Henning: Mark Dantonio is a Michigan State legend, but it's time to move on

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

You could see, during those weary weeks in autumn, 1972, that a coaching deity in East Lansing was out of energy and out of time. And maybe it’s not coincidental to events in 2019 that Duffy Daugherty’s Michigan State football team was a root canal on offense in that fall of '72, even with 10 players on both sides of the ball who were about to be grabbed in the NFL draft.

The team’s record: a dank 5-5-1.

It was time to go.

Darryl Rogers’ closeout in 1979; Muddy Waters’ removal from football life-support in 1982; George Perles’ final days in 1994; Bobby Williams’ painful exit in 2002; John L. Smith’s farewell in 2006 — all but Nick Saban’s goodbye season in 1999 had about them a moribund air and a persistent feeling that the show was over.

It’s the same in 2019 with Mark Dantonio’s team. And, with his long and lofty years as Spartans coach.

Dantonio’s coaching tenure in East Lansing has at least spiritually ended, not because of weakness, or neglect, or any real failing except for the inevitability that comes for most coaches with age and tenure and expiration dates that arrive for their personal programs.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio disagrees with a call during a game against Penn State football last season at Spartan Stadium.

What he does not need, what MSU cannot allow, is for Dantonio’s departure to get messy.

And that almost assuredly is what is destined to happen if he stays on for another year.

Tough times ahead

He turns 64 in March. He has won more games than any Spartans football coach. He is headed for MSU’s Ring of Honor and for a kind of semi-immortality because of the quality of his stewardship, overall, during 13 seasons and his singular decency and virtue as a man.

You can’t separate either of those two facts. Dantonio put together one of the classic works in program architecture with what he accomplished in East Lansing from the day he was hired to head the Spartans in November 2006, through what yet figures to be a bowl-bound team in 2019.

He did it with vision, command, expertise, and a broad sense of football character that enveloped everything within, and around, Spartan Stadium.

But life is about to get harder for him. And a man as self-aware, as honest with himself as Dantonio, has to know it.

He loses most of his once-proud defense at the end of this season. He loses his starting quarterback, with no sure hotshot ready for the wheel. MSU’s record since meeting Alabama in the Cotton Bowl four years ago: 24-24.

MSU’s schedule will be rugged in 2020: Northwestern in the opener (make no assumptions), Toledo (ditto), at Brigham Young, Miami (Florida) at home, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Minnesota, Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland.

If you see a six-victory season and bowl-game ticket waiting to be punched, then by all means share this vision with MSU fans who might remember those previous coaches and teams and the way they foundered at the end and who likely have a different view.

If you factor in all of the above and don’t see a winning season in next autumn’s stars, then you know what probably is ahead in East Lansing for Dantonio and the Spartans in 2020.

Ugliness. Fan rebellion. And a deep, visceral cry that Dantonio should have departed at the end of 2019.

MSU can’t invite this. Dantonio can’t.

Keeping up with the competition

It will pain even his most fair-minded fans to say it, but at some point during these next three weeks he needs to sit down with his bosses and decide that it isn’t worth putting himself and the Spartans football galaxy through a 2020 crucible, not when bad times appear more inevitable than possible.

Where exactly anyone would find any serious, well-supported hope is today a mystery.

Michigan State’s personnel has been in slow, but discernible decline, for the past few years. Fans screaming that new offensive coaches are an answer have legitimacy, as far as coaches can make a difference.

But it would be more honest for fans to accept that assistant coaches and their roles don’t matter as much as game-changers on the field.

The Spartans are having a middling season, mostly because their recruits and depth have too often left them with holes and match-ups waiting to be bruised by better competition.

This year there has been heavy attrition, with too many crutches to go with too many transfers, and that hurts when Michigan State is today ranked No. 43 in national recruiting for 2020, according to the 247Sports composite. Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota, Nebraska, as well as the usual big boys — all sit higher if not way higher.

