Dantonio focuses on Michigan even after shift in control

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — To say the program Mark Dantonio took over at Michigan State in late November of 2006 was in disarray would be a massive understatement.

When the head coach at Cincinnati was tabbed to replace John L. Smith, the Spartans had been to only two bowl games in seven seasons, compiling a 38-45 mark along the way as they took a significant plunge, one that started almost immediately after Nick Saban left for LSU after the end of the 1999 regular season.

The Spartans won the Citrus Bowl that year under Bobby Williams, but that was really the highlight. After Williams failed and Morris Watts finished the final three games of the 2002 season, it was on to Smith. He got Michigan State back to a bowl game in 2003 before failing miserably the next three seasons.

There was little to be hopeful for when Dantonio took over, a coach who had marginal success at Cincinnati while being known as the defensive coordinator for Ohio State's 2002 national championship team. On the day he was hired — Nov. 27 — he wore his championship ring.

"I wear this championship ring very, very few times, but I wear it for a reason," Dantonio said that day. "I wear it to symbolize what can happen when you have the resources, when you have the players, and, most importantly, when you have the commitment."

Now, in his eighth season at Michigan State and heading into another battle with archrival Michigan, Dantonio has not only taken control of the series, but he has taken control of the Big Ten.

With those attributes in mind, namely commitment, Dantonio has won 70 games, taken the Spartans to seven straight bowl games, won 11 or more games in three of the last four years, captured a pair of Big Ten championships and won last season's Rose Bowl. And seven games into the 2014 season, Michigan State is No. 8 in the country and fighting for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It was all set in motion that day in November, when Dantonio made it clear what game mattered most — the Michigan game.

"It was 1995 when I first came here and that's when I first got a taste of it," Dantonio said, referencing his time as the defensive backs coach under Saban. "It was embraced at that time, because of the past. … It gets in your blood a little bit, it's just the way it is. I've been other places that the same thing has happened. There is no difference in this game than being at the South Carolina vs. Clemson game when I was in college.

"It just divides the state so it makes it unique in that respect, and you embrace it, you get involved in it, and it's in you."

The meaning of the game was further hammered home after Dantonio's first as head coach. Michigan State led 24-14 in the fourth quarter before watching Michigan score 14 points in the fourth quarter to pull out the victory.

Afterward, Michigan running back Mike Hart called Michigan State "little brother." It infuriated Michigan State fans, but no one was more put off than Dantonio. A day after the game, as he criticized Michigan's approach to the game, he said, "Pride comes before the fall. … This game is an important game. … I'm gonna be the coach here for a long time. It's not over, it's just starting."

That moment still drives Michigan State today.

It's the reason a team that has won five of the last six meetings can still feel like they have a chip on their shoulder. It's the reason, even after a physical beating like the one they handed out to the Wolverines last year, they still feel like they have something to prove. It's the reason they still feel like the underdog, even as a double-digit favorite.

And that all comes from Dantonio.

"After Mike Hart made that comment and kind of upset Coach D and everyone here, he said to us that things were going to change," quarterback Connor Cook said. "We're going to come back and the tides are going to turn and there is going to be a power shift.

"We've done that through the years through the hard work in the offseason, the winter conditionings, the summer workouts, all that stuff. I think the main thing is the hard‑work mentality … going back to when Coach D took the job and made it a point for us to be the more dominant figure in this rivalry."

It's in stark contrast to what is happening at Michigan as Brady Hoke, in his fourth year leading the Wolverines, is fighting for his job. It's not hard to imagine considering Michigan no longer enjoys dominance in the rivalry.

The Michigan players and coaches still consider Ohio State its biggest rival, another series in which they have fallen woefully short in recent seasons.

But at Michigan State, regardless of the number of wins or what the scoreboard says and what the stat sheet indicates, the Michigan game will always be at the top of the list.

That's because of the man in charge, and he hopes what he has done is instill a mindset that will be around for generations to come.

"I'm never going to come here and say, on the first day that I was the head coach at Michigan State, 'Oh, that game is just another game,' because that wouldn't be," Dantonio said. "That really wouldn't be truthful, I don't believe. If I were the next coach, I would assume the same."