On brink of all-time record, Dantonio leaves indelible mark at Michigan State

Virtually every aspect of the Michigan State football program has experienced a revitalization while Mark Dantonio has been head coach

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East Lansing — When Mark Dantonio took over as Michigan State’s head coach, he held his postgame press conferences in a trailer outside the tunnel at Spartan Stadium.

To say the Michigan State football program was behind — both on the field and off — was a bit of an understatement. In addition to the cramped press conferences, players prepared for games in tiny locker rooms and spent much of their week in facilities that were lagging far behind others in the Big Ten.

Things weren’t much better when the Spartans did take the field. By the time the 2006 season came to a close, Michigan State had endured three straight losing seasons, had played in just two bowl games over seven years and hadn’t won a Big Ten championship in nearly two decades.

Enter Dantonio, who was named Michigan State’s 24th head coach on Nov. 27, 2006.

Nearly 13 years later, virtually every aspect of the Spartans’ football program has experienced a revitalization. No longer is Michigan State an afterthought in the Big Ten.

Through good and bad — four of his players were dismissed in 2017 because of two separate sexual assault investigations, and he's also being sued by a former staffer — Dantonio, 63, has turned the Spartans into a perennial contender, winning three Big Ten championships and earning five bowl-game victories while reaching the College Football Playoff in 2015.

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Michigan State also has played in three conference championship games under Dantonio while producing five consensus All-Americans and nearly 40 first-team All-Big Ten recipients.

The Spartans have won 10 or more games six times in Dantonio’s tenure and, nearly as important, they are 8-4 against Michigan, the rival that dominated the series before Dantonio arrived.

And some time this season, perhaps as early as Saturday when Michigan State hosts Arizona State, Dantonio will have more wins than any coach in program history, surpassing the legendary Duffy Daugherty, who won 109 games from 1954-72.

“We came here with an opportunity to try and make a mark,” said Dantonio, who earned his 109th victory this past weekend when his Spartans demolished Western Michigan, 51-17. “That's what we're trying to do.”

Getting started

When Dantonio was named Michigan State’s coach, he wasn’t exactly a household name.

In coaching circles, it made perfect sense. Dantonio began his career as a graduate assistant at Ohio and Purdue before taking a grad assistant spot with Earle Bruce at Ohio State. From there, he spent one season at Akron before he joined Jim Tressel’s staff at Youngstown State. Three years at Kansas with Glen Mason followed before Dantonio’s first stop in East Lansing.

Dantonio was Nick Saban’s secondary coach from 1995-99 and then added associate head coaching duties when Bobby Williams took over in 2000. That’s when Dantonio reunited with Tressel as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State for the next three seasons.

It led to Cincinnati.

“I knew when the Cincinnati job came open that that was the perfect fit for him,” recalled Tressel, now the president at Youngstown State. “He was ready to go do that.

“He was an extremely hard worker, really competitive, very meticulous, very bright. He knew the game, he knew the kids. He was really a very detailed recruiter. He just, I mean, he was outstanding, and we were fortunate when we went to Youngstown that he was available, and he stayed with us for five years there as we built the program and then we were fortunate a few years later when we went back to Ohio State he came on and helped us build that program.”

Dantonio went 18-17 in three seasons with the Bearcats, taking them to two bowl games before he was named the coach at Michigan State. Over the next three seasons, with a roster put together by Dantonio, Brian Kelly won 33 games as Cincinnati reached two New Year’s Six bowl games.

“Most people thought that the Cincinnati program was kind of like a sleeping giant,” said Mason, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network, “except no one could wake it up. The guy that woke that up was Mark Dantonio. … The guy that turned the corner with that program and got it going was Mark Dantonio.”

The powers that be at Michigan State were hoping for the same thing when Dantonio replaced John L. Smith. It had been decades since the Spartans were consistently relevant in the Big Ten. The George Perles era ended badly and while Saban showed signs of a turnaround, it wasn’t long before he bolted for LSU. Williams followed with a tenure that can only be described as a failure, and under Smith the Spartans continued down a path of mediocrity.

Dantonio, as it turns out, was different.

“Michigan State was ready to be taken over by somebody who had the gravitas and discipline and seriousness to move the program in the right direction,” said Steve Grinczel, who covered the Spartans for 23 years for Booth Newspapers before writing for Michigan State from 2011-17. “They wanted to have not only good citizens and students and all that stuff, but to also win football games. I think Dantonio checked every box.”

Mark Hollis, then Michigan State’s athletic director, said in an interview with The News that he took a practical approach when looking for Smith’s replacement.

