Fun surrounded Mark Dantonio in Arizona on Thursday, in a spacious ballroom at the plush JW Marriott Camelback Inn -- or at least as much fun as a media event can allow.
His Michigan State players sat at tables spread throughout the room, joking around with each other when they weren't answering questions. Le'Veon Bell approached Dantonio's podium with a microphone and the pair laughed through a faux interrogation.
But when the subject of next season and its impact on the direction of his program came up, Dantonio set his jaw and turned serious.
"Next year's always a big year, isn't it?" he said. "It always is and it's no bigger than the year before. And to say it is sells our seniors short."
Dantonio is focused on sending those seniors off with a victory to cap a difficult final season, when the Spartans (6-6) take on TCU (7-5) on Saturday in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
Regardless of that result and of the disappointment of a 2012 campaign that began with mammoth expectations, Dantonio and MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said Thursday that this football program is in tip-top shape and gave several reasons why.
MSU is 48-28 in six seasons under Dantonio, with a Big Ten co-championship, a Legends Division title, a record six straight bowl games, the best academic performance numbers this season in program history, a sharp increase in the output of players to the NFL and a sharp decrease in off-the-field issues.
Continuity, respectability and high expectations mark a program that was known mainly as erratic for decades before Dantonio inherited it.
"It's as strong as it's been in a long, long time," Hollis said. "You've got to look at things not in terms of one game or one season, you've got to look at the full flow of the program. Like anything in life, you have leaps forward and steps backward."
Still, this season was more than a slight stumble for a team pointing toward the Rose Bowl, and MSU's offensive ineptitude was more than slightly surprising.
The Spartans may be losing two top performers from that offense: running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims, along with defensive end Will Gholston. All three juniors are considering an early jump to the NFL.
Notre Dame is in the BCS title game, Michigan is coming back under Brady Hoke, and Ohio State went 12-0 under first-year coach Urban Meyer.
Those three traditional powers have always made recruiting tough for the Spartans, and there is an urgency in East Lansing to demonstrate that 2012 was an aberration and not a momentum killer.
"You don't want to have back-to-back years where you're kind of average," MSU junior left tackle Dan France said.
"We want to go out next year and let people know we're still that dominant team we were the past two years," MSU junior safety Isaiah Lewis said. "We're not gonna back down. Those last two years weren't a fluke."
The Spartans, led by quarterback and captain Kirk Cousins, went 9-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. They were 3-5 this season with a new starting quarterback in Andrew Maxwell, a brand-new receiving corps and an injury-riddled offensive line.
"You've got to win the close games," Dantonio said. "That's what sets you apart. Sometimes that's experience, sometimes that's a play call, sometimes that's an injury. There are so many different factors. That hangs by a thread. But when you look at the total aspect of our football program, we're healthy."
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