September 22, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Spartans' mantra: Win for Mark Dantonio

If all goes well, Mark Dantonio will not have to hurry back to the Michigan State sideline. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News) )

East Lansing

In the span of about 12 hours the other night, Michigan State boldly found magic and then temporarily lost its coach. That would stagger anyone.

The question now is not whether Mark Dantonio will recover. Thankfully, he will and he is, and he headed home from the hospital Tuesday.

While everyone pays proper respect to the real lesson here about health and family, attention shifts to the other lesson, the mundane football one. By all indications, Dantonio will itch to be back from his mild heart attack, suffered shortly after Michigan State's stirring 34-31 victory over Notre Dame.

The question is, can the Spartans recover and save a sweet season, while saving his seat?

Absolutely they can. This is a test, admittedly a less important test than the medical ones Dantonio is passing. But it's telling nevertheless.

The players talked emotionally after practice Tuesday about love and respect for their coach. It was touching, and would mean even more if they followed with maximum effort and concentration, starting Saturday against FCS opponent Northern Colorado.

This is a test of the program's leadership, of those Dantonio most trusts, from offensive coordinator Don Treadwell to the captains -- quarterback Kirk Cousins, linebacker Greg Jones, punter Aaron Bates. It's not just a one-week challenge either, with huge games against Wisconsin and Michigan to follow.

The man in charge for now has the name and calm demeanor to fit the role. Treadwell must do exactly that -- tread well, tread water -- as Michigan State attempts to maintain normalcy in the most-abnormal situation imaginable.

"We don't see this as a distraction, we see it as a chance to motivate guys and unify the team," Cousins said. "It just further solidifies what Coach D means to us when he's taken away, and I think this will strengthen us. The words we're using are 'Keep our edge.' We've got a fire inside."

Rolling up the sleeves

Nobody knows when Dantonio might return, and no one will push it. It's never been more important for the 3-0 Spartans to maintain their composure, so Dantonio doesn't feel compelled to accelerate the timetable (not that his wife, Becky, would let him).

"He's doing very well, even joking around," athletic director Mark Hollis said. "The doctors say it's about four weeks for a normal person to go back to work, not that coaches are normal."

Dantonio will watch Saturday's game from home, then doctors will reassess. Beyond that, there's no sense speculating, so I won't. But in a strange way, the Spartans can show how much they appreciate their coach by not missing him on the field.

The most public role falls on Treadwell, who speaks smartly and sharply, and is just as stoic and unflinching, like a head-shaved version of Dantonio. He has known Dantonio for more than 20 years, and knows something about balance, pumping up the passing game while staying true to Dantonio's devotion to the ground -- and staying grounded.

"Coach has laid a tremendous foundation," Treadwell said. "Everybody has just rolled up their sleeves and said, 'OK, let's get done what needs to be done until the boss gets back in his chair.' "

That's the right message. Actually implementing it is the difficult part.

Michigan State is coming off a stomach-churning classic, the victory over Notre Dame capped by Dantonio's call for a fake field goal, which produced the winning touchdown in overtime. I'll say it again: What Dantonio showed at the end was gutsy leadership, taking the pressure off a young kicker and putting it on himself.

But that was four days ago, and this pesky 2-1 Northern Colorado team comes in with big offensive numbers. It's still easy to overlook these little opponents, no matter how many times a James Madison, or (nearly) a Massachusetts stuns someone.

Wary of letdown

A letdown would be dangerous, but the Spartans know all about distractions. The latest came Tuesday, when sophomore tight end Dion Sims was one of 10 charged with a felony for being part of a computer-theft ring at Detroit Public Schools.

The story of this season can turn a few ways now, with uncertainties hovering.

"It was really, really rough to hear the news on Coach D," Jones said. "But I think guys are starting to perk up and realize he's going to be OK, and he'll be back soon."

Who these Spartans really are -- a legitimately tough and talented bunch, or an unproven team with a questionable defense and a quarterback who alternates between excellent and shaky -- will be determined soon enough. Perhaps they'll be hardened by the adversity.

Something special happened Saturday night, when a team pulled out a dramatic victory and then the coach pulled through a scary crisis. I'm not even being clever when I say this program knows heartache. Now, here's a chance to craft a far different tale.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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