Former Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio's first season away was 'eerie'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Mark Dantonio saw it all on Friday night.

Well, most of it, anyway.

Former Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio was part of the search committee that hired Alan Haller as new athletic director.

The former Michigan State football coach was looking forward to the Spartans’ season opener as much as any fan, but he was at a wedding on Friday night and found himself scrambling to get to a TV in time for kickoff around 9:15 p.m.

So when Kenneth Walker III dashed 75 yards on the first play from scrimmage to give Michigan State a 7-0 lead on its way to a 38-21 victory over Northwestern, there’s a chance Dantonio missed it live. Not to worry, though.

“I turned it around real quick,” he said with a smile.

Dantonio was on hand Tuesday as Alan Haller was introduced as Michigan State’s 20th athletic director, something he was involved directly in as a member of the search committee put together by MSU President Samuel Stanley.

“I was honored to be a part of it,” Dantonio said, “and I was thankful President Stanley asked me.”

Not surprisingly, Dantonio fully endorsed the hiring of Haller, the former Michigan State football player and longtime member of the athletic department.

“History is the best indicator, and the best teacher I think when you go through some difficulties,” Dantonio said. “I think he's been through some very unique situations that prepared him for his position. And I go back to what's in a person's heart and their integrity and their emotions and their opportunities and the enthusiasm that they carry with them.

“I think our players will rally around him. I think our student-athletes — men and women — will rally around their leader, and I think that's very unique.”

Of course, football is never far from Dantonio’s mind. The winningest coach in program history who won three Big Ten championships in 13 seasons and took Michigan State to the College Football Playoff in 2015, stepped down after the 2019 season but has remained in East Lansing and has worked for the university.

He admitted last season was different, for him and everyone.

“Eerie,” Dantonio described it. “Not only my first year away from football, but just the way it all went down was very eerie.”

None of it has stopped him from remaining around the program, periodically stopping in to chat with coach Mel Tucker and see a practice when he’s not going around visiting former colleagues like Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi.

And from his view, Tucker has the program on the right track.

“I think Mel is an outstanding teacher and football coach,” Dantonio said. “He’s innovative, motivated to go out and breed success here. It all comes down to football is such a game of execution. How you execute defines what happens really, and how the players execute on the field at game time is all the difference in the world.

“Everybody's got players and I can tell you this, it's extremely hard to win. So we’re 1-0, looking for (win) No. 2 coming up, but it's hard to win and I think he's done a tremendous job.”

The next one happens to be against Youngstown State, a place Dantonio worked. One of his mentors, Jim Tressel, also happens to be the president of the university. Dantonio said they’d be connecting this week, for sure.

Until then, though, Dantonio would continue to enjoy his post-coaching days.

“Retirement is good,” he said. “Everybody should try it, at least once.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau