Detroit — The weight grew heavier, with each loss and each controversy, until Mark Dantonio buckled. Finally, with his voice cracking but his words strong, he acknowledged what had been apparent for a while.
It was time to go, probably a bit past time to go. Dantonio always said he wanted to complete his circle, and he just did. He took a wobbly Michigan State program in desperate need of a leader, built it into a powerhouse, and now abruptly leaves it in a similar spot.
Are the Spartans in a better place than Dantonio found them 13 years ago?
“I think that’s pretty safe to say,” he said Tuesday, his tone never rising above somber.
Yes, it’s pretty safe to say. He’s the winningest coach in program history, Rose Bowl champ, Big Ten champ, Wolverine Vanquisher, the man who had a bold vision and made so many believe. Unfortunately, it’s not as safe to say as we once thought it would be.
Dantonio’s sudden retirement alters a legacy that seemed untouchable, and now seems complicated. Whether or not it’s deeply smudged will be based on where the Spartans go from here. Athletic Director Bill Beekman announced a coaching search could be conducted quickly. Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell is an obvious candidate, but timing could be problematic for him or anyone else with a college job.
For Dantonio, the optics are bad, departing more than a month after the season ended, when pretty much every program in the country have set their staffs. He had said he was returning, but as he continued to recruit, he reassessed his timetable. He retired 24 hours before signing day and less than three weeks after the date he was due a $4.3 million bonus. He broke the news to his staff and his team Tuesday in an emotional meeting. Later, at halftime of the Spartans’ basketball game against Penn State, he spoke briefly and received a loud ovation from the crowd.
MSU football coach Mark Dantonio during his press conference on retiring The Detroit News
Dantonio cited family reasons and general weariness, and certainly the past four years — 27-24 record, off-field issues — have been disappointing. He’d been considering it for a while, talked it over with Beekman, and finally penned his statement about a week ago while sitting on a plane.
“The things that come across your desk, the overwhelming responsibility for people day in and day out, sometimes feels like an avalanche, a big wave, and you’re always surfing that wave,” Dantonio said. “There’s so many things you can’t control. I just found myself never having an opportunity to come up for air.”
It was a swirl of smoke he couldn’t escape, and while his departure has loomed for a while, the timing is either curious or calculated. Or just confounding. For all the exceptional things Dantonio accomplished, including a 36-5 run from 2013-15 and an 8-5 record against Michigan, this was an inglorious way to go. Speaking emotionally to the media in the Breslin Center, he declined to answer questions about former recruit Auston Robertson, serving jail time for sexual assault, or the wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by former employee Curtis Blackwell.
New details from Blackwell’s deposition alleging two NCAA violations emerged just hours before Dantonio announced his plans, although Michigan State strongly disputed the charges. Dantonio said the Blackwell case had “zero” to do with his retirement.
“We’re not talking about this here,” he said tersely. “This is a celebration.”
That would be nice, although it certainly didn’t feel like it. It can’t be placed in the proper context until we see what else unfolds, and whether Michigan State can recover quickly. Dantonio didn’t indicate there was a succession plan, but his voice rose defiantly when he said the job was so attractive, “People will run here, they’ll crawl here.”
These situations almost never end the way anyone envisions, but it appears mostly amicable, even if it stunned the administration. Dantonio said he’d remain in the athletic department working on special projects and helping with the transition. Beekman and school President Samuel Stanley praised Dantonio in their statements. For now, defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, a Dantonio confidant, is the interim.
Beekman said he wasn’t overly concerned about the timing, and talked with an easygoing assurance.
“Although Mark is one of those people I wish we could find a way to clone or keep here forever, transitions are natural things in life,” Beekman said. “We’ve been planning for the various options for some time, and have processes in place by which we’ll expeditiously find a successor.”
Best-case scenario for Michigan State: Contingencies have been quietly assembled and the program will be passed to a quality coach such as Fickell. He has long been considered a prime candidate, with many of the same ties Dantonio brought 13 years ago. Fickell is a Jim Tressel protégé who built a winning program at Cincinnati, where Dantonio coached before heading to East Lansing. Circles completed, indeed.
Worst-case scenario: Dantonio lost leverage because of nasty accusations in the Blackwell lawsuit, and felt he had no choice but to retire. If Michigan State doesn’t have a plan at such a late date for a coaching change, it might not be easy to land the guy it wants. On top of that, the Spartans have a decimated roster without a clear-cut starting quarterback. Besides Fickell, other possibilities are Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi and former Giants coach Pat Shurmur, both with MSU ties.
No one begrudges anyone the right to step away to spend time with family. From a record standpoint, many would say it was time for a change. Dantonio, 63, and his program lost its footing, reflected in the record and the recruiting. This year’s class ranks 10th in the Big Ten, 36th overall.
Then there was the fallout from troubled recruits and the Blackwell lawsuit and the waves continued. It’s a puzzle that Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis and former school president Lou Anna K. Simon didn’t settle the lawsuit before the depositions began. Once the accusations entered the public realm, truthful or not, the damage was done.
And now the greatest football coach in school history, the man so relentlessly competitive and committed he turned the Big Ten upside down and inside out, is headed out the door. Dantonio built something special at Michigan State, did things no one thought was possible. He left the place better than he found out, although to what degree remains to be seen.