How Connor Cook went from unheralded recruit to Michigan State's greatest QB

Yahoo Sports

ARLINGTON, Texas – Media Days always bring out the media idiots, and here came one with a live microphone to the right side of Connor Cook's podium at AT&T Stadium on Tuesday.

The Michigan State quarterback was answering questions from four reporters to his left, and doing so with his customary candor. This was good stuff. But the radio buffoon to his right was broadcasting live, and loud, and nobody could hear what anybody else was saying.

The back of Cook's neck started to turn red in irritation.

After maybe 60 seconds, the radio buffoon went into full interruption mode, sticking his mic in front of Cook to ask him how his previously injured right shoulder was doing.

"The arm is fine," Cook said briskly, then turned away.

"Short and sweet," said the radio buffoon as he walked away, having been blown off with a skilled firmness you don't often find in a college athlete.

"That was so rude," Cook said to the other reporters.

The idea of Connor Cook calling someone else rude will surely draw a few howls from the Ohio State faithful, many of whom lit up the Spartans star earlier this month for a rather brusque acceptance of the Big Ten championship game MVP award from Archie Griffin His Own Self. Since social-media mob outrage is now a vital part of the college football fan existence, Buckeyes fans fried Cook for failing to show the proper respect to the two-time Heisman Trophy winner and former Ohio State legend.

Connor Cook helped lead Michigan State to the Big Ten championship. (Getty Images)
Connor Cook helped lead Michigan State to the Big Ten championship. (Getty Images)

It was not Cook's finest moment, to be sure – he acknowledged as much in multiple apologies, including one to Griffin in a phone call the next day. But in the heat of that postgame moment, having just won a heart-stopping game against Iowa, Cook was acting before thinking. Mostly, his mind was on the live TV interview he suddenly was about to do with Fox Sports' Joel Klatt more than Griffin handing him a trophy.

And truth be told, he didn't look thrilled with getting that trophy because he didn't think he deserved it.

Cook said the Michigan State offensive line, as a group, deserved the award – and when the team got back to its Indianapolis hotel later that night, the quarterback gave it to them. It still resides with the linemen, sitting in their meeting room at the Michigan State football facility. Cook believed it belonged to them for their tireless work blocking on the Spartans' epic, 22-play scoring drive to win the game.

But other than the Spartans winning a thrilling game and advancing to the College Football Playoff, the secondary storyline that emerged from that night in Indy was Connor Cook The Jerk. Suddenly, everyone began connecting the Griffin snub with Cook not being elected one of three Michigan State captains by his teammates in August, despite being a three-year starting quarterback. And then came the old reliable – the Anonymous NFL Scout – who in December told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Cook was a draft risk due to concerns about arrogance and work ethic.

So, basically, in the amount of time it took Cook to grab a piece of sculpted glass on a podium at Lucas Oil Stadium, a sizable portion of the world seemed to turn on a lightly recruited quarterback who has led a historic underachieving program to an era of unprecedented success.

As the saying goes, that escalated quickly. And that escalation stung Connor's father, Chris.

"As a parent, that's hard to see – when they start attacking your kid," Chris Cook said. "You can criticize his play all you want – his footwork, his throwing motion, whatever – but attacking his character is out of bounds.

"All that crap is just noise. Connor has never done a thing in college to embarrass his teammates, his coaches or his family. Not one thing."

And those are the people Connor Cook cares about.

"Outside of my team, my coaches and my family, I don't care if you like me," he said. "It doesn't matter. As long as my football team likes me, it's all good."

The idea of Connor Cook becoming something of a national lightning rod is inherently hilarious. Nobody was supposed to notice him, good or bad. This was a kid few people expected to amount to much as a football player.

Cook was an anonymous junior quarterback at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, when Michigan State assistant coach Pat Narduzzi showed up one day to check out a hybrid running back/wide receiver the Spartans were recruiting. Narduzzi wanted to see the kid catch, so the Walsh coach grabbed Cook to throw him passes in the school gym.

Former Michigan State assistant coach Pat Narduzzi recruited Cook. (AP)
Former Michigan State assistant coach Pat Narduzzi recruited Cook. (AP)

Narduzzi walked away from that mini workout more impressed with the thrower than the receiver – even though no other major schools had shown any interest in Cook at that point. The Spartans started sending him recruiting mail. Even when Walsh had a 5-4 season in which Cook threw nine touchdown passes and 14 interceptions, the mail kept coming.

"Why are they still sending me hand-written letters?" Cook wondered.

Eventually, the Spartans extended an invitation for an unofficial visit to the Cooks to attend a Michigan State home basketball game against Ohio State. On Feb. 21, 2010, Connor and his mother and father made the 3½-hour drive to East Lansing. They didn't expect much – head coach Mark Dantonio wasn't even in town. When they arrived at the football facility, Chris Cook excused himself to go to the bathroom (long car ride) while Connor and his mom sat down with Narduzzi.

