On Nov. 2, 2006, Michigan State fired football coach John L. Smith. There were three games left in the season, but administrators didn't want to wait. They hoped to begin searching for a new coach immediately.
There was one problem. One of the top names on their list, Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio, wouldn't talk to Michigan State. Dantonio's team had three regular-season games remaining. He refused to talk to one school while coaching another. Within the Michigan State athletic department, that story is about a single, simple act of integrity. Coach D, they say, has his priorities in order.
He does. But the story is instructive in another way. Unlike so many coaches, who ask their agents to fish for new jobs as soon as they win a big game, Dantonio was patient. He was willing to bet that if Michigan State wanted him in early November it would also want him at the end of the month.
Dantonio got the job, of course, and on Saturday his Spartans will face defending national champion Ohio State in one of the most anticipated games of the season. The Spartans have been riddled with injuries, but they are also 9–1, a play away from 10–0, and two wins from their fifth 11-win season in the last six years.
Outside of Michigan, people may not fully understand what Dantonio has accomplished. He has done one of the best coaching jobs you will find in any sport this century. He did what many Michigan State fans worried was impossible, then he kept doing it. And he has done it the same way he got the job in the first place: by slowing things down.
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The story of Michigan State's rise often starts with this fact: Dantonio has consistently produced top-10 teams without top-10 recruiting classes. The perception is that he and his staff are masters at finding underrated recruits—three-star prospects who play like five-stars. To a degree, that's true. But it isn't because Dantonio is some kind of scouting genius. We often ascribe success to talent when we should look at personality traits instead. His success is a product of steadiness and self-assurance.
College football moves a lot faster than it ever has before. Not just the game itself, though that is also true. The whole enterprise moves so fast now. Coaches are fired earlier in their tenures, and earlier in the season, than they were a decade ago. Freshmen become Heisman Trophy contenders ... in September.
Recruiting has sped up, too. Some players are offered scholarships in eighth grade, and many stack a bunch of offers by their junior year. An offer used to mark the end of the recruiting process, but now it signals the beginning. A lot of recruits won't even talk to a school unless they have an offer. So, coaches make offers just to get in the door.
And then coaches and players get caught in this ridiculous game, where they're walking toward the altar together and hoping somebody forgot the rings. The coaches aren't sure they want the player they have offered. In some cases, they offer five players at one position and see who accepts first.
For the most part, Dantonio does not operate that way. He tells his coaches to delay offers as long as they can, until they are sure they want a player. If at all possible, they should watch a kid play as a senior before making an offer. Michigan State resists the urge to offer a highly ranked recruit just to be in the mix. Co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel says, "We really have to try to force ourselves to slow down. People do want to commit. They want offers when they're sophomores or juniors, and that's not really our style."
When a player does get an offer from Michigan State and calls Dantonio to accept it, he gets a surprise. Dantonio will say: "Slow down here. Are you sure this is what you want to do?" Sometimes he tells players to take some more time, and yes: This shocks them.
And as for those three-star recruits ... well, you're only going to find diamonds in the rough if you are willing to look in the rough. Dantonio tells his staff: Ignore the rankings. More importantly, he says, don't just look at a player's highlights. Watch how a guy plays the whole game. If you see a coach's jaw drop when a player makes a freakishly athletic play, that coach is probably not wearing a Michigan State shirt.
"If you're always swinging for the fences, you end up with a bunch of strikeouts," Tressel says. "We probably recruit on purely upside less than a lot of people. There's been highly ranked guys that certainly wanted offers from Michigan State that we just decided weren't the right fit. We're not in the business of offering people so they can collect offers.
"We try to recruit guys that have a passion and love the game. Regardless of your upside and ceiling, if you don't love the violence of this sport, it's not going to work out."
Dantonio also does not spend much time recruiting players who are committed to other programs. If he gets a signal that the player is interested, sure, he will do it. But mostly, he stays away. He has also been known to pull offers from players who commit to Michigan State, then visit other schools, though Tressel says, "there is no hard and fast rule. There is nothing written in our policy manual."
Put all this together, and you get the team that Michigan State has rolled out for the last six years: Tough, competitive, deep, and with great passion for both football and their program.
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You have seen this, especially this year. Michigan State has suffered more significant injuries than any other Dantonio team. That may finally show up in Columbus. But so far, the Spartans have kept winning, because as Tressel says: "Just about everybody in our program can play." And they want to be there. Of the 35 recruits that the Spartans signed in 2012 and '13, 30 are still with the team.
Co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett tells his friends, "Sometimes I wish I could just sit back and watch like you guys. At least you know you're going to get a competitive game."
Barnett knows how remarkable this is. After all, he went to Michigan State.
Three months before Dantonio took the job, Michigan State blew a 37–21 fourth-quarter lead against Notre Dame. ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, said on-air: "And that's why you're Michigan State." It would have seemed like trash talk if it weren't so obviously true. Says Barnett: "As crazy as it sounds, everybody knew what that meant."
It meant Michigan State was Meltdown U. The Spartans couldn't unload a dishwasher without breaking a few dishes. Before Dantonio showed up, Michigan State had wandered in the desert for 40 years. Sure, there was the occasional run at a Big Ten title, but the Spartans' signature trait was that they could not sustain anything. "Roller coaster, man," Barnett says. "I can't even explain it, to be honest with you. That was something we had to fight through. The inconsistencies, up and downs of the program. I can't even explain what it was about."
