East Lansing – Early February is hardly the ideal time to be looking for a new football coach, not to mention as National Signing Day is less than 24 hours away.
However, that’s the position Michigan State is in after Mark Dantonio announced on Tuesday that he is stepping down after 13 seasons leading the Spartans.
The timing makes it difficult for the administration to find a replacement, but here are some of the names that almost certainly would be on the short list.
Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach
The former Ohio State defensive coordinator, who served as interim coach of the Buckeyes in 2011 after Jim Tressel was forced to step down, has done a remarkable job turning around the Bearcats. He was 4-8 in his first season at the helm in 2017 but saw a seven-game improvement in 2018 as the Bearcats with 11-2 overall and 6-2 to finish third in the East Division of the American Athletic Conference. Last season, Fickell, 46, again led Cincinnati to 11 wins and a first-place finish in the East for the first time in program history.
Fickell, like Dantonio, comes from the Jim Tressel coaching tree, and his name has already been bouncing around as a possible replacement for Dantonio. He’s recruiting at a fairly high level at Cincinnati — the Bearcats have the No. 1-rated class in the American Athletic Conference, according to 247Sports, and on Tuesday night, landed a commitment from four-star receiver Jadon Thompson — a possible indicator Fickell isn't going anywhere.
A chance to land a Power Five job might be enough to sway Fickell to leave Cincinnati. He has three years remaining on his contract and is set to make $2.4 million each year. If Fickell leaves UC before the end of this year, he will have to pay a $2 million buyout.
Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh head coach
Most Spartans fans know all about Narduzzi, who along with Dantonio helped create and lead some of the best defenses in the nation. Narduzzi was Dantonio’s top assistant and one of the staff’s best recruiters as Michigan State became a national power, first winning the Rose Bowl in 2013 in a three-year stretch that included a 36-5 record with two conference titles.
It was after the 2014 season that Narduzzi left to take the Pittsburgh job and he’s compiled a 36-29 mark in five seasons, reaching the ACC Championship game in 2018. The Panthers have won at least eight games three times under Narduzzi and he has that program on solid footing, but the chance to return to MSU might be intriguing enough for Narduzzi to make the move.
Mike Tressel, Michigan State defensive coordinator
The longtime Dantonio assistant was linebackers coach for Narduzzi as the Spartans created one of the best defenses in the country, and he joined former assistant Harlon Barnett in a co-coordinator role after Narduzzi left with little drop-off.
That performance continued in 2018 after Barnett left for Florida State but the defense dropped off in 2019. Still, Tressel’s track record has been impressive and if there is a coach on the current staff with a shot at taking over, it would have to be Tressel, the nephew of Jim Tressel.
Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan head coach
Creighton, who will turn 51 on Friday, took over at EMU in 2014. Long considered one of the toughest coaching jobs in Division I football, considering the Eagles are in the backyard of Michigan and Michigan State, Creighton has had some success. He led EMU to a 7-5 regular-season record in 2016, the program’s first winning season in two decades, and Eastern has played in a bowl game in three of the last four years.
Jim McElwain, Central Michigan head coach
McElwain spent the last season as Central Michigan’s coach after a year as receivers coach on Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan staff. McElwain, 57, took over a program that went 1-11 in 2018 and turned things around with an 8-4 regular season before losing in the MAC title game and bowl game. He has head coaching experience at Colorado State and Florida, and he was a Michigan State assistant from 2003-05.
Robert Saleh, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator
Dearborn native Saleh, 41, is the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers and coached in last Sunday’s Super Bowl. Saleh as been coaching in the NFL since 2005, but was a Michigan State defensive assistant 2002-03, his first coaching job after graduating from Northern Michigan, where he played.
Dave Clawson, Wake Forest head coach
Clawson, 52, doesn’t have deep Midwest ties but was Bowling Green’s head coach 2009-13 and went 10-3 his last season. Clawson left for Wake Forest and after two 3-9 seasons has had four straight winning records.
Pat Shurmur, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator
Shurmur, 54, is a Dearborn native and Michigan State alum. He has spent the bulk of his career in the NFL — he has been a head coach in Cleveland and with the Giants, and was interim head coach for the Eagles. Shurmur began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Michigan State (1988-89) and was an MSU assistant from 1990-97, then spent one season at Stanford before heading to the NFL.