m open! I’m open! I’m open!” When I leave the huddle. “Tony, I’m open!” Then I found out Derrick and Mushin were doing the same thing.
Banks: I thought we were gonna be such an explosive offense. Mushin Muhammad had gotten in some trouble with the George Perles regime, and hadn’t even played much. We ended up being roommates our senior year.
Muhammad: Me and Tony were best buds, man. I had a girlfriend, so I had to keep her away from Tony. He was a ladies’ man.
Banks: Moose was always one of the loudest, especially when he started seeing he was better than he originally thought he was. He’d always tell me, “Oh man, Tone, if I get in the league, I’ll be a special teams guy.” I was like, “Man, you have more talent than that.”
Muhammad: He liked big receivers. I liked somebody who could sling the ball. He could sling it, man. We had a symbiotic type of relationship, man. I think all the receivers were happy to see somebody come in who could throw the ball.
Carter: The good thing about our relationship was we weren’t envious of one another. We weren’t jealous of one another. We were always out there: “Hey, try to come out of your route like this.”
Banks: Those are three of the best receivers I ever played with. Even in the NFL. So I was quite lucky in that regard, to come in with a coach who was willing to make calls according to our talent, and he had no problem letting me audible to all the vertical stuff I liked to get to, and we had receivers that could go get it.
As Tranquill set up the offense, Saban watched closely — from a distance.
Banks: That was Coach Tranquill’s offense. Nick was a defensive guy. He definitely critiqued me when I didn’t do something right, but he wasn’t involved in the meetings, and most of that stuff was on the field.
Tranquill: He knew what we were doing, but he’s a defensive coach. He didn’t mess with us very much on offense.
“You oughta see this guy”
The defense was gearing up for a seemingly impossible task: slowing down the defending national champions in the season opener.
No. 2 Nebraska’s roster featured nearly three dozen future pros, including Heisman finalist quarterback Tommie Frazier and All-Big 8 running back Lawrence Phillips.
Ike Reese, linebacker: That was our first game against the defending national champions, and we wanted to see exactly where we stacked up against a team like that. We had to find out that we had a long way to go.
Dean Pees, defensive coordinator: We kinda knew going in that we were gonna have to play extremely, extremely well, especially on defense. ‘Cause we were not exactly loaded on defense.
Nearly 74,000 fans watched Michigan State go down, 10-0, within the game’s first five minutes. But a 16-yard touchdown from Banks to Muhammad cut the deficit to three.
Demetrice Martin, cornerback: I remember Tommy Frazier coming around on an option play, getting a pretty good lick on him and causing a fumble. We recovered the fumble and I thought that was gonna be the telltale moment of the game. But that was early.
Banks: Their depth just killed us. Mushin Muhammad got hurt in the second quarter. He was having a huge first half. And their depth … they just came waves after waves after waves of defensive linemen. And they all looked the same. They were just a bunch of Grant Wistrom clones. Like, where are these guys coming from?
Muhammad: It was tough, man. We were moving the ball pretty good. We were scoring. They really started to pull away, but there wasn’t much I could do. I was watching.
Martin: It felt like those guys were operating at a higher level than we were because of familiarity with each other. We were out there. It was brand new. We were fighting our butts off and trying to do what we could do to hold, but one mistake here, and it ends up being a 10-point swing.
Reese: I broke my hand in that game, actually. In the second quarter, sometime. I wound up leaving the game, getting it casted, and then coming back for the fourth quarter. The game was already out of hand.
Despite an injury to Frazier, Nebraska totaled 666 yards en route to a 50-10 win in East Lansing. Third- and fourth-string running backs Ahman Green and Jay Sims tacked on a pair of long touchdown runs late to finish off whatever hope Sparty had left.
Pees: The big thing I remember about that game: Lawrence Phillips was the tailback. And then they had another guy. They took those two guys out and a third guy got in there. And I think it was Green was his name, or something like that. I remember Nick telling me on the headset — he ran a sweep right in front of our bench — [lowers voice] “you oughta see this guy.” That didn’t make me feel any better. They were hammering us pretty good.
Muhammad: We took it on the chin, man.
Pat Shurmur, tight ends coach: We got torched!
The 40-point loss was Michigan State’s worst in 12 years.