The explanation starts with this: Before Dantonio, this was a program of shortcuts. Sometimes those shortcuts involved breaking NCAA rules (the Spartans got caught in the 1970s and again in the '90s). More often, those shortcuts were things you only saw if you looked more closely.
Michigan State was in a tricky place, geographically, for recruiting. The state of Michigan does not have the depth of talent that Ohio, Florida or Pennsylvania have. Michigan would beat Michigan State for recruits more often than not. The other adjoining states presented challenges, too: Ohio State in Ohio, Notre Dame in Indiana, not to mention other, more successful schools coming in.
So, what did the Spartans do? They landed a few elite recruits—as Barnett says, "If you look at some of those teams and some of those names, a lot of guys went to the NFL." And then they reached. They took talent over drive. They took academic risks. After the 10 most talented players on any given MSU team, the drop-off was severe.
As a result, those 10 players knew they would play, no matter how hard they worked. Michigan State showed flashes of greatness, but there was no marrow to sustain the program.
Barnett played on the 1987 team that won the Rose Bowl. The next year, the Spartans returned 15 starters, and Barnett says, "We talked like we were going to win the national championship." They started 0–4–1 instead. The 1999 team went 10–2—but the two losses came by 24 and 30 points, respectively. The next year, Michigan State went 5–5.
As Barnett says, "You didn't know what you were going to get, watching on TV."
Dantonio doesn't do shortcuts. He often speaks in cliches—you have to battle adversity, you have to control the line of scrimmage, you have to compete, your football team has to take care of the football to win the football game, etc. But people who know him well say he never seems to waver.
He has four simple guidelines for his program:
1. Build lifelong relationships with players.
2. Push them to graduate.
3. Win championships.
4. Be givers, not takers: To the community, to each other.
It sounds simple, right? And it is. There is no genius there. But sticking with these four principles through chaotic times is hard.
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That is where Dantonio excels. In practice, he emphasizes details, sometimes teaching techniques himself. In games, he is far more likely to chew out a player for blowing an assignment with a four-touchdown lead than he is when the score is tied. He wants everybody to know: Making the right play is always important, not just when the game is on the line. And since pretty much every player in the program can play now, the most talented guys know they have to listen, or they will be benched.
Barnett says now Michigan State fans can finally turn on the TV and know: "You're at least going to get Michigan State playing 60 minutes of football, playing disciplined."
It helps, too, that the athletic department itself has the same qualities as the football program. For years, Michigan State's biggest opponent was itself. Longtime coach George Perles battled school president John DiBiaggio, and on some level the fight may have cost both men their jobs. (Perles was fired; DiBiaggio, who said he wanted to retire at Michigan State, left for Tufts.) When John L. Smith was hired, he was undermined from the beginning by people who didn't think he was right for the job.
Now? With athletic director Mark Hollis, basketball coach Tom Izzo and Dantonio, Michigan State might have the best 1-2-3 combination in the country. Izzo and Dantonio are neighbors and close friends. Hollis is the best kind of athletic director: an innovator who looks out for his people, and who takes responsibility but not credit. Michigan State may or may not beat Ohio State on Saturday, but you can safely say this: It is not a statement game. Michigan State doesn't need to make statements. Not anymore.
When Cincinnati finished its 2006 regular season, Dantonio finally met with Michigan State. Dantonio quickly emerged as the favorite for the job, but not for any reasons you could draw on a whiteboard. "It really wasn't the X's and O's," says Alan Haller, who played for Perles and participated in the search."It was the culture that he would bring there. I looked at him and listened and thought, 'Wow, I would love to play for that guy.' It was not exactly what he said, it was how he said it."
Haller says there was one snag: "He was torn [about] leaving." Barnett, who was on Dantonio's staff at Cincinnati, agrees. Coach D really didn't want to leave Cincinnati after three years. It didn't feel right. But a coach can't control when the right job becomes open. Dantonio took it.
Barnett instantly told his friends, "Man, we got the right guy." He was speaking as an alum, not an assistant making the move with Dantonio. He had seen enough at Cincy to believe his school was done wandering.
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You can slow down your process, but you can't slow down the sport. Last year, Dantonio's brilliant and charismatic defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi, left for Pittsburgh. This year, Dantonio's alma mater, South Carolina, is looking for a coach. Barnett says, "He's staying here, man." Perles says if somebody offers Dantonio a job, "I'll be the first one over there with handcuffs."
There is no reason to worry. Dantonio is 59. He is from Ohio, so it is not like he has deep Southern roots. He has a winning program, which he can run as he sees fit. He doesn't just talk about a "family atmosphere"—his daughters both chose to attend Michigan State, coaches' families often travel with the team, and Dantonio arranges his spring schedule to give those coaches as many weekend days off as possible.
Dantonio has a vacation house on a lake and a program he built in the desert, where nobody thought he could do it. Michigan State has everything he needs. Barnett says, "I'll put it out there: I think something is going to be named after him when he finally shuts it down. Mark Dantonio's name will be there forever."
It may be a building, or maybe something more personal. One can picture a statue of Dantonio and Izzo sitting together, smiling, looking like they never want to leave.