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Dallas — When Pat Narduzzi stepped to the microphone at the small podium inside the Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas on Sunday, the placard with his name had been covered up by a piece of paper with the words "Pitt Head Coach" scribbled across.

The Michigan State defensive coordinator, who was named the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh on Friday, laughed and grabbed the paper, quickly comparing it to everyone's notebook in hopes to discover the practical joker.

"I really want to stay focused on this game, guys," he said as he crumbled the makeshift label.

But try as he might, Narduzzi is in a unique spot. He doesn't want to shirk the responsibility he feels to his team, his boss, his players — and to himself. There is too much at stake, he believes, in No. 8 Michigan State's matchup with No. 5 Baylor in the Cotton Bowl on Thursday.

Yet, the underlying theme is the end at Michigan State for the leader of one of the best defenses in the nation. Even Narduzzi admitted it's a difficult spot.

"It's a relief," he said. "It's good to be down here in Dallas. You know it's tough, a tough situation. (This game) is what I'm locked into. I've been up since six o'clock watching tape. It's my third cup of coffee and I'm ready to roll. You kind of have two jobs to do: Keep a (recruiting) class intact (at Pitt) and soon as I got on that plane, since I've been down here, my job is really focused on Baylor. As you guys know they've probably got one of the most, if not the most, explosive offenses in the country. So that's where my focus is.

"And it's good to be here. I like to coach football. We get another chance to go into Cowboy Stadium and sing the fight song after the game for one last time for me even though my kids will be whistling it through the house for years to come. That's what it's all about."

There likely won't be a huge shift in defensive philosophy after Thursday. Head coach Mark Dantonio has played a big role in orchestrating the defense and secondary coach Harlon Barnett and linebackers coach Mike Tressel will step into co-coordinator roles.

But there's no doubt the impact of losing Narduzzi will be significant.

"I think his scheme and just his passion for the game," senior defensive end Marcus Rush said when asked what will be missed most. "He's intense but at the same time cares for his players and has relationships with everyone and that is huge. I don't think you get that everywhere you go and that is something that will be missed here."

Fellow defensive end Shilique Calhoun echoed his teammates' thoughts, even stepping into Narduzzi's press briefing to give the coach a hard time and share a few jokes.

"You're just proud he had the opportunities he had because of how hard he's worked over the years," the junior said. "We understand how hard he's worked and how much he is about his players and how he's so selfless. It's not about him. He wants to be about his players. He wants all the glory to go to his players, and we knew that this opportunity would come around one day."

It's that mutual respect he has with his players that led Narduzzi to Dallas.

Some might not have blamed him if he decided to jump right in with Pittsburgh, especially since the Panthers will be playing down the road in Fort Worth on Friday in the Armed Forces Bowl.

But there was never a doubt in Narduzzi's mind he would coach one more game for the Spartans.

"It's about these kids and the relationships we build," Narduzzi said. "These are like my sons. If I didn't come down here and coach in this bowl game man, I'd be letting every one of these 115 guys down. And the rest of the staff down and oh, gosh, Coach Dantonio. That's not what it's about. It's about these kids and how hard they've worked to get to this game. It's about this game."

It will also be the final time for Narduzzi to work with Barnett and Tressel, guys he says he loves "like brothers."

They've been together since 2004 when they came to Cincinnati with Dantonio and "nobody knew anybody," Barnett said.

They part ways knowing they've built something special in East Lansing while they've created a bond they are certain will never be broken.

"We've been together 11 years and Pat is part of my family," Tressel said. "We'll stay close, not 100 hours a week in a meeting room, but we'll always remain close."

One game remains for Narduzzi. One more game to call the Spartans defense before handing the reigns to his friends.

His only regret is he didn't realize, when Michigan State beat Rutgers on Nov. 22, that it would be his final game in front of the home crowd.

"It's real emotional," he said. "You wish it was in Spartan Stadium, you know? It's that emotional. My kids are like, 'Dad, we're never gonna go back in Spartan Stadium and play a game.' So it's emotional for me and my family. It's like, I wish I would have known before I left that stadium, you walk out of Spartan Stadium, that was your last, you never know when your last play is as a football player. You play every play like it's your last, and you coach every game like it's your last. Who would have thought I wasn't going back into Spartan Stadium? I sure wouldn't have."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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