Michigan State football's eerie opener: No fans, no band, no cheerleaders, no Sparty

Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read

Matt Allen can’t wait to see his parents Saturday.

It shouldn’t be too hard. They will be among the few spectators inside Spartan Stadium who will get to watch Michigan State football’s season opener against Rutgers.

“For the fans, unfortunately, they can't be there right now,” Allen said Tuesday on a video call. “And I know a lot of the guys are bummed that they're not going to be able to run out in front of all of Spartan Stadium.”

The Big Ten decided fans would not be allowed at any of the 14 schools this season. Families of players and coaches will be the only exception, as game days around the Midwest will be without the usual accoutrements.

No tailgating. No marching bands. No cheerleaders. No mascots. No Zeke the Wonderdog.

Most of all, empty seats filled with cardboard cutouts instead of thousands of screaming supporters inside stadiums. All to minimize risk of potential coronavirus transmission to players and coaches who are being tested daily.

Sparty, right, will not be inside Spartan Stadium on Saturday for the Michigan State football debut of new coach Mel Tucker, left.
Sparty, right, will not be inside Spartan Stadium on Saturday for the Michigan State football debut of new coach Mel Tucker, left.

“Spartan Stadium is special,” said new coach Mel Tucker, who will be making his MSU debut as head coach. “And even though we won't have our fans in the stadium, certainly, their passion and their energy and their desire and their pride in this football team and this university, we're gonna feel that on Saturday. When we step on that field, we're going to feel our fans, we're going to feel that pride, we're going to feel that energy.”

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Tucker is no stranger to that normal gameday atmosphere in East Lansing. He spent two years as a graduate assistant coach for Nick Saban in 1997 and ’98 and got to patrol the sidelines in front of the 75,000-plus fans and feel the shake and quake that comes in the buildup to kickoff and when good things happen for the Spartans.

When he runs through the tunnel as the head coach for the first time, he knows and understands it won’t be the same. And he also has talked with colleagues around the country about how different it is for those who have played already in similarly silent circumstances this season.

“They say that it is different,” the 48-year-old said. “And so we've tried to create that atmosphere for our players. It's just like playing the game in practice – you want the practices to be as close to the game realities as possible.”

A former Division I college administrator this summer estimated there would need to be between 400-500 to put on a bare-bones TV production for a game, including coaches, players, support staff, officials and broadcast crews. Add in parents and coaches’ families, and that could climb closer to 1,000.

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Michigan State Spartans walk the field prior to the opener against Utah State at Spartan Stadium on Aug. 31, 2018.
Michigan State Spartans walk the field prior to the opener against Utah State at Spartan Stadium on Aug. 31, 2018.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who is making his head coaching return to the school for the first time since 2011, said the entire concept of making a trip to start the season is a concern.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I’m a little nervous we have to start on the road,” he told reporters Monday. “But we’re gonna be super-vigilant about our travel procedures.”

The Spartans have held two scrimmages inside empty Spartan Stadium this month to prepare for the eight-plus-one-game season that kicks off this weekend. The Big Ten initially postponed playing on Aug. 11, only to revive and rework its plan for fall football on Sept. 16.

New Michigan State coach Mel Tucker (middle) watches offensive lineman Spencer Brown (left) and defensive tackle Maverick Hansen battle during a drill Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
New Michigan State coach Mel Tucker (middle) watches offensive lineman Spencer Brown (left) and defensive tackle Maverick Hansen battle during a drill Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

In those two scrimmages, along with a mock game held last week, Tucker had staff members pump in music and fake crowd noise to simulate the levels that will be allowed during games this season by the Big Ten.

“It's going to be very important for us on our sideline to generate and produce our own energy, our own excitement, our own intensity, with the group that we have with our players and coaches on the sideline,” Tucker said.

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Both Allen and fellow senior Antjuan Simmons said they have become accustomed to blocking out the noise when they played more the past few years. Simmons, a linebacker, said it will be different to be able to hear what the opposite side of the ball is calling and thinks hard counts on offense could be difficult for defenses. But otherwise?

“This is football. I'm not looking at it as any different than any other game I've ever played in,” he said. “The only difference is there's just no fans.”

Simmons added not having a large crowd could benefit the Spartans’ large contingent of younger, inexperienced players who “kinda won't look like a deer in the headlights when they get out there.”

The preparation over the past month, Allen said, has been the “biggest adjustment and weirdest part” about getting to the point of playing finally.

“We're already halfway through the semester schoolwise, except we're just starting football,” Allen said. “So it's like, why is it already cold out if we haven't even started playing yet? It didn't register in my head that it's October right now.”

Both Allen and Simmons said the anticipation is growing within the locker room. The Spartans are ready to finally play, regardless of what month or how many fans there won’t be there.

Tucker said the one thing he is sure of about his new team is they all love to play football, which will help offset any distractions of the emptiness.

“I was always taught when they put the ball down and they snap the ball, it's time to play, regardless of when or where. We're preparing our players that way,” he said. “This situation this year has been a challenge, it's been unusual, it's been unprecedented. But at the end of the day, we're going to have our opportunity to go out there and play. And that's what we all want to do. I'm just looking forward to kickoff.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football opener won't have fans, band or cheerleaders