East Lansing — It wasn’t long after the 2018 season ended that Mark Dantonio knew something had to change.
After the worst offensive season in his 12 years at Michigan State, the head coach decided he couldn’t simply follow the same course, one that watched the Spartans offense steadily decline after the record-setting season of 2014 followed by a playoff appearance in 2015.
By the time the 2018 season ended, Michigan State was 13th in the Big Ten in scoring offense and total offense and ranked better than only four teams in the entire country in scoring, averaging just 18.7 points a game while gaining just 342.1 total yard per game.
“Obviously we were not productive on that side of the ball nearly where we need to be, and I understand that,” Dantonio said. “So, I'm going to shake up the offensive side of things.”
However, the level of shakeup is debatable after Dantonio announced on Thursday instead of going outside of the program and overhauling the direction of the offense, he opted to simply shuffle the staff, most notably promoting quarterbacks coach Brad Salem to sole offensive coordinator, taking over for co-coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman.
“We have been good on one side of the ball and we need to be better on the other,” Dantonio said. “But with that being said, I've always been a person that's talked to our players about our Spartans greatest strength is the Warrior standing next to them. And I believe people are committed, committed to the program, committed to the players.
“I really don't want to start the process all over again and bring some completely unknown guy in with a completely unknown staff, and then having them be with unknown players in an unknown commodity and start from scratch. I don't think that warrants this situation.”
“I'm a foxhole guy. I don't apologize for that in any respect. I believe in surrounding myself with loyal people. I believe in digging in when things get tough.”
They haven’t been much tougher in Dantonio’s 12 seasons. After taking the program to unprecedented heights, highlighted by two Big Ten championships and a playoff appearance from 2013-15, the Spartans have headed in the wrong direction.
In 2016, Michigan State won just three games and missed a bowl for the only time in Dantonio’s tenure, but followed that with 10 wins in 2017. However, the Spartans did that despite an offense that struggled to score points, a trend that continued in 2018 as injuries hindered the development.
By the time the season ended with a 7-6 loss to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl — the third time in the final four games the Spartans (7-6) failed to score a touchdown — the public outcry for change had overtaken the atmosphere around the program.
But, as he has throughout his career, Dantonio resisted going outside the program and turned to the same staff that helped the Spartans score 43 points and pile up 500 yards a game in 2014.
“I'm just not, after 12 years, ready to just take the car and just hand over the keys to somebody and say, ‘Here you go,’” Dantonio said. “I think there's a huge learning curve there in terms of who's who, in terms of what this place represents, in terms of what kind of people I want in this program. Talking about the quality of people. There's just so much to filter through that I came to the feeling like — we've got good coaches.
“We just need to shake it up a little bit. But we have good coaches. We understand concepts. We understand the history and what went wrong. Now let's try and fix it. We've got good players. We've got a lot of players back and we should compete.”
Salem, who joined the Michigan State staff in 2010 as the running backs coach, will coach that position as well moving forward while Warner shifts back to quarterbacks, the same role he had in three seasons at Cincinnati under Dantonio and from 2007-12 with the Spartans.
Bollman will take over the offensive line duties while current offensive line coach Mark Staten, also the associate head coach, will take over tight ends and continue as the recruiting coordinator.
“He's been coaching the offensive line for 30-plus years,” Dantonio said of Bollman. “He has tremendous expertise in that, and I think he's got 11 Big Ten Championships under his belt in some capacity.”
Also, wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel flips over to the role Don Treadwell held last season, assisting Paul Haynes in the defensive backfield. Treadwell was offensive coordinator and receiver coach from 2007-10 before leaving to become the head coach at Miami (Ohio).
This is the first significant shakeup Dantonio has made to his staff that didn’t go along with a coach taking another position elsewhere. Offensively, it’s the first moves since offensive coordinator Dan Roushar left for the New Orleans Saints after the 2012 season. That’s when Warner and Bollman took over the offense and Salem moved from running backs to quarterbacks.
Now, Salem, who was a head coach at Division II Augustana College from 2005-09, gets the chance to run the offense he nearly took over before the 2013 season. It also keeps him in East Lansing after Dantonio spent the last three years keeping him from leaving for other offensive coordinator positions.
“I convinced Brad Salem (to stay) the course here for three years in a row, don't leave and take that particular coordinator's position unless you go to a place where you can win or it's a big, national reputation-type place,” Dantonio said. “I think that he's got a very innovative, creative mind. I've listened to him. I've been in a lot of his meetings, a lot of the quarterbacks meetings. … I've always been impressed when he stood in front of a group and talked to the group.
“I think he brings confidence to a group and he brings energy to a group and his players have always performed pretty well, about as well this year as we want them to be, but I just think that he's done the job and warrants this opportunity.”
The step back for both Warner and Bollman were tough moves, Dantonio said, as well as for Staten, who was also the team’s assistant head coach, and Samuel, who had done well developing receivers despite the offensive struggles.
“Very difficult for me because they have relationships with the players,” Dantonio said of the moves. “Not only their players, but their incoming players, their recruits. With that being said, I had to make some difficult decisions. And the thing that impresses me about our coaching staff right now is that everybody is all in with it. They understand. They understand the gravity of what we're trying to do. They are team players in all respect and them take a step backward and allow the change to happen and then they have embraced the change — thus far.
“I think it's very important that there's a cohesive change because if it's not cohesive then there's going to have to be other decisions made but I see it being cohesive. I see our coaches have been together for a long time and ... generally they love each other.”
In addition to the offensive moves, defensive coordinator Mike Tressel was named assistant head coach, a position Staten held last season.
“His side of the team has played dynamically,” Dantonio said. “I think he needs to be in a bigger role of leadership, and I think he's got a very bright future ahead of him.”