'It just becomes complicated': Mark Dantonio retires as Michigan State football coach
East Lansing — In the end, Mark Dantonio did the math and it didn’t add up.
To be fully committed to getting Michigan State back to the top of the Big Ten, the time it was going to likely take was more than he knew he had to give.
“I tried to think about the things that I was trying to accomplish,” Dantonio said Tuesday night, “and I was thinking about the things that I was going to have to take steps towards. It just becomes complicated, and at this point in time I want to uncomplicate my life, to be quite honest with you.”
And with that, the winningest coach in Michigan State football history confirmed his desire to step down after 13 seasons, shocking those close to the program and leaving a large hole on the eve of national signing day.
“This was a decision that have been weighing on me,” Dantonio admitted as he spoke to a packed press room prior to Michigan State’s basketball game against Penn State.
“There was a big part of me, a large part of me that was 50-50. What to do, how to do it? And in the end, if you're 50-50 on something, you need to be over here, because this job demands 100 percent. It just does and I think everybody out there who's coaching would agree to that. So if you're 50-50 on, ‘Hey, should I, should I not?’ That 50-50 starts to wear on you, and it starts to become a little bit more of a reality.”
The reality is plenty of wins — a program-best 114 — as well as three Big Ten championships and an appearance in the College Football Playoff in 2015. It all was part of turning a program stuck in the mud into a perennial contender in one of the toughest divisions in college football.
However, the program has experienced a downturn in the past few seasons as the Spartans compiled a 27-24 record while dealing with a handful of off-field issues.
The most recent surfaced Tuesday, as lawyers for former Michigan State football staffer Curtis Blackwell alleged Dantonio committed multiple NCAA violations. Dantonio's defense is calling the case a "sham," according to court documents filed in federal court in Grand Rapids.
Dantonio was asked Tuesday of the pending lawsuit had anything to do with his decision to step down.
“Zero,” he said. “No relevance whatsoever.”
The news came as a surprise to many higher-ups at the university. Trustee Joel Ferguson, the board member most tied to athletics, said he was given no notice of Dantonio's social-media post. Ferguson said he was at a practice last year and expressed support to Dantonio, who told Ferguson he had no plans to leave.
Dantonio said he would remain in the athletic department. What role that would be is still being determined, athletic director Bill Beekman said.
On Jan. 16, Dantonio earned a $4.3 million retention bonus, "in recognition of his long-service to the University.” Beekman confirmed Tuesday night that portion of Dantonio’s contract will be fulfilled.
Dantonio first made the announcement in a post on social media. In a statement from the university, it was announced that assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Mike Tressel would serve as acting head coach while the search begins for Dantonio's permanent replacement.
Late in the 2019 season, Dantonio was asked if he intended to be back in 2020 and he said it was his intention to be the coach for the season opener against Northwestern. He had also said he would evaluate each of his assistant coaches in the offseason.
Dantonio said as recently as Jan. 17 that he planned to make some staff changes and gave no indication that he was considering retirement.
Instead of a shuffling of the staff, Michigan State now begins a search for Dantonio’s replacement after he compiled a 114-57 record with the Spartans.
“We are all very grateful for Mark’s contributions to MSU, and not just on the football field,” MSU president Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said. “I’ve continued to be impressed by Mark’s leadership and dedication to his players. His commitment to sportsmanship and academics is second to none. He’ll be remembered for these traits in addition to being our winningest coach for Spartan Football. I know the entire Spartan nation joins me in wishing Mark the best in retirement, and I look forward to having him still engaged with the university moving forward.”
Dantonio's 114 victories rank 11th among Big Ten coaches and he's also 11th with 69 conference victories. The win over Wake Forest in the 2019 Pinstripe Bowl was Dantonio's sixth bowl win, tying him for fourth most in Big Ten history.
Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer called Mark Dantonio “one of the best tacticians in the game of football that I ever coached against.”
Meyer told the Columbus Dispatch: “Arguably the greatest era of Michigan State football — the modern era — is Mark Dantonio’s.”
A two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year (2010, 2013), Dantonio led Michigan State to Top 25 finishes seven times, the most in program history. Michigan State was the only school to finish in the top-six of the national polls from 2013-15 (No. 3 in 2013, No. 5 in 2014, No. 6 in 2015) and the 36 wins from 2013-15 marked the winningest three-year stretch in the history of the program.
“He’s one of my favorite guys,” Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo said. “We’ve talked in the last week or so. I didn’t know what he was going to do until the very end, but it’s a sad day for me, if you want the truth. Happy, it’s supposed to be a celebration, all the things he’s done here, but him and I have been through some wars. We’ve both been to a Final Four in the same year, some really cool things.
“People are going to see all of his accomplishments have been incredible, but I think he felt for himself, for his family and where he’s at right now, it was the best thing for him. I give him credit for having the courage to do it.”
Michigan State played in a school-record nine consecutive bowl games from 2007-15 (2007 Champs Sports Bowl, 2009 Capital One Bowl, 2010 Alamo Bowl, 2011 Capital One Bowl, 2012 Outback Bowl, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 2014 Rose Bowl, 2015 Cotton Bowl, 2015 College Football Playoff Semifinal at Cotton Bowl). Dantonio finished 6-6 in bowl games at Michigan State, including a school-record four-game winning streak (2012 Outback, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings, 2014 Rose, 2015 Cotton).
“I will miss our coaches,” Dantonio said. “I will miss our players. I was very emotional today, but at the same time, I care very, very much about this football program.”
Tony Paul contributed to this report.