Couch: A look at the biggest what-ifs in Michigan State football and basketball history

Lansing State Journal
For every great moment in Michigan State football and basketball history, there are several what-ifs — moments that got away or seasons that might have played out differently if not for a single circumstance, sometimes beyond MSU’s control, be it a bad call or injury or decision.
I didn’t include injuries on this list of what-ifs, because that could be a list all its own. There were several that changed MSU sports history, especially in basketball. Kalin Lucas’ Achilles tear probably cost MSU the 2010 national championship. Kenyon Martin’s broken leg in 2000, taking Cincinnati out of the mix, made the Spartans' path to a title a little easier. Who knows what heights MSU’s women’s basketball program would have reached if Madison Williams had been able to stay healthy. There have been others that changed games and seasons.
There are also plenty of other great what-ifs in MSU football and basketball history worth exploring. Here are 13 of them, most of them unlucky:
What if Chris Webber had chosen MSU?
Tom Izzo will tell you that he hung up the phone and cried when Chris Webber called to say he was choosing Michigan in March of 1991. Izzo thought he had Webber. Izzo thought he was going to deliver for his boss, Jud Heathcote, the sort of generational talent that would give Heathcote a shot at a second national title late in his career.
“If you’d asked me earlier this year if I was going to Michigan, I wouldn’t have said yes,” Webber said on March 23, 1991, as he announced his commitment. “I must have changed my mind 30 or 40 times.”
If he’d changed it once more, think about how that would have changed history — MSU’s, Michigan’s, pop culture in this country minus the Fab Five.
And, with Webber, MSU’s rosters in 1991-92 and 1992-93 — the two years Webber played college ball — would have been good enough to compete for titles. Webber’s presence might have even led to other recruits joining him in East Lansing.
That first season, MSU’s starting five would likely have been senior point guard Mark Montgomery, redshirt freshman shooting guard Shawn Respert, senior forward Matt Steigenga, junior center Mike Peplowski and Webber. That MSU team won 22 games and 11 in the Big Ten (same as the Fab Five) without Webber.
The next season, MSU’s starting five would have against had Respert (who averaged better than 20 points a game) and Peplowski, with sophomore Eric Snow at point guard and junior Kris Weshinskey or senior Dwayne Stephens alongside Webber, if another All-American hadn’t joined by then.
It would have changed Heathcote’s legacy and made Izzo a much more obvious choice to replace him.
What if Gordon Hayward is called for his foul on Draymond Green’s wrist?
Most of us have seen the photo and play — Butler’s Gordon Hayward clearly fouled Draymond Green on the wrist as Green turned to shoot over Hayward with 9 seconds left and MSU trailing Butler 50-49 in the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis.
No call. The shot fell well short. Green then fouled Butler’s Ronald Norad on the rebound and the Bulldogs went on to win 52-50.
What if the referee hadn’t swallowed his whistled in that pressure moment?
Green was a 67% free-throw shooter that season and had made 4 of 8 free throws that night. So there’s a good chance that he at least ties the game. And a reasonable chance he puts the Spartans in the lead. Green at least should have had that opportunity.
Butler would have had plenty of time for a good look of its own, trailing by one at most, with a lineup that included future NBA pros Hayward and guard Shelvin Mack, albeit on a night when the Bulldogs shot less than 31% from the floor. MSU would love to have had that defensive possession.
A win would have put the Spartans in the national championship game against probably Mike Krzyzewski's weakest Duke team to win a title. That game would have been a toss-up, one that MSU and its fans wish they could have seen play out.
What if MSU football had beaten Notre Dame in 2013?
The counter to doubts about whether MSU football can ever win a national championship in the modern era begins with the Spartans’ 2013 team, which won a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl the year before the College Football Playoff began.
There is an argument to be made that if MSU had won the only game it lost that season — 17-13 at Notre Dame on Sept. 21 — the Spartans might have then been unbeaten and gotten to test their championship mettle in the BCS title game. Adding to the irksome nature of the defeat against the Irish is how it unfolded — including four critical pass interference calls (a couple of them beyond questionable) that greatly aided Notre Dame’s cause.
