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Henning: Dantonio at top of his game

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Dallas — One date on Mark Dantonio's bio grabs you as his and Michigan State's football future is considered on the first day of 2016.

In nine weeks, March 9 to be exact, he turns 60.

Anyone who has a digit-6 as the first numeral in his or her age is at least to a point where that person, and others, wonder about the word "retirement."

MSU can, and will, relax. Dantonio isn't heading anywhere on a given morning but to the Skandalaris Center, at least for the distant future. There has been zero sign a head coach feels jaded by his job, that he feels at all satisfied, as the Spartans prepared Thursday for a New Year's Eve gathering with Alabama at AT&T Stadium, where the Cotton Bowl national semifinal game was set to be played.

Dantonio, as sure as these things can be predicted, will stick in East Lansing for at least five more years.

But it's amazing how football autumns and years pass in a relative blur.

Dantonio has been steering the Spartans for nine seasons. It seems not at all that long. Nearly a decade since he was hired? Nine years and soon to be a month since he was brought aboard to put a long-abused program in order and make of a gifted university all that its football team might annually enjoy in pleasing a Big Ten school and its fan galaxy?

The new 50

That's how fast, and for the Spartans gang how fun, it has been since Dantonio arrived, fresh from a can't-fail mission and search engineered by Mark Hollis, whose stint as athletic director has been as accomplished overall as Dantonio's has been in football, exclusively.

What's telling about Dantonio is that he coaches and appears younger than his age. He's in great shape. He never seems fatigued. Above all, he plainly enjoys, as much today as ever, working to make teenage kids men and good football players.

When passion is there, a person's skill set normally is a match. And, in fact, a man's coaching craft tends often to get better. All because of experience and great gut calls that can come from having seen and done so much.

On the flip side, these coaching jobs have a shelf life. Recruiting is non-stop. Keeping tabs on 100-plus kids, handling calls from parents, meeting with administrators, keeping alums happy at their outings — it is a demanding life in the extreme.

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Consider some high-profile examples in how kicking back can be a seductive option.

Begin with one of Dantonio's great predecessors, Duffy Daugherty, who was gone at age 57 (the great Biggie Munn retired to the athletic director's office at 45).

Down the road, Bo Schembechler ended his coaching days at Michigan when he was 60. Lloyd Carr called it quits at 62.

Even with success, the job can grind mercilessly.

But as with Tom Izzo, who is 60 and motoring at his typical high rpms, nothing indicates Dantonio would for a moment consider calling it a career until at least five or more seasons are added to a coaching stint so lustrous.

Two tough goodbyes

When it happens, which could roughly coincide with Izzo's goodbye, MSU has the mettle to make sure this party continues in East Lansing.

The university has grown in resources and wisdom since the Hollis-Izzo-Dantonio troika arrived to make this the greatest combined sports era in East Lansing's annals.

High-character men who are smart coaches and deft recruiters — it's imperative that they know their way around high school hallways in the immediate 300-mile radius — can carry on what has been steadily built at MSU.

The jobs will be so attractive when, down the road, they open, a search committed to picking personnel over politics will bring not so much a clone of Dantonio and Izzo, but a replica. A coach with a similar tool kit and a different persona and style can simply extend in rough fashion what the predecessors bequeathed them.

That's life. And at Michigan State, the good life a university's sports faithful craved and even deserved, can carry on, all because attributes that in East Lansing tend to be eternal were finally optimized.

Happy early 60th birthday to Dantonio. It wouldn't be a shock if 10 years from now his MSU worshipers are wishing the head coach an equally happy 70th.