Dantonio vows to right MSU’s ship, ‘because Spartans will’

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio speaks at Big Ten media days in Chicago on Monday.

Chicago – There were no promises coming from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio on Monday, no guarantees about what might transpire over the next few months.

Dantonio took the podium at Big Ten media days ready to deal with plenty of questions, and few were about the wild success he has brought to East Lansing since taking over in 2007. Instead, the focus during nearly two hours of questioning was about a dismal 3-9 record in 2016 and the miserable offseason that followed.

The on-field issues were tough enough as the Spartans tumbled from a spot in the College Football Playoff to one of the worst seasons in more than a decade while criminal charges and problems in the locker room led to hits to the roster as well as to the team’s public image.

But just as Dantonio has done in the past, he made it clear counting out Michigan State on the football field might not be the wisest choice.

“Are you a betting man?” Dantonio asked a reporter who wondered why anyone should believe the coach entering his 11th season could turn his program around.

“Why should I believe?” Dantonio continued. “Because I’m their coach. Because Spartans will. … Look beyond last year. Look back. Next question.”

More: Dantonio: Cooper in 'Stage 2' to remain with Spartans

While the question was legitimate, it’s hard to argue with Dantonio’s stance. Entering last season, the Spartans had won two of the previous three Big Ten titles, won 11 games five times while winning a Rose Bowl and reaching two straight New Year’s Day bowl games in the new era of playoff football.

However, it’s also easy to wonder if that time has passed.

Experience and depth are lacking and questions loom over nearly every position group except running back

Still, the biggest question on Monday seemed to be how Michigan State regains that edge that carried them in previous seasons.

When so many crowned Ohio State or Michigan or any other team in the Big Ten, how was it that Michigan State always seemed to have an edge.

According to the players in attendance on Monday it was simple — it was all about an attitude.

“After (losing the season finale at) Penn State and everything that happened it’s just refocusing and reaffirming how we are as a program,” senior offensive lineman Brian Allen said.

“It’s not about wins, it’s just getting back that mentality we had and that mindset. I feel like we’re in a pretty good spot going into camp and that will take care of a lot of the problems.”

Nailing down exactly what those problems were last year hasn’t been that simple. Allen and others have talked about players not holding each other accountable while even Dantonio has looked at what he and his staff might have done differently that contributed to the struggles.

“We won a lot of games and maybe I didn’t hold people as accountable as I needed to or something went off track there,” Dantonio said. “I don’t know. But I’m gonna make sure that we’re all in — every coach, every player and we all go in the same direction.”

Going in that same direction has been as much on the players as the staff throughout the offseason.

The current senior class has seen its share of success, so it speaks with some authority. The fifth-year guys like running back Gerald Holmes were part of the Rose Bowl team in 2013 that was the first Big Ten team to beat an Urban Meyer-coached Ohio State team. And the four-year guys like linebacker Chris Frey also won a conference title and got to the College Football Playoff.

But even they understand they don’t have all the answers. That realization led Holmes to create “Spartan 300,” a regular meeting of players — no coaches allowed — so everyone on the team had a place to voice their concerns. It was a way for every player — from freshman to senior — to feel like they had a voice.

“Even if I’m getting the notoriety for scoring touchdowns I’m not any better than a freshman that just came in. I want them to feel free to come up and talk to me.

“That’s where the meetings come from. We might need to hear what an older player has to say as much as what a younger player has to say.”

How much the openness and tighter bond translates to wins remains to be seen. Dantonio believes they’ve already helped, pointing out that there aren’t coaches around all the time and players need to hold each other accountable.

Holmes is convinced it’s already helped.

Along with focused offseason workouts, he says the Spartans can’t wait to get back on the field.

“Starving,” he said when asked how hungry MSU was for the season to start. “If you saw my team walk in right now you would see ribs showing, slobbering and teeth dirtied up. We’re hungry. I feel like it’s been forever since we played football.”

It seems like forever since Michigan State has played winning football and not many have picked the Spartans to finish any better than fourth in the Big Ten East.

Dantonio wouldn’t bet on it and neither would his players.

“It’s always been about the guys in the room and been about us,” Allen said. “So I don’t really listen to any of that.”

Added Frey, “Just tune it out. It doesn’t bother us. We know what to do and we know there is doubt behind us. We know what we have to do to be able to win games and prove the Spartans are back.”

Until they play games, however, the detractors will be there. At Michigan State, however, its business as usual.

“It goes back to the whole chip on our shoulder,” Holmes said. “Even when we were winning you’d hear the same things. It gets to the point where it doesn’t matter what is being said outside of the walls that we live in.”