“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”
--Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”
The Rose Bowl defines “mythic.” It is legendary, eternal, iconic, inevitable. It has always been the ultimate goal of every Big Ten football team, every season, since our parents’ parents’ parents were young. It is the Granddaddy of them All, and it is one of the last things about college football that retains any of its ancient magic.
The last time Michigan State went to the Rose Bowl, I was six years old; all the adults in my life made sure I understood every ounce of that weighty accomplishment. It had been 22 long years since the mighty, undefeated, No. 1-overall ranked Spartans were upset by UCLA, and MSU’s subsequent triumph over Rodney Peete and USC was all the sweeter for it.
This season’s Rose Bowl will mark 25 years since 1988, and 47 since 1966. That’s nearly half a century spent grinding between the middle and top ranks of the Big Ten conference, only once tasting its ultimate prize.
I have two children older now than I was then.
MSU AD Mark Hollis has said the football program’s goal is to go to Rose Bowls, yet in the remarkable first five years of Mark Dantonio’s tenure it’s achieved everything but. Dantonio is 44-22 as the Spartans head coach, including back-to-back 11-win seasons. The Spartans have gone to a bowl every season he’s been at the helm. They beat Michigan in Ann Arbor, and then in East Lansing, and then in Ann Arbor, and then in East Lansing. His Spartans have clinched a Big Ten Championship, won their inaugural division championship, played in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. They’ve played for or won everything a Big Ten team can save a BCS National Championship Game . . . and the Rose Bowl.
In 2010, under 2009 rules, Michigan State would have gone to the Rose Bowl. In 2011, under 2010 rules, Michigan State would have gone to the Rose Bowl. Like Sisyphus, no matter how well or how often they push that rock up the hill, it seems they will never, never push it to the top. They’ll be doomed to win double-digit games and somehow miss the Rose Bowl for eternity. It is ridiculous, absurd that all that incredible effort and achievement is repeatedly denied its deserved reward.
But as Camus said in his essay, “happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth.”
In the intervening years, money and greed has chipped away at everything that made the Rose Bowl the Rose Bowl: from the swollen conferences that play for it, to the BCS system that prevented it from hosting their two champions every season, to new system that will protect the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO by ensuring it will sometimes feature the second- or third-best of each conference, and sometimes an unrelated national semifinal.
What was once “the best of the East versus the best of the West” will only happen if neither the Big Ten Champion nor Pac-whatever Champion are good enough to crack the top four nationally (unlikely), or if both do in a year the Rose hosts a semi and the seeds work out (even more unlikely).
The Rose Bowl still holds a massive sway over our collective subconscious. No team has ever buzzed on the sidelines of the fourth quarter their last game with a bag of Tostitos in their teeth. No team has ever collectively raised oranges into the air with fists clenched as time expires on their regular season.
It also holds sway over Mark Dantonio. John L. Smith never made it to the Rose Bowl. Bobby Williams never made it to the Rose Bowl. Tellingly, Nick Saban never made it to the Rose Bowl. If Dantonio could get to the top of that hill, in the same job Nick Saban couldn’t? It’d be a fantastic achievement and a wonderful way to cement Dantonio in the pantheon of Michigan State all-timers.
It also holds sway over the Spartan players. Throughout 2011, Spartan players talked about the Rose Bowl, wrote about the Rose Bowl, Tweeted “#P4RB,” over and over and over through spring ball, summer camp, and all autumn they sighted their target and aimed and again they just, barely, missed.
“As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward the lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
It is this season that interests me. The Spartans open their schedule with Boise State, and a chance to contend for national glory. This season’s Spartans can prove that even if the Gods have cursed them to spend eternity just barely failing to reach their goal, they can nevertheless achieve immortality.