Big Ten Tales: Tony Banks talks MSU

What was it like playing for Nick Saban at Michigan State before his days coaching in the NFL and SEC? Former Michigan State quarterback Tony Banks experienced that firsthand during his senior season with the Spartans. I sat down with Banks at the Big Ten Network after he finished shooting a segment of “BTN Football Report” and asked him to tell me some of his best memories from his playing days at Michigan State in my latest installment of “Big Ten Tales.”

Banks was a standout athlete growing up and was drafted by the Minnesota Twins out of high school. He played outfield for the Twins’ Class A farm team in Florida for two years, then gave up baseball to play football. Banks enrolled at San Diego Mesa College and played two seasons before transferring to Michigan State in 1994.

While at Michigan State, Banks etched his name in the record books, ranking tenth all time in both passing yards and touchdowns in just two seasons in East Lansing. He went on to be the first quarterback selected in the 1996 NFL Draft when St. Louis chose him No. 42 overall.

But Banks wasn’t always sold on the game of football growing up. In fact, he almost gave up the sport altogether. That was before he displayed his golden arm in East Lansing and almost broke one of his teammate’s jaws because he put a little too much zip on his throws. Let’s let him tell us about it.

BTN.com: Being a standout three sport athlete growing up, how did you finally settle on football being the sport you wanted to focus on and make a career out of?
Tony Banks: Well, to be honest, I gave up football at one point growing up and really didn’t know if I was ever going to play the game again.

BTN.com: Really? An injury? Please share….
Banks: Growing up in California, Pop Warner football was a big deal where I was from. When I first went out for the football team I was 10 years old and I wanted to play running back. Well, the first time I picked up the ball and started playing catch with my coach, he stuck me right behind center and I’ve played there ever since.

So my team, the Balboa Raiders, went a little against the norm. Instead of running the ball every play, we threw the ball about 30 times a game.

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BTN.com: As a 10 year old? You weren’t lying when you said you went a little against the norm.
Banks: Yeah, and two years later, as a 12-year-old, I remember our starting running back gets hurt so I have to throw it even more. I threw 33 touchdown passes that season, which broke the previous passing record, and it worked. We got all the way to the Pop Warner Super Bowl that year and I remember we were down 26-20 late in the game. We were driving down just across midfield and as I dropped back to throw, the middle linebacker steps in front of my pass and he picks it off. He runs in for the score and we lose the championship. Then, all of a sudden, all these moms and fans on our sideline started booing me. All my friends, friends’ parents, pretty much everyone in the city start booing me, and remember I was only 12 years old. That’s how serious people took this stuff. So consequently, I quit after that and I didn’t play football again until I was 17 years old in my junior year of high school.

BTN.com: Wow, so you went from almost quitting football all together, to going to play baseball, then to junior college, then wind up playing for arguably the most well-known college football coach today in Nick Saban at Michigan State?
Banks: That’s right, and let me tell you, it was quite the journey. My senior year is when Nick Saban came in. I guess I did a great job at getting George Perles fired by not winning enough games for him. He brought me in to save his job, but I guess I just didn’t do enough.

BTN.com: How did that work when you made the transition from junior college to MSU?
Banks: Well, it was a shock to say the least. Our special teams coach in junior college had been in camp with the Denver Broncos a couple times as a punter. He told me “Man, your arm is stronger than John Elway’s.” Well, hearing that really pumped me up and got me thinking that I was pretty good. When I got to Michigan State, I learned so much from how to read coverages, to calling lengthy plays out. It made me realize, “Oh, that’s why I’m not in the NFL.”

BTN.com: Was mid-1990’s Nick Saban the same guy that you hear and see on TV today? What was it like playing for him?
Banks: He was the same exact guy. That staff is the reason I was the first quarterback drafted in that draft. I went from being considered an athlete to being the first quarterback taken because of that offense and because they taught me how to properly read coverages. The offense was a pro-style offense, the defense was a pro-style defense, and coach Saban was just a great teacher of the game.

BTN.com: Any good stories from your time there playing under Coach Saban?
Banks: Well, I remember when I got injured the third game of my senior year against Purdue and Coach Saban asked if I wanted to redshirt. Of course being the competitor I was, I wanted to play, I wanted to win and I wanted to make it to the NFL.  I told him “Coach, you just get me to the Senior Bowl and I’ll take care of the rest.”  So, he agreed to that deal and he kept his word. But in addition to being invited to the Senior Bowl, he told me I also got invited to the East-West Game, which is the week before the Senior Bowl. So I figured it would be great exposure and I agreed to play in both. Now the problem with those Senior Bowl games is that quarterbacks throw it a ton, so after that week was over, my arm was dead.  I didn’t want to go to there with a dead arm and have a poor week of practice and hurt my draft stock, so I ended up dropping out of the Senior Bowl after all that.

Well, Coach Saban was a little disappointed to say the least that he pulled all these strings to get me in the Senior Bowl and then I couldn’t even play. But in the end, it all got worked out. I knew I disappointed him because he did go out of his way to get me in that game and he invested some time in that, but it’s all good now.

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BTN.com: Do you still keep in contact with any of the guys from your playing days at MSU?
Banks: Oh yeah, me and Muhsin Muhammad are still very close. We were roommates at MSU, and actually, we ended up getting picked No. 42 and 43 in the same NFL Draft.

BTN.com: Who went first?
Banks: I was 42 and he was 43, and it just so happened that we made a little deal before the draft. Whoever got drafted first had to treat the other guy to dinner. Well, it was just one pick, but whenever we see each other he has to treat me to dinner. We have fun with it, but I make sure to hold him to it.

BTN.com:  You and Mushin Muhammad, that’s a pretty darn good quarterback-receiver combination?
Banks: Yeah, we had a great connection, and don’t forget about Derek Mason, too. I remember in one of my first throwing sessions at MSU, Derek and I were just throwing the ball around. And this was my first year at MSU, going into my junior year, so I was trying to impress the coaches by throwing the ball as hard and with as much zip on it as I could. I wanted everybody in the building to know, “That guy’s got a strong arm.”

But one of my first throwing sessions, Derek (Mason) was used to some other quarterbacks when you can come out of your break, look sweet and not worry about it. Well, we ran a deep slant and I put some mustard on one throw and it actually hit him in the jaw and knocked his deep molars out. He just continued running to the other sideline and I didn’t find out until the next day that happened.

BTN.com: Wow, did you apologize to him?
Banks: Oh, of course. But it was kind of like a rite of passage to me. They knew to be alert from there on out when I was throwing them the ball.

BTN.com: Good thing were not going to toss the ball around after this after interview. Thanks Tony. Go Green.
Banks: Go White.

About Sean Merriman BTN.com contributor Sean Merriman interviews Big Ten names and asks them for a great story about their days in the Big Ten for our Big Ten Tales section.

Originally from Farmington Hills, MI, I have worked at the Big Ten Network since 2012 and took over my role as web editor and blogger in August, 2013. Follow me on twitter for constant Big Ten updates @srmerriman. Thanks and enjoy!!

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