Drew Sharp, Detroit Free Press: I remember after the game Nebraska killed ‘em, he basically thought the team quit. I’d never heard that before. He questioned whether or not the team wanted to stay out there and play. It kind of shocked the team. It was an example that this guy was not going to tolerate nonsense. He knew he had some issues with personnel, but he was not going to tolerate a lack of effort.
Reese: I remember Nick not being happy after the game. He certainly was not happy with our effort, and he said — I’m paraphrasing the message — but the message was, “That’ll be the last time we ever take a loss like that around here. Because those days are over with.”
“He wore bike shorts back in the day, too”
Michigan State avoided a second loss until October. In that time, Saban’s Spartans improved to 2-1-1, and he began showing a lighter side of himself to the team.
Ike Reese, linebacker: He had to tell a bad joke once a week, man. I had to listen to him. A bad joke once a week during stretch period when he’s walking around, talking to players. He tried his joke out on certain people he thought were gonna laugh at it. Eventually, I had to hear one at least once a week. Sometimes twice a week. He was the head coach, so you had no choice but to laugh at him.
Nigea Carter, wide receiver: Every once in awhile he’d tell a joke. But we were so afraid of him that the joke never went over well. Even if it was a really good joke thinking about it now, at the time it wasn’t. You didn’t know if he was tapping you on your shoulder while you were getting your hamstrings stretched to tell you, “Hey, you’re kicked off the team for something.” You just didn’t know what to think about the guy.
Reese: He’d tell one liners. Simple riddle jokes only he would get that Jerry Glanville may have told him. I just remember he always had something silly. Like, coach, it ain’t working, man. It ain’t working. But I give him credit: He tried to show a looser side to himself. It’s just that joke telling isn’t necessarily his forte.
Gary Tranquill, offensive coordinator: He’s always had that ability to laugh. He’s always had that ability to crack jokes. He’s smart enough to realize: You can’t be nose to the grindstone all the time and be so overly serious that you lose any humor.
Carter: One thing I want to make clear: The Nick Saban we had is not the Nick Saban that I see now. I’m sure he’s the same enthusiastic guy. He’s very passionate about football. He only knows one way to coach. But the guy I see now is a guy that’s pretty happy. I see him smiling a lot more.
Mushin Muhammad, wide receiver: I think he does have a kind spirit and a gentle heart. He’s a hard-nosed coach when it comes to, “Hey, do your job.” But he is a second-chance kinda guy. He does give opportunities.
Tony Banks, quarterback: He’s not the George Perles type that’s gonna hug you every time he sees ya when you’re playing for him. I think he showed that he cared in other ways. He looked out for me, trying to make sure I was going to class. There’s not a lot of head coaches that are involved in that process. They delegate that responsibility.
Drew Sharp, Detroit Free Press: He was great if you got him in his office, if you got him away from all the cameras. The cameras intimidate him more than anything else. He gave me some great stuff. He told me the story — he was on campus at Kent State, the day of the 1970 shootings — him just reciting that to me … he can be very open. Always very insightful. If it’s just a 1-on-1, he can be very disarming with his personality. I can see why that makes him a great recruiter. But you put him with a bunch of cameras in there, and he kinda stiffens up a little bit.
Saban also cultivated a “look” that featured a pair of large, thick eyeglasses.
Ken Mannie, strength and conditioning coach: We all had those back then until we all got our LASIK. I had the same kind of glasses. Might’ve had a little tint to ‘em, though.
Muhammad: I never asked, man. I’m guessing it was part of the normal deal. He wore bike shorts back in the day, too. The ones that don’t come down past half your thigh.
Reese: He had all those things, and then you had the coach’s shirt, which probably could’ve used one more size. But he liked to wear ‘em tight because he was physically fit for his age. And man, my favorite part about his look was the hair sticking out the chest. He had the buttons unbuttoned all the way down to where he had the hair sticking out with a little gold chain on it as if it were still the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. He had his swag going back then.
Demetrice Martin, cornerback: One thing that was different was his little straw hat he would wear. That little cowboy type of hat. Being a guy from the West Coast, I’m used to coaches wearing ballcaps and that type of thing. He would come out with that kind of cap.
Reese: I always enjoyed that part about him. “Man, you really think you look cool today! You really think you got it going on today!”
Martin: I’ve been watching from afar, and I’ve seen him get his swag up with his nice little different collared shirts. I’m proud of coach Saban. Make sure you tell him that.