Recruiting rankings aren’t everything, but most of State’s fans liked them when they were showing, validly, that Dantonio and MSU were drawing to East Lansing a steadier, better-caliber flow of talent.

The Spartans in 2019 haven’t had the thoroughbreds to overpower, really, anyone. They have a gruesome time matching up with the Big Ten’s high-octane teams. And they’re no cinch to beat the middle class, as a team from Illinois confirmed.

This all seems complicated, as well as uncomfortable, the idea of Dantonio moving on. So much past achievement. So much about him, personally, to like and respect.

But another season threatens to make everything more complex and more miserable.

There is little rationale for improvement. And minus improvement — worse, minus any real hope — prospects for Dantonio and MSU’s well-being are chilling.

Already, as this season sputters to an end, too many fans are ready to cancel their coach, not to mention their season tickets. Talks with close friends and longtime customers confirm as much. History, as well as experience for those who have tracked football in East Lansing for many years, speak to what is brewing.

And to what could be real trouble in 2020 unless MSU pulls a surprise that today would seem more like fantasy.

Mark Dantonio has won more games at Michigan State than any other head football coach.

Focus on future

Dantonio has a $4.3 million bonus coming his way in January as proper thanks for him sticking in East Lansing. The bonus was offered in February 2016. It then was warranted.

It can and should be handed to him by sundown the day after MSU wraps ups its regular-season calendar against Maryland. There is nothing magic about a January date. See that a check is ready at the end of the season and present it, minus reservation.

Dantonio and his bosses can come to a sensible agreement on all of this. They can see also that his assistants get some kind of cushion. This will help when the coach will view loyalty to his staff as a possible barrier to him saying enough is enough.

But that anxiety can be lessened to a reasonable degree by Dantonio and by MSU’s execs. Don’t let sentiment be a deal-breaker. Opt for good judgment.

And in picking that new man, whenever MSU begins hunting for Dantonio’s follow-up act, make sure it’s done by Dec. 10, which is plenty doable. The first job requirement is easy: Knowing MSU’s recruiting turf — that 300-mile East Lansing radius is sacred — should be the search committee’s north star.

Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. It’s how Tom Izzo turned around basketball at Michigan State. It will be the fastest, surest path forward for the Spartans’ next coach, with Luke Fickell at Cincinnati one, compelling name to consider.

Michigan State has gone to Cincinnati before, of course, when it hired a guy named Dantonio, just as Notre Dame did in grabbing Brian Kelly. Neither school has had buyer’s remorse.

Other people always are mentioned, beginning with Pat Narduzzi at Pitt. But Narduzzi is 54 and MSU should steer clear of coaches who in the flicker of a decade will be staring at retirement. Better to check on whatever buy-out arrangement exists on Matt Campbell at Iowa State and consider Campbell, who has the same upside as Fickell at Cincinnati.

Better, too, checking out Alex Grinch, another Ohio guy who now works as Lincoln Riley’s defensive coordinator at Oklahoma.

It all comes back to what Michigan State and Dantonio most need to steer them through these final weeks: focus on the future. Reflect on what can happen, what almost surely will happen in 2020, if a coaching change isn’t made.

Pretending that any of the above is short-term, that things will soon turn upward, and that the boos heard too often anymore at Spartan Stadium will abate, is not sound thought in 2019.

Coaches rarely leave on top, or of their own happy volition. Even those who have had the best of times at a particular job understand football realities and what can change.

What’s essential is that Dantonio be honored for what he has accomplished, exclusively, in East Lansing. That recognition will continue to flow for generations, proof of which rests in two names: Munn and Daugherty.

It simply will help everyone’s spirits, and Dantonio’s legacy, if he knows when to call it a career.

It’s time.

Freelance writer Lynn Henning is a former Detroit News sports reporter. He has covered Michigan State athletics since 1972, and has authored two books on MSU football, Spartan Seasons and Spartan Seasons II.