On its surface, this loss took something from MSU. If you look deeper, I’m not sure there should be any regret. I don’t know that MSU goes unbeaten the rest of the way if it beats Notre Dame, that the season unfolds as it did. I’m not sure the coaches turn the keys over to quarterback Connor Cook, and put everything into him, if the last possession with Andrew Maxwell at Notre Dame hadn’t gone so poorly. And I don’t know that every Spartan fan who made the pilgrimage to Pasadena that year would trade that Rose Bowl experience for anything.
But … MSU should have beaten Notre Dame.
What if Dantonio retired after the 2017 Holiday Bowl, or late in 2019 instead of February 2020?
Mark Dantonio is an MSU legend. And his stature will only grow the further we get away from his tenure. But like many great coaches, he stayed a little too long.
What if he hadn’t?
I often hear that he should have retired after the 10-3 redemption season in 2017. Easy to say now. But that staff thought they still had some juice in them. They had the dreadful year in 2016, but there wasn’t much evidence yet that things were really slipping. What’s most interesting about the idea of Dantonio retiring after the Holiday Bowl is that Mark Hollis would have made the coaching hire. He was MSU’s athletic director for another month.
More fair is to wonder how things might have unfolded if Dantonio had announced he was retiring at season’s end late in the 2019 season, so the search could have begun in November and someone could have been in place a few weeks before the early signing day in December.
In November of 2019, Alan Haller would have largely led the search, even as not yet the athletic director, which means Mel Tucker might have been the choice, even a couple months earlier. Tucker was a Nick Saban recommendation and Haller liked him immediately. I don’t know if the timing might have made Cincinnati's Luke Fickell more interested. This was also the coaching hiring cycle of Greg Schiano at Rutgers, Mike Norvell at Florida State, Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss, Sam Pittman at Arkansas and Kalen DeBoer at Washington. There’s no way to know if any of them would have gotten in the mix and piqued the interest of Haller and AD Bill Beekman.
Whoever the choice was — quite possibly Tucker — would have had time to assemble a 2020 recruiting class and staff on a normal calendar. In hindsight, that only could have helped.
What if Jaren Jackson Jr. had returned for his sophomore season?
To listen to Jaren Jackson Jr. tell it, he wanted to come back to MSU for his sophomore season in 2018-19. Instead, perhaps wisely, he chose to enter the NBA draft and was the fourth overall pick — though I don’t believe his stock would have fallen with an All-American sophomore season in college. As good as he was as a freshman, that season was very much a developmental year for him. As a sophomore, he likely would have been a two-way force, perhaps Big Ten player of the year. Given that Jackson hit 36% of his NBA 3s as a rookie for the Memphis Grizzlies, he was on his way to being a multi-level scorer in the college game, which could have helped with the logjam of big guys on MSU's roster.
Jackson would have played alongside junior Nick Ward or sophomore Xavier Tillman — as he did as a freshman — and in lineups with junior Cassius Winston, senior Matt McQuaid, junior Joshua Langford (pre-injury) and freshman Aaron Henry. The player whose season and legacy would have likely been hampered by Jackson's return is Kenny Goins, the 6-7 stretch-forward who had a banner senior season and hit the shot to take down Duke in the Elite Elite. You’d take that trade-off for a likely national championship.
What if Aerial Powers had returned to MSU for her senior season?
Of all the bad luck in the back half of Suzy Merchant’s tenure — most of it with injuries — the tough break that stands out most is Aerial Powers leaving MSU for the WNBA in 2016 with a year of eligibility remaining. Powers wanted to be a pro. She’s had a pro good career, playing nine seasons thus far for three different WNBA teams. But it was clear that next season, in 2016-17, that she wished she was still playing with her MSU teammates — she was at seemingly every home game after suffering an injury late in the WNBA season that kept her from playing overseas that winter.
And if that MSU team had Powers … (I hope Merchant isn’t reading this.)
The year before, with Powers and Tori Jankoska, MSU won 25 games, 13 in the Big Ten and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, before losing a heartbreaker at Mississippi State in a game that should have been in East Lansing, but was played in Starkville, Mississippi, because the MHSAA girls state basketball tournament was at Breslin Center.
MSU was the 4 seed in that tournament, probably better than 5-seed Mississippi State. Both were relatively young teams on a similar trek, it appeared. The next year, Mississippi State was a 2 seed and reached the national championship game. MSU, minus its superstar Powers, was a 9 seed and lost in the first round.
