'I don't think I'm finished': Michigan State's Mark Dantonio plans to be back next season
East Lansing — For a man who often talks about living in the present, Mark Dantonio made a clear statement about his future.
The Michigan State head coach, feeling the heat as his program continues to head in the wrong direction, stated plainly on Tuesday he intends to be back on the sidelines in 2020.
“Yes,” Dantonio said when asked if he’d be the coach for next season’s opener. “I can't predict the future. If I could, I guess we'd be 10-0 right now. I can't predict the future. My intentions are to be the head football coach here.
“I've always said I live in the present. I've always said that. There's certain things that you have control of, there's certain things you don’t have control of. My intentions are there, yeah, absolutely. My father always talked to me complete the circle, complete the circle. That's what I'm trying to do.”
As for the assistant coaches, Dantonio said decisions on the staff would come after overall evaluations when the season ended. Last offseason, Dantonio made the unusual decision to keep his entire staff, opting only to change responsibilities. Also, his offensive assistants were put on one-year contracts while the defensive assistants remained on two-year deals.
Dantonio, the winningest coach in program history has been at the center of fan frustration for the better part of the last two seasons. Michigan State followed up a 10-win season in 2017 with a 7-6 mark last year and now sit at 4-6 now while in the midst of a five-game skid that included blowout losses to the Big Ten’s other top teams, including Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan.
Last week’s 34-point loss to the Wolverines — the worst by a Dantonio team to Michigan — seemed to be the low point. However, it doesn’t seem to have deterred the 63-year-old coach now in his 13th season leading the Spartans. Instead, he remains focused on completing that circle.
“It means when you start something, you want to finish it,” Dantonio said. “That's what it means to me and my family. That's sort of the direction that we've always tried to go. That means it's not quitting in the middle of something when you don't think something is finished. I don't think I'm finished.”
If Dantonio was thinking of calling it quits, the ending would cloud what has been a remarkable run.
Coming from Cincinnati, Dantonio took over a program in 2007 that had endured three straight losing seasons and overall mediocrity since its last Big Ten championship in 1990. Things shifted quickly, though, as Dantonio led Michigan State to a share of the conference title in 2010, sparking a run of success not seen in East Lansing in decades.
The Spartans reached the inaugural Big Ten title game in 2011, won the conference championship and the Rose Bowl in 2013 and added another conference title and spot in the College Football Playoff in 2015.
However, things went south quickly from there as Michigan State was 3-9 in 2016 and following the season had its share of off-field issues, including the dismissal of four players involved in two separate sexual assault cases. There was the rebound to 10 wins in 2017, but throughout the course of the last four seasons, the Spartans have failed to produce consistently on offense while remaining competitive on defense. That defense, though, has fallen off this season.
On-field performance as well as the coaching shuffle Dantonio made on the offensive side of the ball hasn’t paid off, leading to the questions about Dantonio’s future as he’s set to draw a $4.3 million bonus in January. Dantonio’s current contract, which was signed in January of 2016 and pays a base salary of $2,321,092, is a rolling six-year contract. It is automatically extended on Jan. 15 of each year unless the university provides written notice before Jan. 15. If such a notice is provided, the term of the agreement expires at the end of the then-current term.
How much it has all weighed on Dantonio is hard to determine, considering he often repeats his belief of living in the moment. But a visit from a former Spartan on Monday appeared to at least start to clear things up for Dantonio.
That’s when Arthur Ray dropped in for an unannounced visit.
“I had not seen Arthur probably in years,” Dantonio said.
Ray has quite a story. Part of Dantonio’s first recruiting class, the native of Chicago was diagnosed with cancer in his right tibia not long after he committed to Michigan State. Instead of bail out, Dantonio welcomed Ray in 2008 as the offensive lineman battled his way through nine surgeries on his leg before joining the Spartans in spring practice in 2011.
The next fall, in the season opener against Youngstown State, Ray started at left guard and saw action in two more games. Ray received a medical disqualification in 2012 and earned his degree before transferring to Division II Fort Lewis College. He played two seasons and even went to training camp with the Miami Dolphins in 2015 and is now a high school coach.
“He sort of stopped by unannounced, really just to check on me a little bit,” Dantonio said.
Ray addressed the team, telling them about his journey, a moment Dantonio thought was important for his players, but equally as important to him.
“Where there's a struggle, you look around, you see other people, what they've got, what they don't have, you sort of find your way a little bit clearer,” Dantonio said. “You understand that this is a job, this is a game, this is athletics. This should not be life and death. There are people out there that have overcome major, major obstacles.
“I took a step back and looked at that. It made life a little clearer yesterday.”
Clear enough, it appears, that Dantonio knows what’s next.
As he headed home on Monday night, Dantonio questioned in his mind the 80-hour work weeks and 15-hour days. As he got ready to crawl in bed, likely still thinking about Ray’s message, he grabbed a shirt to wear for the night.
“I took something off the shelf, put it on, looked at it,” Dantonio recalled. “I said, ‘There's a Rose Bowl insignia on this thing.’ Sort of sent the message home to me there's been a lot of success here, a tremendous amount of success here. That can happen again, and that can happen under my watch. That's what I felt.”
And off to sleep he went, confident, it appears, he’ll continue putting in the long days as Michigan State’s football coach.