Mark Dantonio's Legacy Is Complicated, but There's No Doubting His Impact at Michigan State

Dantonio built a Big Ten powerhouse at Michigan State when few believed it was possible, but he took risks both on and off the field.
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There were always two ways to look at Mark Dantonio, and both were so vivid and compelling that people tended to see one or the other. There was Dantonio the charismatic and principled leader who built a Big Ten powerhouse. And there was Dantonio the risk-taker, rationalizing his decisions as long as they led to championships. If you loved or hated Michigan State, it was easy to see Dantonio one way. But if you were neutral and spent enough time around him, you saw both.

Dantonio retired from Michigan State Tuesday. The timing is telling. Two weeks ago, he received a $4.3 million retention bonus. He is mired in a nasty wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by former director of player personnel Curtis Blackwell. On Tuesday afternoon, the Detroit News reported that Blackwell accused Dantonio of multiple NCAA violations. Michigan State’s on-field performance has fallen off. If there was a path to a much happier ending, it was hard to see it.

Dantonio was not just the most successful MSU coach of the last half-century; he did one of the best program-building jobs in college football in the last half-century. Before Dantonio showed up, even most MSU fans wondered if the team could ever really contend in the Big Ten. Dantonio did better than that. He won three Big Ten championships and completely flipped the rivalry with Michigan.

He did it because he was smart and calculating, had a sharp eye for coaching and playing talent and had an uncommon ability to get people to believe … and also because he understood that he could only win a lot of football games if he had great football players. If you were a talented, hard-working, well-behaved player, you loved playing for Dantonio. And if you were a talented, hard-working, poorly behaved player, you also loved playing for Dantonio.

Michigan State football Mark Dantonio retires

Some of what has come out in the last year is not really as revelatory as it seemed. Dantonio was always one of those coaches who convinced himself he was coaching for the greater good. He believed that when he arrived, believed that when he won big and surely believed that on the way out.

If you didn’t see that, it was because you didn’t want to see it. Blackwell alleged in his lawsuit that Dantonio “overrode” the recommendations of other assistants when he signed Auston Robertson, the top-rated player in Indiana. Robertson was charged with rape at MSU and dismissed from the team. But it was common, reported knowledge that Robertson was in legal trouble in high school. The extent of it was not well-known. But there was a reason Michigan State waited until March to sign him. It was not surprising that Dantonio stuck with him, because that’s how he operated.

Upon signing Robertson, Dantonio said, “When we accepted his verbal (commitment), we also made a commitment to him and his family.” That commitment—to his players above all else—sounded good to him, and to recruits. It was often misguided at best, and it ultimately contributed to his undoing.

That is part of Dantonio’s story at MSU. It is not the whole story. Those who worked and played for him swear the commitment was genuine. Dantonio often spoke in platitudes but made them sound fresh. His teams had a collective will that was really breathtaking. It is not easy to get a bunch of college students to play hard every snap, year after year, and to believe until the final whistle, game after game. Dantonio was not an innovator or a showman. He was just very smart and relentlessly committed to his job, and he made everybody around him want to win for him.

Big-time college football is full of contradictions, and Dantonio’s tenure epitomized that. Dantonio was Auston Robertson’s coach, but also Kirk Cousins’. He took risks on and off the field, but was as steady as anybody in the country on it. He loved MSU and never really considered leaving for another job, but he made sure the school paid him handsomely, right to the end. And in the perverse economic climate of the sport, he should not apologize for that. Michigan State negotiated the bonus. It was legally obligated to pay him on that date. Dantonio didn’t coach for the money, but he has a right to keep it.

From the moment he was hired, it was clear that Dantonio believed in Michigan State when very few people did. For almost his entire tenure, he bristled at any insinuation that Michigan was superior. For a long time, he made sure it wasn’t.

Mostly, you could always say that Mark Dantonio had an unyielding faith in himself. Sometimes, this was a compliment, and at other times, it was an indictment. But it was always true—except, perhaps, at the very end.

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