East Lansing — When you ask Mark Dantonio what the keys have been to Michigan State’s success over the past nine seasons, he’s quick to point out the continuity in his coaching staff.
When he left Cincinnati to take over the Spartans for the 2007 season, nearly his entire staff came, as well. Since then, the turnover has been minimal with three coaches — Don Treadwell, Dan Enos and Pat Narduzzi — leaving to be head coaches at the college level and Dan Roushar leaving to become an assistant in the NFL.
It’s all part of maintaining consistency in the program, and it’s something Dantonio practices with new coaches, as well. That’s why, when there is an opening on his staff, Dantonio likes to look toward former players who have entered the profession.
“We’ve tried to give our guys opportunities,” Dantonio said. “(Our former players) understand our culture, they understand what it takes to be successful here, they understand who we are as people and they help bridge the gap between the youth of our football team and, I guess, the maturity or age of our staff in general. They’ve done an outstanding job for us.”
This season is no different at Michigan State. Former Michigan State linebacker Steve Gardiner is in his third season as a graduate assistant and he is joined by former Spartan fullback Andrew Hawken, who is in his second season as a GA. Helping the secondary is De’Angelo Smith, a former defensive back for Dantonio at Cincinnati.
Add in former Spartans Javon Ringer and Jairus Jones who are interning in the recruiting department, and the pipeline is moving along quite well.
“I love giving former players an opportunity to coach with us and we’ve got quite a few of them,” Dantonio said. “Andrew Hawken, Steve Gardiner. Jairus Jones is back as a recruiting intern and has been working as a student assistant.
“Javon Ringer got his degree last year and now he’s a recruiting intern for us. He’s a guy who’s an All-American and played in the NFL. He still may be the fastest guy we’ve got. I see him out there working and he’s a machine.”
The path for each of the graduate assistants has been different, but one thing has been consistent for each — their former coach wanted them to be certain they knew what life would be like as a coach.
Long hours in the office, days on the road recruiting and keeping tabs of more than 100 college kids on a year-round basis are all stressful at times, not to mention the pressure of winning at the Division I level. It’s not for everybody, and that’s why Dantonio makes his guys understand the sacrifices they’ll have to make.
“Around 2013 I was playing in Canada and then I hit Coach D up and was like, ‘Hey man, I’m thinking about getting into coaching,” said Smith, in his third year with the program. “He was like, ‘Are you sure?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Are you sure you’re done playing?’ He asked me like three or four times.”
Gardiner and Hawken had the same exchange with Dantonio when they expressed an interest in coaching. For Gardiner, the urge to coach was something he realized early, mentioning the idea to his coaches while he was still playing for the Spartans.
“Toward the end of my senior year I kinda let everybody on staff here know that coaching is what I want to get into,” said Gardiner, who played in 44 games from 2009-12. “It was just letting guys know, throwing feelers out so they can help get a foot in the door.
“What coach D did was make me think about, is this something that I want to do? He was just telling me about the sacrifices I’d have to make and that type of thing. I was sure that’s what I wanted to do so he and the rest of the staff started throwing out feelers.”
That led to a GA position at Grand Valley State thanks to a connection with MSU linebackers coach Mike Tressel. A year later, a spot opened with the Spartans and Gardiner was back in East Lansing.
That return gave Gardiner his first real lesson of coaching.
“I was friends with a lot of guys on the team,” Gardiner said. “(Dantonio) laid it down straight and told me this is what I can’t do and what I can do. He got me on track and it was him that really changed my mindset.
“There was some stuff I had to sacrifice with some of the friendships I had here on the team, but it was Coach D that really got me focused and ready to take another step in my coaching career.”
While Smith played professionally before coaching and Gardiner went right into the profession, Hawken spent two years working a logistics job in Grand Rapids after he was done playing in 2009.
It didn’t take him long to realize that’s not what he wanted to do. He reached out to Dantonio and soon had a graduate assistant spot at Division III Wartburg College in Iowa, thanks again to a connection from Tressel. Before last season, a spot came open at Michigan State and now Hawken has truly growing as a coach.
“Coach D is always trying to get us involved,” Hawken said. “He’ll mention stuff in a staff meeting or when he’s talking to the players and he’ll look over at the GAs and ask our opinion on something because we were there. He’ll say, ‘You’ve been there, what do you think?’ It’s been really good.”