“Recruits see a different side”
Recruiting has always been one of Saban’s strengths, and he hauled in an impressive class during his first full season as coach.
That group of 1995 high school seniors included six future All-Big Ten players, most notably wide receiver Plaxico Burress, defensive lineman Robaire Smith and running back Sedrick Irvin.
Jim Bollman, offensive line coach: It was not easy to recruit back then, particularly when Michigan was that good. When Nick was at Michigan State, it wasn’t like Alabama or LSU or some of these other places. So it was more difficult to get a guy like Sedrick Irvin.
Bobby Williams, running backs coach: You always want to be able to compete with some of the other teams in you conference, attract talent and show recruits their new home. We didn’t have those type of facilities, so you always tried to work your way around it and make it work. Which we did.
Irvin: I’m a Miami guy. So at the time, all I knew was Miami, Florida State, Nebraska. They did a good job of coming down to Miami and presenting Michigan State to me. I committed to five schools. Every visit I went on, I committed. They didn’t know I was coming until signing day when they got the fax.
Brad Salem, graduate assistant: I think recruits see a different side. He was going to try to put them in a position to be successful as a person, as a player. I think that would come across. It’s kind of who he is.
Bollman: It’s hard to put a finger on what made Nick really different. There were certain things he sets up in his program that he expects people to adhere to and understand that it’s not always gonna be easy. But he believes that’s what’s best for you.
Irvin: Everything was genuine and real, and that’s what you get from coach Saban. People want to say, “Oh, he’s not a player’s coach.” But me growing up without a dad, I loved him for the discipline. The structure that he had. What he’d hold you accountable for.
Williams: He was out there with us every day. It wasn’t like he was sitting back waiting. He was out there when it was the contact period. Every day throughout the contact period, he was seeing one of our prospects. When he was able to go out in the spring, he was out every day. You talk about a coach that works through recruiting; he’s relentless when it comes to that.
Irvin: He carried himself first-class. He ran a first-class program. He held everyone else accountable, and he held himself accountable. That’s why he gets the best recruiting classes.
“How could we lose to a bunch of midgets with diapers on?”
For the time being, Saban had to work with the talent George Perles handed him. Banks missed three games with an ankle injury, then returned in late October for a narrow win over Minnesota and a disheartening 31-point loss at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium.
Standing at 4-3-1, Michigan State returned home to pick up the pieces and prepare for its most hated rival.
No. 7 Michigan had its eyes on a potential national championship. The Wolverines got one two years later with many of the young players from that 1995 team — cornerback Charles Woodson and quarterback Brian Griese included.
Drew Sharp, Detroit Free Press: When Perles was there, they always played it up: The Michigan game was the season. The old joke was Michigan State could go 1-11, as long as that one win was against the Wolverines.
Mushin Muhammad, wide receiver: Alabama-Auburn. That’s the best way I can describe it. Alabama-Auburn. With a twinge of UNC-Duke basketball.
Sharp: I don’t think there was that much enthusiasm on either side coming into the game. If you’re Michigan, you probably figure you’re gonna win. If you’re Michigan State, I don’t think the fans really got all that excited.
Demetrice Martin, cornerback: There was some buildup: Us being their little brothers. We don’t have a chance. Being in close proximity and having an opportunity to get messages across and things like that.
Ike Reese, linebacker: We were a team at that time that just didn’t have a lot of confidence about ourselves. Didn’t think we were a team that even had the right to even be on the field with teams like Michigan, Ohio State, even Penn State at that time. We just didn’t feel like that.
Brad Salem, graduate assistant: I just think you knew the seriousness of it during the week. In the team meetings, you understood that game and the history of Michigan-Michigan State. (Saban) got that point across.
Ken Mannie, strength and conditioning coach: I just remember the atmosphere — not just on game day — but the entire week leading up to it, the practices, the hitting stepped up tremendously. The velocity. The volume. The sounds of the hitting that week were remarkable in practice.
On Nov. 4, 1995, the temperature in East Lansing was 22 degrees Fahrenheit with a windchill of 5. A strong wind and scattered snow gave Spartan Stadium an epic tinge.
“I remember being super cold,” Martin said. “Feeling every hit because your body was numb from the cold. All that good stuff.”