What if video replay had existed in the 1990 Sweet 16?
There’s not much surmising with this one. If video review had been available in 1990, MSU’s men’s basketball team definitely reaches the Elite Eight, probably reaches the Final Four and Jud Heathcote is likely in the Hall of Fame.
The end of regulation in MSU’s 81-80 overtime loss to Georgia Tech on March 23, 1990, at the Superdome in New Orleans remains a painful what-if to many MSU fans.
The Spartans were a No. 1 seed and Big Ten champions and had a 75-71 lead on Georgia Tech with 13 seconds left in regulation. A quick Kenny Anderson layup to cut the deficit to two set up the infamous sequence that followed.
Georgia Tech fouled MSU star Steve Smith with 5 seconds left. Smith then missed a front-end free throw in a one-and-one situation. Anderson quickly dribbled up court and let it fly, his foot on the 3-point line … swish. The refs got half of the call right — they ruled it a 2-point shot. They missed that the ball left his hands after the clock had expired. Georgia Tech wound up winning in overtime.
For an MSU program and fan base that had experienced another “clockgate” in the Sweet 16 four years earlier against Kansas — which also likely cost the Spartans a spot in the Final Four — this was a tough pill. If MSU’s 1990 Sweet 16 game had been played today, with the benefit of replay, the Spartans would have won and been favored in the Elite Eight against Minnesota. And, Tom Izzo believes, with a second Final Four on Heathcote’s resume, he’d be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
What if point guard recruit Emmanuel Mudiay hadn’t chosen SMU over Kentucky?
Hang with me here. Emmanuel Mudiay’s commitment to Southern Methodist late in the summer of 2013 set in motion a series of events that ended with Middle Tennessee State shocking the Spartans in the first round of the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Because when Mudiay rejected Kentucky, John Calipari and Co. set their sites on a fast-rising point guard out of Chicagoland — Tyler Ulis. MSU was late with its full-court press on the 5-foot-9 Ulis (as was just about everyone), but the Spartans appeared to be the favorites to land him until Kentucky came into the picture. Ulis ultimately went to Kentucky, where he starred for three seasons, the second of those seasons was 2015-16. That’s when senior Denzel Valentine was starring for the Spartans, which, despite being national contenders, did not have overwhelming talent beyond Valentine, nor great ball-handling guards. That team needed Valentine to be on his game.
A lineup of Ulis, Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Matt McQuaid or Deyonta Davis and Matt Costello would have been far less susceptible to what happened against Middle Tennessee State. Blame Mudiay.
What if Nick Saban had decided to stay at MSU in December 1999?
The stories about Nick Saban’s departure from MSU in December 1999 lead one to believe he wavered significantly and perhaps immediately regretted his decision to leave for LSU. Tom Izzo still believes that had he been in town the day it went down — instead of in North Carolina, preparing to play the Tar Heels — he could have smoothed it over and prevented Saban from going to LSU, even to double his salary. Saban was upset with then-MSU president Peter McPherson and McPherson didn’t seem to realize what MSU had in Saban. And thus Saban became the one that got away — part of the reason that MSU paid so handsomely more than two decades later to make sure it kept Mel Tucker, to avoid the possibility of regret and another what-if.
Saban was unlikely to be a lifer at MSU — the NFL was already circling and Saban, at some point, was probably going to scratch that itch, as he eventually did in December of 2004 when he left LSU for the Miami Dolphins.
But MSU might have gotten the LSU years. Who knows where the Spartans’ program might have been with five more seasons with Saban at the helm. He won a national championship at LSU in 2003 and, at the time he left MSU, had built the Spartans into a roster that could compete with anyone.
A lot of good happened for MSU a decade later under Mark Dantonio and maybe that unfolds differently if Saban had stayed and MSU hadn’t experienced the turmoil of the Bobby Williams and John L. Smith eras. Still, we’ll always wonder what might have been for MSU had Saban stayed a while longer. I’m pretty certain he wonders about that, too.
MORE: Michigan State's epic Citrus Bowl and unforgettable 1999 season still resonates with Nick Saban, Tom Izzo and MSU's players
What if Charles Rogers had been eligible as a true freshman?
The Bobby Williams era at MSU might have gotten off to a different start if he had the late Charles Rogers from Day 1. What Williams' first team lacked more than anything was a game-breaking, go-to receiver. Rogers didn’t qualify academically and had to sit out his freshman season in 2000.
