EAST LANSING, Mich. -- When Mark Dantonio stepped to the podium at Big Ten preseason media day in 2007, he didn't sugarcoat Michigan State's situation or the challenges that lay ahead.
The Spartans had missed bowls in three consecutive seasons. They had wasted strong Septembers and talented players. They had lived up to the "same old Spartans" tag that they hated.
That day in Chicago, Dantonio's message came through loud and clear.
"We have to earn back the respect of our fans at this point," he said. "It'll be about how we handle adversity."
The Spartans started the process in Dantonio's first two seasons, reaching back-to-back bowls for the first time since 1996-97. They went 9-4 in 2008, challenged for the Big Ten championship and played on New Year's Day for the first time since 2000.
Michigan State entered 2009 with high hopes, as a fringe Top-25 team that could challenge Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa for the league crown. But late-game blunders doomed the Spartans, who backslid to 6-7 and continued to struggle in close contests (five losses by eight points or fewer).
The biggest setback took place off the field. Just hours after the team banquet Nov. 22, a large group of players were involved in an assault at a campus residence hall following a fraternity potluck event. Eleven players pleaded guilty to assault and four were sentenced to jail time. Charges, pleas and sentences dominated Michigan State's offseason, constantly casting the program in a negative light.
As the Spartans look ahead this spring, Dantonio's words from the summer of 2007 apply to his team's current position.
The Spartans want your respect again, but they'll have to earn it in 2010.
"We owe something to the fans, we owe something to the public," running back Edwin Baker said. "We owe something to people around the world that we are the team that we are. We've overcome our adversity, and we'll keep the thing moving."
All the sentences and public apologies have been delivered, and Dantonio wants to move forward from a rough few months. He also knows what happens next will determine Michigan State's ultimate standing.
"I'm sure for some, we've gained respect by how we've handled things," Dantonio said. "For others, maybe we've yet to gain respect back. Other people are dealing strictly with win-loss records. So it's different for everybody, but we're trying to be accountable to each other."
The Spartans are taking several measures to do so. They held five seminars throughout the winter and brought in guest speakers to address the law, decision-making and consequences.
Dantonio also formed a unity council, which consists of 16 players representing all classes who are voted in by their teammates. The council meets weekly with Dantonio to "make sure what's going on with our football team" and ensure the standards for conduct are being upheld.
"Our players are gravitating toward leadership," Dantonio said. "A lot of times, leaders are born out of crisis situations. I think back to 2007, when we first came in here, we had a great group of leaders. We have to continually train people to move up in that realm of leadership."
Unlike other leadership councils, Michigan State's group faces re-votes after spring ball and again after preseason camp. The council already has changed since its inception, and will continue to do so.
"It's earning respect of your teammates and your peers," said linebacker Greg Jones, a 2009 co-captain and a member of the council. "And it's crucial. Nobody's going to follow somebody who they don't respect. I've never been much of a barking type of guy, but I step in and say something when I can."
Added quarterback Kirk Cousins, another council member: "Your team goes as your leaders go."
Solidifying the leadership is vital, because Michigan State certainly boasts the talent to do better things in 2010.
Cousins is settling in as the starting quarterback after finishing 25th nationally in pass efficiency (142.6) as a sophomore last fall. He'll have plenty of weapons at his disposal, as the Spartans return four tight ends with experience and a wide receiving corps that should feature Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham, Mark Dell and Keith Nichol, a converted quarterback still officially listed as Cousins' backup as well as a starter at receiver.
The Spartans want more balance in the run game and should get it from sophomore backs Baker and Larry Caper.
Michigan State's big questions are along both lines and at kicker, as it must replace four-year starter Brett Swenson. Jones, the 2009 Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year, is back to lead a defense that must improve against the pass, but boasts a lot of young talent in players like safety Trenton Robinson and defensive tackles Jerel Worthy and Blake Treadwell. The defense also should get several incoming freshman on the field, including linebackers William Gholston and Max Bullough.
"We want to gain respect back," Martin said, "and show people that we can do good things if we can just focus and keep our heads on straight."