Mason got the crowd going with a 70-yard punt return touchdown that put Michigan State up, 7-3, in the second quarter. But the Spartans found themselves behind, 25-21, facing a fourth-and-11 from their own 30-yard line with 2:32 remaining.
Reese: It was almost that narrative: The same old Spartans. They play well early, but eventually, they’re giving up. We managed to find a way on that final drive with some miraculous plays from Derrick Mason and Tony Banks.
Banks fired a bullet to Mason near the right sideline, and the referee appeared to mark him short of the first down. The chains disagreed.
Banks: Because of the spot, because of Mase’s little toe tap at the end, we ended up getting the sticks. That’s the one that really sticks out to me. And Charles Woodson missing my pick. I almost threw him one.
Perhaps the game’s most memorable play came later in the drive, when Banks got a little too confident on a throw in Woodson’s direction — but didn’t pay the price.
Banks: When I threw it, he wasn’t looking. So I was trying to throw it a little higher than his helmet, like a back shoulder to … who was it? Derrick Mason! But as I was throwing, he starts to turn around and I was like, “Uh oh.”
Reese: It was right there in front of him.
Gary Tranquill, offensive coordinator: Oh, shit! No, Tony!
Reese: Charles Woodson had it read. It was a great play by him. The only thing he did was just not catch the ball.
The football bounced out of Woodson’s hands and into Mason’s outstretched arms with 1:35 remaining.
Banks: Just blind luck. If that’s the next year and (Woodson’s) a sophomore, maybe he catches that ball.
Reese: It was an even greater play by Derrick Mason with the concentration to still focus on that ball and pull it in. It felt like after that catch, we were gonna win the game. It just felt like it was meant to be.
Moments later, Banks escaped the pocket, rolled right and fired a back shoulder strike to Carter for the game-winning 25-yard touchdown.
Martin: I just felt joy. Got an instant burst of energy. Wasn’t cold anymore. You felt like you could play a whole other game.
Carter: The fans rushed the field. My wife — she was my girlfriend at the time — carries a scar on her knee to this day. It’s a pretty big one. It’s from her getting trampled after I caught that game-winning touchdown. I’m constantly reminded of that game every time I see her knee.
Reese: Michigan didn’t take it very well. That made the victory that much sweeter out there on the field. They’d certainly gotten us more so than we’d gotten them. But that one hurt, and you knew that it hurt. To see the agony on their face out there on the field, it made it that much sweeter for us.
Martin: Those blue bellies don’t like losing to the Sparties at all.
Banks: Their body language at the end of the game and after the game, was to me, so disrespectful because it was like, “How could we lose to Michigan State?” I was so offended. They weren’t shaking our hands after the game. I’m a guy that likes to go talk a little friendly trash, shake hands, that kind of thing. They’re dropping to the ground. I knew about their engineering program, but I was unaware of their theatrical program. They were just crying. In disbelief.
Carter: It was like, “How could we lose to a bunch of midgets with diapers on?” That’s how I felt they looked at us.
Banks: It goes to show the different athlete that goes to Michigan as opposed to Michigan State, in my opinion. When we were there, they were the brainiacs and we were the thugs. But I thought we had great teammates and guys that really loved each other, I don’t think we would’ve done a team like that.
Reese: We certainly weren’t as gracious as other people were when we beat them. We let them hear about it.
Carter: After I got out of the pile, I ran to the Michigan sideline. A couple players and coaches were over there. (Former Michigan coach) Lloyd Carr was over there, also. I remember getting in trouble for saying this by Nick, but I remember saying to Michigan, “Take that with you into your big rivalry game against Ohio State!”
Mannie: I know Nick was very happy. Beating them here, especially in your first season as head coach, that was very special to Nick.
Carter: I’d never seen him so happy in my life. He still didn’t smile, but he gave me a hug. And that was the first and last time he’ll probably ever give me a hug.
Reese: After the game it was so hazy. I just remember us being in the locker room hugging each other. I don’t remember what he said after the game. What we did after the game. I just remember being on that field passing that Paul Bunyan Trophy around.
Martin: After getting that win, it was a feeling of, OK, we’ve arrived. This is what coach is talking about; these type of feelings. Doing things right down after down after down. This’ll be the reward you get when everybody doubts you.
