Piscataway, N.J. — Anguish and resolve seemed to merge in a single lane that day last November when Mark Dantonio found himself locked in thought on a drive down I-75, en route to Cincinnati.
Michigan State’s coach had been humiliated, along with his team, during an autumn of incomprehensible failure in East Lansing.
This was not to be believed, going from the national championship semifinals in January to a 3-9 catastrophe completed when Penn State laid a nightstick on the Spartans, 45-12, in MSU’s 2016 finale.
And it truly was MSU’s finale. No bowl ticket comes the way of a team that’s won three games. There instead were weeks and months ahead for a coach and his staff, and his players, to mull one of the most befuddling collapses a major-college team of stature had ever sustained in so short of time.
Dantonio talked Saturday night, after his team had clubbed Rutgers, 40-7, at High Point Solutions Stadium, about misery and introspection that day on I-75 as he passed flatlands and expressway exits as uninspiring as his team’s autumn of football.
“The credibility of your entire program is in flux,” Dantonio recalled Saturday night, in an interview area the size of a small classroom.
“I said, ‘I’m the new head coach here,'” and his use of the word “new” was intentional, for that’s exactly how he would approach this Spartans reconstruction in 2017 — as if he had just arrived as coach in East Lansing.
“What do we have to do to get this right?” he asked himself. “We pressed the restart button and if people didn’t believe what we were doing, then we had to make a change. It was time to believe.”
Build it back up
This is when a makeover began. This is when a 2017 season as wildly successful as last year’s was preposterously disastrous began to take shape. It led to Saturday night’s giddy flight home, with the Spartans toting a 9-3 season more in keeping with habits Dantonio and his players had earlier made routine at Michigan State.
He explained the methodology, the furious drive to build a new team with a fresh psyche.
“I thought about what we had to do,” he said, and if you looked carefully at a head coach in Saturday night’s interview room, you could detect the faintest of smiles as he flipped through the past year’s pages. “We used bowl-practice time to critique everything we do.
“We were going to work. We were going into the weight room. We were going to map out schedules. Certain things needed to happen, schematically and personnel-wise.
“There was a lot going through my mind. It’s not easy as a head coach of a losing football team. You’re the guy who has to pick it up and say: ‘OK, we’re all right. Let’s go.’”
It was going to get tougher. Shockingly so.
Six weeks later, at an off-campus gathering on Martin Luther King Day, three young stars committed alleged sexual-assault acts so ugly they were charged with felonies. Rebuilding a football team is one thing. Reassembling it after players have been lost to potentially long prison sentences is an abominable event for a team, as well as for a university.
This was all on Dantonio. It was simple accountability when all the previous good a football team had accrued since had also been placed, appropriately, at a head coach’s feet after he arrived here in December 2006.
Still, reacquainting MSU with football grandeur in 2017 seemed like some Green and White zealot’s hallucination.
The team had next-to-no seniors. It had lost important talent and depth. The defense, particularly, would be young, as would the offensive line, and these are not areas you can afford to have kid players entrusted to win games. At least in the Big Ten.
Return to norm
But an inherent reason why sports are great, and why college football can be the best of all escapes, is because thrills, unforeseen and even unimagined, can be sprung upon teams and their fan galaxies.
Best of all, this rather unfathomable pirouette the Spartans have executed in 2017 has been accompanied by a return to citizenship for which Dantonio’s teams earlier were known. The ugliness of last January is no less upsetting. But it is as isolated, and as aberrant, as a bizarre and impulsive dorm scuffle that a decade ago turned MSU’s football offseason somber.
Now, there is a sense of equilibrium. Dantonio’s teams have won 99 games during the past 11 years. They aren’t all the way back, as what could be a New Year’s Day mismatch against a tough Southeastern Conference team likely will confirm. But they seem to have regained their old sturdiness and, at least if you’re from East Lansing, their air of good cheer.
“We have a small group of seniors who took control of our team in a positive way,” Dantonio said, before he and his team headed for the team charter.
He talked about sophomores and natural freshmen who have “re-energized the program.”
Those accustomed to a rigid, stone-faced sideline image of Dantonio would have seen Saturday evening a man relaxed and deeply into this account of a past year’s football restoration.
“There’s a lot of energy in that group,” he said. “They took on leadership roles. That bodes well for the future.
“The future looks bright at Michigan State.”
College football can throw a counter-punch, as Dantonio learned last year. But it’s difficult to argue with his Saturday night premise. He had a remarkable testament to program construction in place at East Lansing ahead of last year’s spill.
Now, it has made a comeback, with a nice recruiting class headed his way and older kids returning.
Dantonio might want to head again to Cincinnati. For another long, introspective drive. This time with good music playing, with personal peace back in the picture.