Pat Narduzzi's replacements have been ready

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Arlington, Texas — The loss of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to the University of Pittsburgh happened fairly quickly.

But putting his replacements in place was a plan that had been in the works over the last few years. And when Narduzzi was announced as the Panthers' coach on Friday, it didn't take Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio long to make his move.

The next day, he promoted secondary coach Harlon Barnett and linebackers coach Mike Tressel to co-defensive coordinators, something they had all talked about in recent years when Narduzzi was up for other head coaching opportunities.

"With opportunities for Coach Narduzzi over the last several years, (Dantonio) has alluded this to me and as well as to Mike about what could possibly happen if Pat left," Barnett said before Michigan State practiced for the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on Sunday. "So it wasn't a total shocker. It's something that good coaches do, visionaries.

"So when it actually finally happened, first of all, extremely happy for Pat with this opportunity. I'll really miss him. You work with somebody for 11 years. We're brothers for life. We're connected for life. That's the first thing. Second, we look forward to the opportunity of being able to continue what we have built here. Mike and I are looking forward to the opportunity, and we hope we can keep it going."

It was a wise decision for Dantonio considering Barnett and Tressel were both options to join Narduzzi in Pittsburgh.

Tressel didn't want to talk about what he and Narduzzi discussed, but Barnett said they did talk about several possibilities.

"He threw something out there obviously," Barnett said. "And, again, very honored and very humbled by him. You know, it is what it is. At some point in time, we might have to separate. So I feel like this is the best thing for our family and I."

As much as a move with Narduzzi might have been appealing to Barnett, the allure of coaching for his alma mater won out. Barnett was an All-American defensive back as a senior in 1989 and was on the Rose Bowl winning team in 1988.

"That's awesome, man, and something I never thought of or dreamed of," Barnett said. "But, again, something that was kind of mentioned to me prior to Pat leaving in the past as a possibility. It came to fruition. So I'm extremely excited about it. As you said, I am a Spartan. I bleed green truly, and I love it here. So an awesome opportunity."

They'll have big shoes to fill considering the Spartans have been a top-10 defense for each of the last four seasons. And they'll have to do that matching the intensity Narduzzi brings to the table.

"He's the heart and soul of the defense because he's the defensive coordinator," Tressel said of Narduzzi. "I can tell you this: Harlon and I will both bring a lot of energy and passion, and that's what Pat always did, bring a lot of energy and passion, and I think the guys will respond because they have pride in being part of the defense."

That passion was what Barnett likened to the Incredible Hulk, something he and Tressel possess but do a better job of concealing than Narduzzi did.

"When it's time to play the game, it's time to play the game," Barnett said. "I know Pat is going, going, going, jittery and fired up. His green man is out all the time. Our green man comes out on game day."

While their styles are sure to be different than Narduzzi's, the respect they have from the players is not.

"Coach Barnett recruited me out of Cincinnati and is one of the reasons I came to Michigan State," senior defensive end Marcus Rush said. "He's an unbelievable guy. There's not a guy on the team that doesn't like him. Coach Tressel is a great coach. He's not my position coach but we still have a good relationship with him on defense. He is a great guy."

Hearing how the players talked about him humbled Barnett.

"I think to get respect you have to give it," he said. "I try to treat them like young men. I don't try to treat them like kids. Sometimes there's coach speak and there's real speak, not only for life but also for how you do things on the football field. I always try to give real speak."