Mark Dantonio acted in the best interests of Mark Dantonio Tuesday. And while that certainly is his prerogative—retirement always should be a very personal decision—he didn’t act in the best interests of anyone else associated with Michigan State football.
Not the administration, which now will try to hire a coach at a time when hiring a coach is difficult.
Not the current players, who are a month into their spring semester and suddenly don’t know who their coach is going to be.
Not the December signing class, which now is left holding the bag after casting their lot with Dantonio.
Not the small class of recruits who are supposed to sign Wednesday to become Spartans.
All those people were significantly disadvantaged by Dantonio’s retirement announcement, which came without warning but with a massive payday. He collected a $4.3 million loyalty bonus just two weeks ago, and the timing of this screams of taking the money and running away from a program on the decline.
But that’s really the fault of Michigan State setting up a bonus that pays out at a problematic time in the calendar. Nobody is blaming Dantonio for cashing in after years of winning and not looking around for other jobs. Colleges that hand out extensions and loyalty bonuses and cushy buyout deals should never fault an employee who takes advantage of them.
So it’s up to Michigan State, not Dantonio, to make the best of a curiously timed transaction. There is a lot of work to do in a hurry.
The first thing the school should do is to treat this recruiting class (tepidly ranked 36th nationally by rivals.com) fairly. Release every December signee from his national letter of intent—except, of course, the seven who enrolled early and are basically trapped. Not sure how you fix that, other than offering a release after the semester—but that would require an NCAA waiver to gain immediate eligibility elsewhere.
Those expected to sign Wednesday are already free to sign elsewhere—but they have virtually no time to find a new landing spot, and scholarships are much scarcer now than they were weeks ago. Most schools’ recruiting classes are at or near capacity at this late date.
Of course, releasing the recruiting class is one way to make the Michigan State job less attractive to the next coach. This would have been a more attractive job in November than February.
The Spartans have some selling points—solid tradition, administrative commitment, access to players in Michigan, Ohio, Chicago and elsewhere. They also have some inherent difficulties—foremost being in the same division with mega power Ohio State, plus Penn State and Michigan.
Can they get a qualified coach who chooses to see more opportunity than impediment? Can they get a coach to give up a good situation at a bad time?
Luke Fickell would be the best (hirable) man for the job. He’s gone 22–5 the past two seasons at Cincinnati, he knows the Big Ten from his time at Ohio State and he knows the recruiting terrain. But he’s also got a potential top 15 or 20 team coming back at Cincy, which won’t be easy to leave.
If he wants the job, the situation gives Fickell all the leverage. Leave a good gig to take over a program that could lose its recruiting class? Convince your staff to uproot now, too? That could turn a five-year contract into six or seven years, or add another million dollars a year to the salary.
If not Fickell, Pat Narduzzi would be a comfortable hire and probably a good one. The Pittsburgh coach was Dantonio’s right-hand man and defensive soulmate at Michigan State for several years. There would be no surprises on either side of the equation—State would know what it is getting in Narduzzi, and Narduzzi would know what he’s getting in State.
But he’s also never won more than eight games in the easier division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is a much easier league than the Big Ten. If the Spartans aspire to get back to the days of winning the conference and going to the Rose Bowl and/or the College Football Playoff, does Narduzzi have that in him?
After those two, it gets murky. There could be other attractive candidates from the college or NFL levels, but they might not be as obvious a fit. If Fickell and Narduzzi don’t work out, identifying them becomes urgent. An administration with no track record of making consequential athletic hires will have to show it can do that job quickly.
After producing results that will be lauded for decades to come, the latter years Mark Dantonio dug in his heels and got everything he wanted despite diminishing returns. He refused to dismiss members of an underachieving staff, and nobody made him. He wasn’t going to be pushed out the door, even though many fans believed it was time. He got his $4.3 million, then walked at the time of his choosing.
In the end, Mark Dantonio took care of Mark Dantonio. You can’t really fault him for that. But we’ll see in the coming weeks exactly how much he hamstrung Michigan State with the way he left.