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Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo on Mark Dantonio's bid to break Duffy Daugherty's all-time MSU coaching record. The Detroit News

“With his familiarity with Michigan State, having been here as an assistant coach, he knew the opportunities and he knew the challenges, and I was convinced that he could deliver positively on that,” Hollis said. “We did a lot of quantitative breakdowns of what delivered successful coaching transitions. And as you walked through being a coordinator, having been a head coach — his experience at Cincinnati had already put him through that head coach gauntlet, so he had experience at that. He had experience at a very high level, at a successful program as a coordinator on the defensive side of the ball. … All of those factors put him as the focal point from the beginning of the search to the end.”

The wins came quickly as Michigan State went 7-6 in that first season and played in its first bowl game in four seasons. Dantonio also quickly endeared himself to the fanbase after the loss to Michigan. He was upset about the loss even a day later and wasn’t happy when told about Michigan running back Mike Hart referring to the Spartans as his little brother.

“It’s not over,” Dantonio said. “It’ll never be over here. It’s just starting.”

A nine-win 2008 was next, including the first win over Michigan and another trip to a bowl game before the first real test of Dantonio’s tenure arrived.

‘First big test’

A loss at home in Week 2 to Central Michigan was a bad omen for 2009. It was the first of three straight defeats as Michigan State limped to six wins, eking out an invitation to the Alamo Bowl. But the biggest problem wasn’t on the field.

On Nov. 22, the night after the regular season ended with a 42-14 loss to Penn State, the team held its banquet. Once it ended, a group of players were involved in a fight at Rather Hall, an MSU dormitory.

Nine players were charged with assault, and two — Glenn Winston and Roderick Jenrette — were immediately thrown off the team. The fact Winston was on the team was a point of contention for many. Dantonio had reinstated him before the season after Winston pleaded guilty to assaulting hockey player A.J. Sturges, an attack that left Sturges with a fractured skull. The News attempted to reach Sturges, but was unsuccessful. At the time of Winston’s reinstatement, Sturges issued a statement critical of the decision.

“In my opinion, the immediate reinstatement of Glenn Winston to the football team reflects very poorly on Michigan State athletics,” he said. “This decision has established weak precedent for future athletes involved in violent crimes … . While the victims of his actions still recover from what he did, Winston's obligations have been deemed fulfilled by the football program and athletic department. I think his immediate reinstatement after a shortened jail sentence in my opinion is the wrong decision by our athletic program.” 

The public relations mess combined with a poor season on the field had some wondering if Dantonio was the right man for the job. However, Hollis said that at the time there was universal support for Dantonio within the university.

After dismissing Winston and Jenrette, Dantonio suspended the others involved in the residence hall fight for the bowl game.

“That was his first big test as CEO of the program,” Grinczel said. “What is he going to do with this? How’s he going to deal with it? … They have a poor showing (in the bowl game), and I think in that poor showing he established himself as someone to be reckoned with in terms of protecting the program and the integrity of the program.”

It was hard to imagine at that point that Michigan State was about to embark on its most successful stretch since Daugherty roamed the sidelines.

The Spartans won the first eight games of 2010 and after a loss at Iowa, won their final three to earn a share of the Big Ten championship, their first since 1990. Outside of a third straight win over Michigan, the season was highlighted by the overtime victory over Notre Dame in the third week.

Instead of attempt to tie the game in the first overtime, Dantonio uttered two now unforgettable words to his players.

“Little Giants,” he said. “Run Little Giants.”

That was the name of the fake field goal, and when holder/punter Aaron Bates rose up and hit tight end Charlie Gantt with the winning score, bedlam ensued. Of course, things got even crazier after the game as Dantonio was taken to the hospital because of chest pains and shortness of breath. He had suffered a heart attack and would be off the sidelines for the next two weeks, eventually coaching the Michigan game from the press box.

“Can’t keep me down on Michigan week,” Dantonio said.

A blowout loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl did little to slow Michigan State’s momentum.

In 2011, the Spartans were back fighting for the conference championship. A last-second Hail Mary to win the Wisconsin game led to a rematch with the Badgers in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. It was a classic. Michigan State lost, 42-39, but went on to beat Georgia in triple overtime in the Outback Bowl.

A step back on the field came in 2012 as Michigan State won just seven games, capping things by beating TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. But the seeds had been planted with a dominant defense and an offense looking to find its way.

That offense came alive after four games in 2013 and, behind a swarming defense, beat Ohio State in the conference championship game, and then knocked off Stanford in the Rose Bowl in Michigan State’s first appearance in 26 years.

