Mark Dantonio, with ex-Spartan Devin Thomas last month, has Michigan State close to its first Big Ten title since 1990. “Priority No. 1,” he said. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
East Lansing -- More and more, the team reflects the coach. Tough and unyielding, resilient and resourceful.
Michigan State is 9-1 and churning toward a Big Ten title, stomping past obstacles few could have imagined. Mark Dantonio is still pushing, and in the reflection of an improbable season, you see what he saw when he arrived four years ago.
Dantonio doesn't want to be the focus of the story, but in so many ways, he is, the leader of the newest potential power program. Less than two months ago, he suffered a heart attack after an overtime victory over Notre Dame.
Dantonio, 54, admits the scare made him "a little kinder," one of the topics he touched upon during an interview Monday. He spoke in his standard measured tone, loosening up occasionally, as Michigan State prepared for its home finale against Purdue on Saturday.
Q. You're 9-1, in the midst of one of the best seasons in school history. Honestly, did you see this coming?
A. I knew we had a special football team. I knew we had some special people in positions of leadership that I felt could give us an edge. I saw it in winter workouts, in February, even going back to the bowl game preparation. We were able to work through some problems, and I think that's made us stronger.
Q. I have to ask — it's been nearly eight weeks since your heart attack. How are you doing?
A. I'm doing really well, thanks.
Q. Are you back to your normal routine?
A. I'm back to my normal schedule with the exception that I'm going to make sure I exercise every day. I'm back to, I'd say, 90 percent. I'll know when I should taper back and when I shouldn't. But I feel very, very good.
Q. Amid all sorts of adversity, you guys have won. How did you keep this team together? Have you ever had a year like this?
A. (Laughs). No, I've never had a year like this. Our staff continuity has a lot to do with our success. It breeds relationships, and that breeds trust. I do think the silver lining in the adversity is that we're more prepared for it, and understand it maybe a bit more.
How have we been able to work through it? We've worked through it together.
Q. Is the leadership most reflected in your captains — Kirk Cousins, Greg Jones, Aaron Bates?
A. It's probably more reflected in our council of 12, our unity council, the dialogues we have.
Q. That players unity council — was it created because of the dormitory fight (involving 15 players) and suspensions last November?
A. I don't know if it was the dorm situation or it was just a good idea that needed to be done.
Q. You often use the word faith — faith in young people, faith in God. Did you go through a stretch when that faith was tested?
A. Maybe it's conviction — faith equals conviction. You deal with things as they come, and when it's thrust upon you, that's when you see leadership.
It was thrust upon our staff because I was out for a period of time. It was thrust upon our players out of necessity. In winter workouts, we only had 65 players there, because 15 guys were on the sideline with injuries and another 14-15 were out.
Same thing with Kirk Cousins. He was elected a captain as a sophomore, and I don't think he really felt comfortable with that. He was still trying to become the starting quarterback. But it was thrust upon him, and he had to take the reins.
Q. Part of leadership is making tough decisions. You reinstated Chris L. Rucker the day he got out of jail, and received some criticism for it. Do you second-guess it?
A. No. I tend not to second-guess myself because there's nothing really you can do about it. I think everybody's entitled to their own opinions, but they're not operating with the same amount of information I had. And they're also not operating with the same amount of responsibility.
When you coach a young man, you have the ability to propel him forward in his life, or you can hold him back. Others don't have to look down a table, look in that mother's and father's eyes, and tell them their son is no longer a part of this program. The head coach has to do that. And that's a very, very difficult thing to do.
Q. Since the heart attack, your players talk about you being more relaxed, maybe even mellowed. Have you reflected on how it changed you, if at all?
A. I think every experience in your life, good and bad, you're going to learn from it. Hopefully — hopefully — I've learned to be a little wiser, a little kinder, a little more faith-based, maybe a little more conscious of other people's problems. I look for the good in things.
Q. There's that word again — faith. Does that play a role on the field, in the trick plays you've called and some of the fourth-down gambles this year?
A. If you look at our past, we've gone for it on fourth downs and had trick plays before. You have to have faith in your team, because you can't fake them, you can't be an imposter. When you're around them as much as you are, your players know you well. I've seen them get up and do imitations of me, so they know me very, very well.
Q. Wait a minute, your players do impressions of you in front of you?
A. (Smiles). Oh, yeah, I encourage that.
Q. Who does the best one?
A. Cousins does a good one.
Q. So what's the main feature in an impersonation of you? Stern look? Hand gesture?
A. You'd have to ask the guys. I always tell them, 'Hey, you try to get up here and talk about something everyday in front of 105 people.'
But you know, I coach for those relationships. Along the line, there's the technical aspect of football and the conceptual aspect of football, and that's all good and fun. But you're coaching to have meaningful relationships with players.
Q. Your program certainly is established now. Do you feel you're firmly set up for the long term?
A. We tried to build this foundation rock-solid. But, you know, things happen and they can be torn down very, very quickly, especially in this day and era of instant success.
I'd like to think our players understand our expectations. Do we always meet them, off the field, on the field, academically? No. But try to focus on the 95 percent that do.
Q. If you could choose a few words to describe your program's philosophy, what would they be?
A. Toughness, discipline, maturity. If you're disciplined, you're playing smart. If you're mature, you can handle adversity. And if you're tough, it speaks to winning up front. You can throw the ball all over the place, but I believe, if you're ever gonna be dominant and beat the good teams in this conference, you've got to win up front.
Q. Were those traits reflected in how you, and your team, dealt with your health scare?
A. Probably my proudest moment was the Wisconsin game, when I just sat back and wasn't part of it, and our players and coaches not only played well, they played with toughness and discipline.
Q. You mentioned Wisconsin. You're 9-1 and you beat them (34-24), but they could go to a better bowl based on the BCS standings. You could finish 11-1 and not go to the Rose Bowl or a BCS bowl. Would that tick you off?
A. No. We're gonna play a good team wherever we go. I'm not gonna be pulled into that conversation. It's really irrelevant in the big scheme of things.
All we can do is get ready to play Purdue. We were pretty beat up after the Minnesota game, so it was good to get away (for the bye) and sort of recharge yourself. In the end, at the very minimum, if we control ourselves right, we can be co-Big Ten champions. I want to be at the Rose Bowl and at a BCS game, but being Big Ten champs is priority No. 1 here.
Q. With recruiting going well, do you feel as comfortable as ever here?
A. As comfortable as you can be. It's never a slam dunk. When you're in this state, you're competing for recruits with all the great teams in the Midwest and outside.
We're gonna get our guys, but I don't want to be the coach that tells a recruit something just to get him to come to school there. I want to be real. I think the more we win, the better it's going to become.
Q. Beating your rival, Michigan, three years in a row, and them having a different style of play, that has to help?
A. Yeah, it certainly helps. But there are some people (in this state) that just grow up one way or the other.
Q. As this season unfolds, you must feel old labels about the Spartans have been buried?
A. I would think so. I mean, we've won some games here, but I look at the games we've lost, there haven't been too many where we just bombed. The game against Iowa, we did. But we'll come out and compete and play hard. As long as we do that, I can live with it.
Q. You have this stoic persona, similar to coaches you worked under, Jim Tressel and Nick Saban. Is there ever a time you just let loose?
A. Believe it or not, I think I'm a pretty happy guy around here. But when we go there (points to a picture of Spartan Stadium), that's my office day. That's not a day at the park with my kids, it's not going golfing. So that's not a time for me to be joking around.
That's who I am, who I was as an assistant coach, who I was as a player. I can't be Nick and I can't be Tress. Gotta be myself.