Mark Dantonio said his intent is to return as Michigan State’s football coach. His plan, in his words, is “to complete the circle.”
He said what he had to say, and it was important to hear. Not as important as what he has to do.
Does the winningest coach in program history, an imposing figure with three Big Ten titles, a playoff berth and an overall record of 111-57 in 13 seasons, deserve a chance to rebuild? Sure. As long as he’s willing to do what it takes, and that’s a daunting task.
Dantonio has to rally fans and donors frustrated by a five-game losing streak, including a 44-10 loss to Michigan. He has to put his team back together, both in recruiting and talent development. He has to find a quarterback. He has to figure out what to do with a woefully under-performing offensive staff, whose contracts are all expiring. He has to do it in an environment where division rivals Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan are much stronger than earlier in his tenure.
And he has to do it inside a leadership vacuum at Michigan State, where the new president, Samuel Stanley, and the athletic director, Bill Beekman, have no experience running a major college football program. The Board of Trustees has no history of working cohesively or proactively. That actually could work in Dantonio’s favor, as there’s no indication the fledgling administration is contemplating a move. In fact, Beekman has said it’s “not even a discussion.”
So if Dantonio, 63, deeply wants to return after another poor season — 4-6 heading to Rutgers on Saturday — amid a four-year run of 24-24, it’s unlikely anyone would fire him. But you can reasonably ask, why would he want to stay and potentially endure more pain?
Pride could be a factor. No one wants to end a legendary career like this.
Money could be a factor. Dantonio is owed $4.3 million on Jan. 15 if he’s still the coach, and also draws an annual salary of $4.3 million.
It’s hard to know how badly he truly wants to stay when you examine the extenuating circumstances. He had said virtually nothing about his status before calmly and eloquently conveying his thoughts Tuesday. When asked directly if he plans to be the coach when the Spartans open the 2020 season against Northwestern, he said, “Yes, yes.”
When asked if anything could change between now and next season, he chose his words carefully.
“Well, I can’t predict the future,” Dantonio said. “My intentions are to be the head football coach here. I've always said I live in the present. There's certain things that you have control of, there's certain things you don't have control of. But my intentions are there, yeah, absolutely. My father always talked to me, complete the circle. That's what I'm trying to do.”
The size of that circle is known only by Dantonio. One unpleasant circle is complete — from a rebuild, to a major power during a 36-5 run, back to a rebuild. It’s understandable Dantonio wouldn’t want to walk away with the program in its current state, but fixing it could take several years. Is he willing to commit to that, or simply desirous of a shot at a one-year cleansing for an impressive legacy?
He has to declare his intentions to return or he risks losing the $4.3 million retention bonus. So his statements could be strategic, putting the onus on Michigan State to make the decision. For this to work, everyone has to be fully committed. He has to be committed to firing assistants and finding fresh offensive minds. The school has to be committed to paying for coaching talent.
Tough sledding ahead
Most important, Dantonio has to be willing to deal vigorously with messy realities. Uncertainty is a detriment to recruiting, and the Spartans’ current class ranks 44th, according to the 247Sports composite. There already have been departures from the team, sapping the depth, and seven seniors from the once-touted defense will be gone.
There are money and branding issues that must be addressed with creativity and energy. Attendance has dwindled, and who knows how many will file into Spartan Stadium for the finale against Maryland. The schedule next season will be tough again, with the standard rivals plus nonconference games at Brigham Young and home to Miami (Fla.). And as Brian Lewerke graduates, the Spartans haven’t developed a clear successor at quarterback, whether it’s Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day or someone else.
There’s also the issue of Curtis Blackwell, the former staffer who’s suing Dantonio and others for wrongful termination. Dantonio is scheduled to sit for a seven-hour deposition after the season, unless the sides can reach a settlement. If Michigan State strongly wants Dantonio to stay, it would be wise to help settle the suit to prevent details from emerging.
Without anger or sympathy, Dantonio made the case for his program going forward. For a guy who had appeared weary of the fight, almost resigned to his fate, he seems willing to fight back.
“We've had a lot of injuries, we've had a very tough schedule historically in terms of how it's played out with the byes,” Dantonio said. “We've had some tough breaks, whether it's officiating or with some different things going on. I'm not pushing it on that, but we've had some things go against us. We thought we'd have a special season, but you have to deal with things as they are.”
Dantonio talked about all the young players who have gained experience, and about the support he gets from fans and alums. While the public’s discontent has increased in volume, many demanding he retire, Dantonio is determined to focus on the positives.
“A lot of people send letters of support,” he said. “I appreciate our past players, getting notes from them, because they know what we go through. They know how hard we work, 85 hours plus. … When you start something, you want to finish it. That means not quitting in the middle of something when you don't think it’s finished. I don't think I'm finished.”
Strong words, and it was important Dantonio said them. It will take even stronger actions to fix it, and finish it.