Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio says he lives in the present as he prepares for this week's game at Michigan. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — More and more, it appears to be over, although with Mark Dantonio, you can’t ever be sure. He once famously declared the Michigan-Michigan State combativeness “isn’t over, it’ll never be over,” and the words had bite and bitterness at the height of his reign.
Dantonio won’t say it, but in his demeanor and in his record, he seems to know it’s ending. There are signs in the silence. The Spartans are 4-5 after one of the worst losses in Dantonio’s 13 seasons, a 37-34 collapse against Illinois, and the Wolverines (7-2) are up next, as two-touchdown favorites.
It’s not disrespectful to suggest it’s time for Dantonio to retire, or for Michigan State to move on. It’s realistic, a function of time and changing times (and changing offenses). It doesn’t have to be acrimonious, but something has to happen.
Since reaching the college football playoff in 2015, in the midst of an incredible 36-5 run and two Big Ten championships, the Spartans are 24-24. They’ve lost four straight. They’ve lost players to the transfer portal and their recruiting class ranks in the lower half of the Big Ten. I doubt anybody at Michigan State — from the new president to the place-holding athletic director — has the strength to fire Dantonio, but it shouldn’t be necessary.
Why would Dantonio, 63, want to push on and further risk scarring his legacy? The Spartans lose their senior quarterback, Brian Lewerke, and the bulk of their defense. Their depth has been ravaged by injury. There’s a chance their record will be worse next season, and no indication Dantonio has a burning desire to rebuild.
Could the Spartans rise up as they often do against their rival and win for the ninth time in the past 12 meetings? I suppose they could. People long ago stopped underestimating them, and nothing defines Dantonio like this game. He took control of the state years ago and then fatefully reached for more. He has another chance Saturday in Ann Arbor to make a resounding statement, although a belated one. It feels like a last chance.
He had a chance after last season’s 7-6 mark and stubbornly declined, sticking with his entire offensive staff, while shifting duties. The offense isn’t much better, and the once-staunch defense has been rocked.
‘Raise your right hand’
Beyond all that, Dantonio still must give a deposition after the season in a lawsuit filed by former staff member Curtis Blackwell, who accused him of wrongful termination. That happened after a spate of ugly off-field issues, lowlighted by the case of Auston Robertson, a controversial recruit who subsequently was convicted of sexual assault.
Who knows what nastiness may yet arise from the lawsuit? But in many ways — recruiting, perception, fan support — the damage already is done. For all his notable strengths, Dantonio doesn’t often answer for his weaknesses, and in some cases, they’re the same.
Loyalty. Conviction. Faith. He sticks with people — assistants, players — through good and bad, and the bad has outweighed the good for several years. I asked Dantonio Tuesday if a rocky stretch like this makes him contemplate his future.
“No, I get ready for the next game,” he said. “I live in the present.”
It’s his standard response, and if the goal is to avoid the noise, it’s an adequate response. But it does nothing to quell concerns about the future of the program.
When Dantonio shuffled his staff, the offensive assistants had their contacts reduced from two-year rollovers to one year. That gave Dantonio flexibility, but also gave the school flexibility in case it wanted a regime change.
And money could be a factor, with all the lawsuits that have hit the school. Dantonio is due a $4.3 million bonus if he’s still Michigan State’s head coach on Jan. 15, so any decision likely would be made before then. Would it be Dantonio’s decision, one way or another? I think so, unless other damning details emerge. AD Bill Beekman said he hasn’t even considered firing Dantonio.
Again, what does Dantonio have to gain by staying? The leadership vacuum at Michigan State has been disastrous, and perhaps he’d like to be the athletic director for his final act. I’m not sure that’d suit him, and I doubt he’d be allowed to name his successor — defensive coordinator Mike Tressel? If he stayed as head coach, he’d have to commit to a rebuild because a one-year reprieve accomplishes nothing.
There’s no sure-fire, affordable replacement available, although Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, former Michigan State defensive coordinator, would be a possibility. It’s important to say, this doesn’t have to be a bitter ending. Images can be overblown, but Dantonio looks and sounds weary of it all. He suffered a mild heart attack in 2010 but hasn’t had a known issue since.
Classy but sassy
To his credit, he doesn’t rail against the mounting criticism, other than the occasional snippy response after a tough loss. He was pleasant and measured Tuesday, and actually magnanimous talking about Michigan. He called Jim Harbaugh a “Hall of Fame coach,” one day after Harbaugh praised Dantonio for being a “master motivator.” Neither coach was interested in revisiting the pregame dustup last year, when Michigan linebacker Devin Bush Jr. dug up the Spartan Stadium turf in response to the Spartans’ arm-linked march through warmups.
Asked what he would tell people about the direction of the program, Dantonio offered no passionate defense.
“What people need to understand is, I have as much information as I can to do the job that I’m doing,” Dantonio said. “And I’m going to try and do it with our players in mind, and we’re going to work hard and we’re going to always stay positive and rise above it.”
Michigan State's Brian Lewerke, Antjuan Simmons, Cody White and Raequan Williams talk about this week's rivalry game with Michigan. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Fair enough, for now. If there’s any fiery response left in the Spartans, this is the week we’ll see it. Their comments were mostly muted Tuesday, although linebacker Antjuan Simmons did offer a confident retort when asked about being a big underdog: “I wouldn’t bet a single dime against us, no matter what.”
All those years of success, all those beatings of Michigan — six wins in seven meetings before Harbaugh arrived — built up massive equity. Dantonio is the program’s all-time winningest coach, but the equity is dwindling.
He’s 2-2 against Harbaugh and the Spartans are 15-18 in the Big Ten the past three-plus seasons. While their recent schedule against top-10 teams Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State was brutal, the 27.6-point average margin of defeat was troubling.
There’s no doubt the program is in better shape than when Dantonio arrived, replacing John L. Smith. It’s in better shape because he unlocked untold and untapped potential, and built something few thought was possible. It isn’t over yet, at least not in the rivalry. But it seems just about over for Dantonio, down to his last good fight.