"I was gone a minute," Chris Cook said. "Sixty seconds. I come into the room and Connor is sitting there with this look of amazement on his face."

"Mom," Connor said, "show dad the letter."

In the time it took Chris Cook to use the restroom, Narduzzi had produced a letter with a formal scholarship offer. To that point, the schools on Connor's radar were Miami (Ohio) and Akron. All of a sudden, the Big Ten was calling.

The Cooks were giddy – but also a little greedy. Connor admitted that they played the field for a few weeks. They held off on committing to Michigan State for a while to see whether other Big Ten schools would show interest.

None did. The coaches told Cook they had offered three quarterbacks scholarships: himself, Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones, both of whom would have star turns at rival Ohio State. They were going to take only one.

Cook didn't want to risk missing out. In April 2010, he committed to the Spartans. The recruiting world did not exactly ripple with reaction.

Cook was part of a 2011 signing class that Rivals.com ranked 31st nationally – one spot ahead of Rutgers. It would play a major role in catapulting Michigan State out of its historic place in the shadow of Michigan and Ohio State, and into the nation's elite.

One of the first to commit, in February 2010, was one of the few highly rated prospects in the class: Lawrence Thomas, a four-star linebacker from Detroit. Thomas grew into a 305-pound defensive lineman who has now started 26 consecutive games.

Shortly thereafter came Taiwan Jones, a linebacker who was recruited by Indiana, Purdue and Mid-American Conference schools. He became a three-year starter for the Spartans.

Cook committed in April. That summer, he was joined by future Spartans stars Trae Waynes, Ed Davis and Jack Allen – all of them two-star or three-star recruits. There wasn't a lot of lamentation at the blueblood schools over those commitments.

"We were the ones who were looked past," Allen said.

Shilique Calhoun, a three-star defensive end from New Jersey who did not draw a sniff of interest from Ohio State or a scholarship offer Penn State or Michigan, rounded out the class in January 2011. Calhoun is considered a potential first-round NFL draft pick this spring.

This is the nucleus of a program that has gone 36-4 the past three seasons, winning two Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl and a Cotton Bowl. Along the way, Cook – among the least-heralded of the bunch – has smashed Kirk Cousins' school record for most wins as a starting quarterback.

"He probably pictured this kind of success more than we did," Chris Cook said of his son. "He dreamed big. He believed in himself."

His teammates do, too. Even if he's not a captain, he's the hub of the Spartans offense.

"All he does is win," fullback Trevon Pendleton said. "We go as he goes. When it comes crunch time, he's the guy we always turn to and he gets it done."

Except for that one time at crunch time. That one time when Connor Cook didn't want the ball.

Cook now holds Michigan State's record for wins by a starting QB. (AP)
Cook now holds Michigan State's record for wins by a starting QB. (AP)

Deep into that incredible 22-play drive to beat Iowa, the Hawkeyes called a timeout before a huge play. The Spartans had a fourth-and-2 at the Iowa 5-yard line, with less than two minutes on the clock.

Cook went to the sideline and Dantonio asked his QB if he could successfully run a sprint option for the first down.

"No," Cook replied. He was hardly a runner, his right shoulder was hurting, and he figured the Spartans' best bet was a handoff to running back L.J. Scott, who had carried the offense much of the way.

Dantonio relayed the information into his headset to his coaches upstairs. In the time it took to do that, Cook reconsidered.

"I thought, 'Did I really just say that?' " Cook recalled. It was unlike him, a gamer who always wanted the ball in his hands at key times.

After a couple of seconds, Cook changed his mind. He told Dantonio he could get the first down.

The play was called. Cook carried the ball to the left side, took a hit and fell forward for just more than two yards. He got the first down with little to spare.

Three plays later, Scott stretched the ball over the goal line and Michigan State won, securing a spot in the playoff. Thursday night, this self-proclaimed underdog program takes on the sport's ultimate overdog, Alabama, in the Cotton Bowl playoff semifinal.

Cook's job will be finding holes in a huge, fierce defense that ranks second in America. It will be his last college game – he went through graduation ceremonies Dec. 20 – unless the Spartans pull one more upset and advance to the national championship game, Jan. 11.

The oddsmakers put little faith in Michigan State, making Alabama a 10-point favorite. Which is like wrapping the Spartans in a comfortable blanket.

"We always like being the underdog," Cook said. "For as much disrespect or people always underestimating us, we embrace it. It's a role that we're pretty comfortable playing. And it's just – you know, it's what we are."

Nobody epitomizes it more than Connor Cook – one of the most unlikely lightning-rod players in college football history.

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