Michigan State had a bona fide star at tailback in sophomore T.J. Duckett, two inexperienced quarterbacks trying to find their way in Jeff Smoker and Ryan Van Dyke, and a ferocious defense, despite losing a number of players to the NFL draft the spring before. The Spartans allowed just 21.2 points and 318 yards per game, on par with some of the more famed MSU defenses from the Mark Dantonio era a decade later.
But the offense in 2000 was largely Duckett, who averaged 5.6 yards per carry, despite everyone knowing where the ball was going. MSU lost at Michigan 14-0, to Wisconsin 17-10, at Iowa 21-16. Everything was a grind.
To say a true freshman receiver might have been the difference between 5-6 and continuing the momentum from the 10-2 team a year earlier seems like a lot. But Rogers was that special. That fast, even compared to other fast people. He ran on air. And as a sophomore, in his first season playing at MSU, he set school records for catches (67), receiving yards (1,470) and touchdown receptions (14). The latter two records still stand.
If you put Rogers on that 2000 MSU team, that group might have been a contender in the Big Ten.
What if the pandemic didn’t hit for another month, allowing the 2020 basketball team to finish its run?
OK, let’s do this one. Because even though 312 Division I college basketball teams claim the pandemic canceling the NCAA tournament cost them a national championship, MSU is one of the few that can legitimately sigh.
The Spartans, who’d endured a trying season with Cassius Winston’s family tragedy, had found their stride in February. Winston started to look like himself again and MSU put together five straight impressive wins, as Xavier Tillman shut down opposing star big men and forwards one after another. The Spartans were undoubtedly rolling heading into a postseason that didn’t happen.
There were other teams that could make the case for themselves — Baylor, Kansas, Florida State, Gonzaga, San Diego State, Dayton. I still don’t know how Dayton fans get up in the morning after having a once-in-a-generation season stolen by a public health crisis.
Winning a national title takes some luck and having enough talent to be in the mix. MSU was not only in the mix, it was safe to say that any team that relied on a big man for a large part of its offense was not going to beat the Spartans. Tillman made that clear in how he pestered Luka Garza, Jalen Smith and Lamar Stevens — three first-team All-Big Ten players — in three consecutive games before also getting the best of second-teamer Kaleb Wesson in the season finale. That made MSU so difficult to beat at the end. Problem is, the end was March 8.
What if Donald Trump hadn’t run for President in 2016, does MSU finish better than 3-9?
There were a lot of reasons for MSU football’s fall from grace to 3-9 in 2016 — quarterback play, a senior class that was admittedly better as followers than leaders, a talented freshman class that needed leading, a defensive star the Spartans played better without. But in the backdrop, there was also a presidential election that divided people severely and did so with thoughts and language that was more hurtful than simple political disagreement. And MSU didn’t have the right leaders in the locker room to deal with it.
It’s a topic that group has been hesitant speak about publicly, because it means opening old wounds and facing the repercussions of getting political when perhaps half of your fan base agrees with the other side. But there is no question that Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign — and the voices that openly supported him in MSU's locker room — didn’t help that team circle the wagons and bond as one unit.
To what degree did it make a difference in how the season played out? Impossible to say. But it was an intangible factor.
What if Mike Hart doesn’t refer to MSU as Michigan’s “little brother”, does MSU still take over the rivalry?
It’s possible that not much would have changed between MSU and Michigan on the field in the years that followed, had Michigan running back Mike Hart not insulted the Spartans by referring to them as the Wolverines’ “little brother” after Michigan’s 28-24 win at Spartan Stadium in 2007. Michigan’s program turned out to be headed for bumpy waters under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. MSU's program eventually got going in a big way under Mark Dantonio.
But that comment also turned out to be a Godsend for MSU. And Dantonio’s response to it — “Let's just remember, pride comes before the fall” and “It's not over and it'll never be over here ... It's just starting” — set the tone and stage for an MSU program dead set on changing the course of the rivalry.
I’m not saying MSU wouldn’t have beaten Michigan the next four seasons and seven out of the next eight years — with increasing sass and barbs from Dantonio that spoke perfectly to the feelings of his fan base — but the disrespect from Hart that day was fuel that burned for nearly a decade.

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