Mark Dantonio calls MSU strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie, right, ‘one of the masters’ of his profession. (The Detroit News)
Orlando, Fla. -- They've earned this.
Ken Mannie will vouch for that, and he would know. Because nobody knows Michigan State's football players better than him.
In a week where everybody's trying to connect the past to the present at the Capital One Bowl, from Nick Saban to Mark Dantonio and all the assistant coaches in between, the straightest line just might point to the guy making the impassioned speech in the middle of the Spartans' huddle before practice earlier this week.
It wasn't Dantonio, the head coach. It was Mannie, the Spartans' longtime strength and conditioning coach, the guy who Saban brought to Michigan State back in 1994 and never managed to pry away after he left.
Dantonio calls Mannie "one of the masters" of his profession, and the players, though they might curse his name in the heat of August two-a-days, swear by him.
"He's the epitome of a strength coach," senior tight end Charlie Gantt said. "But he also teaches you about values and discipline and about life. He's just a good man."
And as everyone in MSU's athletic program knows by now, he's the epitome of a Spartan.
When Mannie says of his family, "Certainly, we bleed green," you almost take him literally. He has poured his heart and soul into his work in East Lansing for the last 16 years, taking what he described as a "grassroots" strength program and helping transform it into a state-of-the-art operation that reaches well beyond the Duffy Daugherty Football Building.
But it's in that place that you'll find Mannie's motivation, one that he says he can sum up in three words or less.
More than a decade ago, Mannie was struck by a sign he saw on the side of a U.S. Marine Corps semi-trailer on the highway that read simply, "Earned. Never Given."
That slogan about respect is now plastered everywhere in the MSU football facility. And to hear Mannie talk, it's written all over the Spartans' Big Ten championship season as well.
"What I think happened this year is that more kids than ever really, truly bought into that mentality," Mannie said. "And I could tell it because I was purposely trying to do things (in workouts) so that they would get that look in their eye like, 'Oh, no, what is this? What are we doing here?' Were they gonna hit a ceiling? Were they gonna back off a little bit mentally? But lo and behold, it was like, 'Keep comin', Coach. Let's go.'"
And that right there, he said this week, is part of the reason why he stayed, even when others said, "Let's go."
A hot commodity
Over the last decade, Mannie has had at least a handful of opportunities to leave Michigan State. Saban tried to bring him with him when he bolted East Lansing, first to Louisiana State and later to Alabama.
Jim Tressel tried to hire him in 2001 when he took over Ohio State's program and brought in Dantonio to be his defensive coordinator. Missouri, among others, also came calling.
"Each time it has come up, it's been close," said Mannie, who has worked under four different head football coaches and five athletic directors at Michigan State. "There were certainly some things to look at. But to make a long story as short as possible, it all came back to family and where we wanted to be and the things we were trying to help contribute. And also the fact that there was some unfinished business here and I wouldn't feel right leaving."
So he stayed, which is a good thing, because now he's right back where he started, working alongside Dantonio, whom he first met when both were graduate assistants at Ohio State in 1984.
The two grew up barely an hour apart in Ohio — Dantonio in Zanesville, Mannie in Steubenville — and it shows.
"We kind of went to different schools together, so to speak," Mannie said. "We had the same kind of upbringing, and we have a lot in common in terms of personal core values, faith values."
As you'd expect, they share those with the players, too, in no uncertain terms.
"They have to know there's no easy way out in anything," Mannie said. "You're not gonna win a championship going through the back door. We preach these things constantly. No entitlement, no comfort zones, no easy way out, no complacency, and, really, no excuses. And if you'll stay true to all those things, you'll have no regrets.
"Sometimes you've got to take them to a place they've never been before. And they've never been there simply because they never thought they could get there. . . . How does that translate into wins and losses? I mean, no one has a crystal ball on that one. But I know this: It gives you a chance."
Players respect him
Know this, too. When they're done, the players — almost to a man — don't pass up the chance to thank Mannie. That goes for this year's seniors — "The things that he has taught me about being a man and responsibility, I will apply those for the rest of my life," center John Stipek says, his voice cracking — and those from a decade ago.
In a scrapbook, Mannie keeps a letter he received from ex-MSU receiver Plaxico Burress a few years ago thanking him "for always pushing me, even though I thought I knew it all." And even today, he corresponds regularly with Burress, who is finishing up a two-year prison sentence in Oneida, N.Y., after a well-publicized gun case in 2008.
"Plaxico to me is someone who's a very good person at heart who didn't always make the right decisions," Mannie said. "But I'm a big supporter of his, and I always will be."
They come and they go, hundreds of players over the years, but it always comes back to that.
"I've always heard that he could go anywhere, but obviously there's something here that he really must like," Stipek said. "He really enjoys what he does, and it shows. And I can't thank him enough for that."