Arlington, Texas — From the moment the College Football Playoff pairings were announced and it was known Michigan State would be taking on Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, the attention quickly turned to the head coaches.
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio worked for Alabama's Nick Saban when Saban was head coach in the late 1990s. It's an obvious angle as Saban has gone on to greatness in the SEC while Dantonio returned to Michigan State in 2007 and has built the Spartans into a national program.
But one connection that has been a bit overlooked is the history between Dantonio and Alabama assistant Bobby Williams.
It goes beyond the two coaching on Saban's staff at Michigan State.
"Mark and I go way back, a lot farther than people really know about," Williams said at Cotton Bowl media day on Tuesday. "My last year as a player at Purdue Mark was my graduate assistant coach. … he actually coached me, so that's how far we back go."
Williams and Dantonio were together for a brief time as assistant coaches at Kansas before coming together at Michigan State in 1995. It was in East Lansing they formed a bond.
When Williams took over after Saban left for LSU at the end of the 1999 season, it was Dantonio who was promoted to assistant head coach.
By the next season, Dantonio was off to Ohio State to become the defensive coordinator for Jim Tressel, but Williams and Dantonio have remained close.
"He'll get a text from me throughout the season quite a bit," Williams said. "I root for the Spartans quite a bit, just more quietly. They had a big win against Michigan and I shot him a text and then again after Ohio State. So I root for the Spartans quite a bit."
Williams pulls for Michigan State now, even though his time as the head coach didn't go as well as it looked like it might have when he beat Florida and Steve Spurrier in the 2000 Citrus Bowl in his head coaching debut.
The Spartans went 5-6 the next season and 7-5 in 2001, the only winning season under Williams. In 2002, things started to fall apart, and after a 49-3 drubbing at the hands of Michigan, Williams was fired with three games left in the season.
Williams then spent 2003 as wide receivers coach for the Detroit Lions before rejoining Saban's staff in 2004 as the wide receivers coach at LSU. He followed Saban back to the NFL and coached running backs for the Miami Dolphins in 2005-06 and became tight ends and special teams coordinator at Alabama in 2008.
All the while, he's been admiring the job Dantonio has done turning Michigan State into a national contender.
"He's done a phenomenal job because, first of all, it's difficult to be a dominate force in the Big Ten," Williams said. "Not only be successful but he's been able to maintain that level of success for a number of years.
"To see how much he's grown as a head coach and the success that he's had is phenomenal."