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Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Feeling the Spartan spirit

By Jim Caple
Page 2

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- My body is bloated from a two-week diet of nothing but beer and pizza.

I have a week's worth of stubble on my chin. My supply of contact lenses ran out a week ago, and I have bags under my eyes from lack of sleep. I haven't had a haircut in two months. I can't hear in my right ear and my speech has been reduced to a hoarse growl that can be understood only by a select few species of Pomeranian dogs. I'm a middle-aged goof wearing a more-or-less permanent uniform of blue jeans, a Michigan State T-shirt and a green Michigan State cap.

But even so, I had no idea how bad I looked until I was recognized at a bar tonight.

"Hey, look," the man yelled. "It's Michael Moore!"

Actually, I'm making that up. If only because I haven't had time to buy Moore's requisite Michigan State cap yet. I was supposed to arrive at MSU in plenty of time to see the campus and buy a full Spartan wardrobe, but my flight from Seattle was delayed over Montana when a passenger fell ill, forcing an emergency landing. When the pilot announced, "We're making an unscheduled landing in Great Falls, Montana for a medical emergency," I assumed he was talking about me.

Back to School: Check out highlights of Jim's visit last week to Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State ESPN Motion

After all, I feel like I've been on life support since picking up some unknown virus at the University of Illinois during the first week of my own personal March Madness. I'm congested, I've had a sore throat, poor hearing, hacking cough and headache for more than a week. But no one is diverting a plane for me.

Instead, I reached East Lansing just in time Tuesday night to watch the final two minutes of the Michigan State women's basketball game at my residence for the night, a beat-up old house jammed with 16 independent students. Shaun Freiman's description of the house in his e-mail was as follows:

"Conveniently located at 415 M.A.C. Ave., 'Sorority Row,' we can offer luxurious accommodations including your own bedroom with modern locking door, your own reliable Internet connection (demonstrated by our sending of this e-mail from it) personal mini-fridge stocked with vitamin C-rich juices in order to aide in your recovery, both illness and hangover related, and the opportunity to live with 15 diehard Spartans (not greek). Host to the biggest independent parties on campus (most notably our Jello Wrestling New Year's party, 415 day Pig Roast, and various other shindigs for various other reasons such as 'Wednesday') 415 M.A.C. is dedicated to showing you an inside look at true Spartan Life."

This description was not quite a lie ... but not exactly accurate, either.

As it turns out these "luxurious accommodations" uncannily resemble the filthy 10-room fleabag I lived in as a sophomore at the University of Washington. There is the same general layout, the same questionable outside wood staircase leading to the upper floors, the same low-ceilinged, cramped bedroom on the top floor. In fact, it is so similar to my old house that I would swear that is exactly the same – including the fact that it doesn't appear to have been cleaned in the past 25 years.

"This house had actually been condemned two years ago," I was told while being given a tour. "There was a Goth group in here that absolutely trashed the place."

Somehow, this did not come as a shock. The only surprising thing, actually, was that the house was not currently condemned. Then again, for all I know, maybe it is.

I was shown to my bedroom on the third floor, a tiny room with a window that won't shut, a stained carpet, a lamp without a shade, a lumpy mattress and a two-word expletive painted on the ceiling. It did, however, have a mini-fridge stocked with the essentials for a college student suffering from a severe cold – two cases of beer and two jugs of orange juice.

Jim Caple is turning back the clock and living the college life during the NCAA Tournament:

His stops so far:

Tobacco Road
Day 1: Love and hate on Chapel Hill
Day 2: Duke isn't just a four-letter word
Day 3: N.C. State of the union

University of Illinois
Day 1: The fountain of youth
Day 2: Hanging with Sigma Phi Epsilon
Day 3: Hoops unites Illinois campus
Day 4: Five girls and a middle-aged man
Motion: Caple at Illinois ESPN Motion

And just why, I asked, is this room available? What happened to the person who was staying here?

Much stammering and avoidance of eye contact. "Ummm, that's kind of a strange story."

"The guy who was here just disappeared one day without paying his rent. He left a couple months ago and we haven't seen him since."

"Yeah, he was kind of a weird guy."

Suffice to say, after a subsequent story that involved an open door and things best done behind closed doors, I was no more sold on the mattress.

"Your bathroom is right here," I'm told, as they point to a small closet with a sink and a toilet next to the bedroom. "Just don't [insert bodily function] in there. The water pressure is pretty low and can't handle it."

And to think, I chose this house over more than 400 other invitations.

I'm beginning to seriously consider calling the sorority house that offered a clean room to myself when a voice rings out,

"Hey, you want to play Beer Taps?"

And with that, we're headed downstairs for beer. And why not? After all, the less sober I am, the better the place will seem.

I had hoped to spend this final week of the NCAA Tournament on my old campus at Washington – I had even entertained hopes of moving into my old dorm room with my old roommate – but as it turns out, my final stop on this three-week tour of Bracketville schools is a logical one. Not only is Michigan State playing in the men's Final Four, but the women's team has qualified as well, making MSU just the sixth school in NCAA history to reach the Final Four in both sports in the same year.

All the national attention goes to North Carolina and Duke, but Michigan State is the new heart of college basketball – coach Tom Izzo's Spartans are playing in their fourth Final Four in the past seven years, more than any other team during that span. This is the home of the 2000 national champions. This is the school of Magic Johnson and the 1979 champs. This is the school I should be at.

Toiletries aside.

No, really, I'm happy to be here. At a great school that rarely gets the credit it deserves. With a bunch of guys (and gals) who are friendly enough to welcome me into their home and, more importantly, lead me out of this awful house and into some of the finest bars East Lansing has to offer.

And as we share a bucket of beer – and I'm not kidding, a real, honest to gosh bucket – at the great campus hangout that is Crunchy's, I begin to look forward to my week at MSU.

As the guys talk about Michigan State's heart-stopping overtime victory over Kentucky, suddenly my cold doesn't seem quite so bad. As they talk up their campus and classes (a class in casino management?), suddenly my cough isn't quite so severe. As they talk about the parties, celebrations and possible riots (riots?) for Saturday's game, suddenly the congestion opens up.

Suddenly, my cold is gone and I feel as strong and vibrant as I did when I was first in college years ago.

Unfortunately, I know I'll feel quite a bit differently when I wake up and have to go to class in the morning with a cold and a hangover.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," was recently published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site,