“It's sort of living the dream,” Dantonio said that day.

The program was on the rise and momentum was building. But behind the scenes, there was already concern.

“There’s a point in any occupation when you achieve success it’s a defining moment on where you go,” Hollis said. “And the Rose Bowl, once we achieved playing in that game, it came with caution from me. In fact I made some comments to some of my staff during that bowl experience and (basketball coach Tom) Izzo would be the first to tell you, ‘It’s easy to get there, it’s hard to stay there.’

“Success delivers so many distractions and that was a concern before we kicked the ball off in Pasadena.”

From the time the Spartans beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game the talk started to heat up on Dantonio’s contract. He was a bargain at a base salary $682,905 per year that reached nearly $2 million with bonuses. So after double-digit wins in three of four seasons with two conference championships, a raise was due.

Dantonio eventually got that raise in February of 2014 as his total compensation was bumped to $3.64 million, but the fact it became a focal point of the team’s trip to Southern California never sat well with Hollis.

“It was awesome for our alumni base and the celebration that we had out there,” Hollis said. “The questions on, even before we played the game, the questions on — and they’re fair questions — on compensation and what’s next, those weren’t necessarily what you wanted the focus that week to be on, but they were.”

‘Incredible ending’

New contract in hand, Dantonio led Michigan State into 2014 with many picking the Spartans to repeat as Big Ten champions and make the inaugural College Football Playoff. The offense proved to be prolific, but an early loss at Oregon combined with dropping a shootout at home to Ohio State knocked the Spartans out of contention. They were the only two losses of the season that came against the two teams that eventually met in the national championship game.

The Spartans capped 2014 with an epic comeback in the Cotton Bowl, scoring 21 fourth-quarter points to beat Baylor. It proved to be the perfect stepping stone for 2015.

Dantonio has developed a track record at Michigan State. When the Spartans are overlooked, that’s often when they have their best seasons.

That was exactly how things played out in 2015. Ohio State was the defending national champion, and it seemed a forgone conclusion the Buckeyes would win the Big Ten again and get a shot at defending their title. Michigan State, meanwhile, returned nearly everyone from the previous season, though all the buzz surrounded Urban Meyer’s group in Columbus.

The Spartans beat Oregon in Week 2, then quietly moved through the early part of the Big Ten season. Then came Oct. 17 at Michigan. MSU was ranked No. 7 and Michigan No. 12 in Jim Harbaugh’s first season. It was a back-and-forth battle, one the Spartans controlled on the stat sheet but with 10 seconds left, the Wolverines held a two-point lead and prepared to punt the ball away and likely eat up the clock.

What happened next, of course, helped cement Dantonio’s legacy.

A poor snap was mishandled by Michigan’s punter and the ball was scooped up by Jalen Watts-Jackson, who dashed some 37 yards into the end zone and time expired.

“Incredible ending to a great football game,” Dantonio said. “That is why football is loved so much in America, things like this happen. Every now and then they happen.”

The Spartans remained unbeaten, and even after a one-point loss two weeks later at Nebraska, the division was still up for grabs at Ohio State on Nov. 21. There was only one problem: Quarterback Connor Cook was out with a bad shoulder.

Behind backup quarterbacks Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry, Michigan State engineered the upset of the year. Michael Geiger’s 41-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as the clock hit zero and Geiger raced down the field at Ohio Stadium, swinging his arm like he was playing in the World Cup.

Two weeks later came another epic win, this time in the Big Ten Championship game against Iowa. The Spartans closed with a 22-play drive that ended with LJ Scott’s 1-yard touchdown run in the final seconds and sent MSU to the College Football Playoff.

“Our football team knows how to win,” Dantonio said.

The winning ended in the playoffs as Michigan State, once again, got whipped by Alabama. It seemed, though, that the loss was just a bump in the road. The Spartans would be back.

However, tough times were ahead.

Blemish on the program

Few could have predicted the miserable 3-9 performance in 2016. The Spartans had to replace their share of players from the playoff team, but that year’s recruiting class was Dantonio’s best and expectations remained high, especially after beating Notre Dame in Week 2.

But the losses started to pile up, seven in a row to be exact. Rumblings of locker room strife were picking up steam with each loss. A one-point defeat to Ohio State was the only “bright” spot as Michigan State missed a bowl game for the first time in Dantonio’s career.

Things were starting to go the wrong way off the field, too.