Banks: No matter what I did after that or prior to that, beating Michigan was all that mattered. Still when I get up there, they treat me pretty well. It wasn’t like I lit the world on fire when I was there, but beating Michigan — especially being unranked, and them being ranked seventh — anytime you beat Michigan, it’s a good thing. Back then, it was a lot more rare than it is today.
Reese: I believe it still goes down as one of the great games in this rivalry. That certainly has to be in the Top 10 list somewhere. That was about as improbable as you can get.
Martin: I remember leaving the locker room after taking a shower and getting toward my dorm room and smelling fires and everything else going on down in East Lansing.
Dean Pees, defensive coordinator: One of my neighbors was a Michigan State grad. The other neighbor was a Michigan grad. These guys had been fighting all week, tearing each others’ flags down. I remember driving home after the game, and all I could hear was the Michigan State fight song being blown out the window with big speakers.
“The structure wasn’t there”
Michigan State finished the 1995 regular season 6-4-1 before falling to LSU in the Independence Bowl.
The program was trending upward, but severe academic and recruiting violations from George Perles’ regime were discovered the next year, and Saban’s teams were put on probation.
Perles was not officially named in the report, wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Andrew Bagnato in Sept. 1996, “but there was a mountain of other evidence and Perles’ successor, Nick Saban, will pay the price.”
Saban eventually led his 1999 team to a 9-2 record before resigning to fill LSU’s coaching vacancy. From there, he’s won four national championships at LSU and Alabama, and is coaching for a fifth in this season’s College Football Playoff.
“It was the start,” Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp said of Saban’s stint in East Lansing. “He showed that, given time — even despite all the problems Michigan State had — a good coach could win there. He left because he didn’t think the university would offer the financial support. The structure wasn’t there.”
Several players from his 1995 team went on to the NFL, most notably Derrick Mason (drafted by Tennessee) and Mushin Muhammad (Carolina), who combined for 1,803 receptions, 23,499 yards and 128 touchdowns.
Ike Reese spent nine seasons with Philadelphia and Atlanta. He was named to the 2004 Pro Bowl and All-Pro team for his special teams contributions.
Reese, Mason and Muhammad all played in — and lost — a Super Bowl during their careers.
Tony Banks started 78 games for St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington and Houston, finishing his career with 35 wins and 77 touchdown passes.
“As a black quarterback at the time, former junior college guy, I had to fight the whole stigma that I wasn’t intelligent enough to handle an offense,” Banks said. “(Saban and Tranquill) really helped with that, letting guys know that I could process information with the best of ‘em.”
Nigea Carter was drafted in the sixth round by Tampa Bay in 1997, but he never played a professional down.
“I actually think Coach Saban’s staff was better than Coach (Tony) Dungy’s staff (in Tampa Bay),” Carter said. “The instruction and the way he went about his business was better than it was in Tampa. I mean, there were things that I was teaching Mike Shula. It was weird. I wasn’t trying to teach Mike Shula. I’d do something and he’d say, ‘Where’d you learn that?’ And I’d say, ‘That’s what we did in college.’”
Saban’s 1995 staff was impressive: It included two NFL head coaches (himself and Pat Shurmur), five college head coaches and seven college or NFL coordinators. Strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie is still at Michigan State 20 seasons later. Bobby Williams is the only holdover on Saban’s current Alabama staff.
“He’s as fiery as a head coach today as he was back then,” Williams said. “He grinds. He works at it. He pushes the coaches. He pushes the players. He’s relentless when it comes to running the football program.”
In late 2006, Michigan State was looking for a new coach, so Saban made a recommendation.
“He was just singing the praises of Dantonio: ‘He’s the guy. He’s the guy they need to hire,’” Sharp said. “He recommended Mark to Tom Izzo and Mark Hollis and the university president, who comprised the search committee. He knew back then that Mark would be the right guy.”
Dantonio returned to Michigan State and did what Saban could not: turn the Spartans into a Big Ten powerhouse. While a national title has eluded Dantonio thus far, he’s won three conference titles, a Cotton Bowl and a Rose Bowl.
Now, they meet in Dallas.
“I have great love and sentiment for Michigan State having spent 10 years of my life there,” Saban said Wednesday morning.
He added: “Most coaches are really excited for the opportunity that the players have created for themselves by the hard work and commitment that they’ve made. And I think the fun of it all is to see them sort of reach the fruition of what they’ve worked for.”