In early 2017, four players were dismissed from the team as part of two separate sexual assault cases. Josh King, Donnie Corley and Demetric Vance were charged in one case and eventually received probation and continued their careers in junior college.

The other case involved Auston Robertson, who is now serving 43 months to 10 years for criminal sexual conduct. However, Dantonio was questioned for recruiting Robertson when he had a history of complaints in high school in Indiana. Dantonio and the university claimed it did not know about two allegations of sexual assault that came up during Robertson’s trial for the 2017 incident.

In the wake of the two cases, Dantonio did not renew the contract of Curtis Blackwell, who served as director of college advancement and performance. Blackwell is suing Dantonio, Hollis and former university president Lou Anna K. Simon, saying his rights were violated when he was accused of covering up sexual assault allegations against King, Corley and Vance.

Because of that pending litigation, Hollis said he could not comment.

Karen Truszkowski, the attorney for the victim in the case against King, Corley and Vance, wasn’t critical of Dantonio, but didn’t offer a ringing endorsement of how things were handled.

“The police did a great job,” she said. “The athletic department did an OK job.

“They did the right thing. They removed them from the football team and eventually they were expelled, so I can’t say they did anything wrong.”

By the time the 2017 season began, Michigan State was no longer among the Big Ten favorites and some were predicting the program’s demise.

But Dantonio proved them wrong. The Spartans won 10 games, including another victory over Michigan and another trip to a bowl game, this time a 42-17 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.

Things were on track again, but a rash of injuries led to a 7-6 mark in 2018 and offensive woes led to Dantonio shuffling his coaching staff.

“Mark is a very deep thinker, and I really believe that if he thought he had to make changes by getting rid of guys and bringing in new guys, I think with his loyalty to Michigan State he would have done that,” Mason said. “But I think in his evaluation, he probably thinks it’s a little closer than anyone thinks, and they just need a little fine-tuning.”

‘Sense of accomplishment’

If fine-tuning is all the Spartans need, a special season could be in the works. It happened in 2013 when Michigan State won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl after going 7-6 in 2012.

A repeat would provide further evidence of Michigan State’s status as a program and would move Dantonio’s name to the top of the wins list. The only thing he’d need to match Daugherty would be a national title. Whether that happens or not, it’s hard to argue with what Dantonio has built.

“As I thought about Mark going to Michigan State, I never thought about Duffy Daugherty’s record or anything,” Tressel said. “But I did believe he had a chance to be successful, having had been there. The types of kids that Michigan State always was able to attract, good, solid, tough kids. They were always good football teams that had a great legacy.

“And so I really felt he had a chance to build a darn good program, and obviously he’s done it.”

Dantonio hasn’t been alone, as he’s quick to point out. Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, the nephew of Jim Tressel, quarterbacks coach Dave Warner and tight ends coach Mark Staten have all been on Dantonio’s staff since Cincinnati while others like wide receivers coach Don Treadwell and offensive line coach Jim Bollman have long relationships with Dantonio.

Offensive coordinator Brad Salem is in his 10th season with Dantonio, assistant defensive backs coach Terrence Samuel is in his ninth, and defensive tackles coach Ron Burton his seventh. Defensive ends coach Chuck Bullough and defensive backs coach Paul Haynes are both in their second seasons, but Bullough was a standout linebacker with the Spartans and Haynes was an assistant for John L. Smith in 2003-4.

That continuity has been vital, Dantonio said.

“I look at the players that have come through here, made plays, some outstanding moments in that time,” Dantonio said. “A lot of coaches. A lot of administrators. A lot of donors. A lot of different people that have been involved in this process. I think that's what you get. When you have continuity in the program, you have opportunities like this coming. … I think it's a sense of accomplishment for a lot of people. It's not just one person.”

There have been detractors along the way. Rival fans don’t love him, and some watch Dantonio during a game and wonder if he’s ever happy.

“I think he's the most misunderstood guy for people who don’t know him,” Mason said. “You look at him during the game and he looks like he’s miserable. For us that know Mark, Mark has a great sense of humor. He's a very warm, very charming guy and you can just see that little smile on his face that you never see during the game.”

Maybe he’ll smile when he becomes the winningest coach in Spartans history. That should happen soon. Beyond that? Dantonio is still chasing.

“I've been blessed to be here,” he said. “I've been humbled to be here, and there's been a lot of great players here and a lot of great moments here. That's really why we've sort of adopted chase the moments because we've had some great moments. We want those again. We want to chase those down and become part of that.

“Yeah, it's gone fast in some ways, and other ways it's sort of gone slow, much like life. It's been a great experience.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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