Mark Dantonio's Success at Michigan State Built on Family

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Mark Dantonio’s commitment to players and families has helped get MSU football back on a solid foundation.  Photo courtesy of Bill Marklevits.

Mark Dantonio’s commitment to players and families has helped get MSU football back on a solid foundation. Photo courtesy of Bill Marklevits.


Steve Celek trusts Mark Dantonio so much that he told Spartan Nation he would want him to be the father figure in his children’s lives if anything drastic happened to him and his wife.

Steve Celek is the father of Garrett Celek, Michigan State’s senior tight end, and Brett Celek, a tight end in the National Football League. Hailing from Cincinnati, the Celek family is well aware of the impact Dantonio has had on their kids’ lives and, maybe more importantly, empathizes with the man of faith Dantonio is and how he uses that faith in his position as a head football coach.

To tell someone, as Steve Celek did, that you would be comfortable with somebody else raising your kids if the scenario ever occurred – well, it’s powerful and blistering with sensation. Not only does it say something about the type of man Dantonio is, it also speaks volumes of the type of players and families Michigan State focuses on bringing on as their own.

“It’s very nice for Steve to say that, and those are the kinds of things which make me realize I entered coaching for the right reasons,” Dantonio told Spartan Nation Radio. “We’ve had a Celek on our team since I’ve been coaching in 2004, and we’re now in 2011. We’re gonna miss that family, they’re a great family.”

Some programs have that appeal, while others focus strictly on victories and nothing more. There is no finite line which distinguishes who does what for other people as it is each coach’s duty to establish a certain feel for what a program should entail when he is hired to run the operation. Some parents, like the ones who head the Celek family, entrust Dantonio with much more than just ponying up his kids as football stars; they want their children to learn about honor and respect and leave Cincinnati or East Lansing with a good head on their shoulders.

“I think that’s the No. 1 key to being a successful coach,” Dantonio said. “I don’t think I’m different from a lot of coaches. Our No. 1 goal is to have a lifelong-lasting relationship with our players that all our coaches would have. I think if you’re not doing that, you’re sort of missing the boat.

“Some guys aren’t gonna like you, you’re not gonna care for some players and their actions. But in the end, you hope to have a relationship that goes beyond football with your players. There’s someone on this staff, somewhere, who can connect with one of our players.”

And while recruiting is the make-or-break of any athletic program in the United States, Dantonio approaches the process in a different manner. Instead of being forceful and pushing the issue with high school stars who are still in their teen years, Dantonio basically tells an athlete that the program would enjoy having him but does not want the young man to make a snap decision.

That’s not how the recruiting landscape usually goes, especially in the past decade when high school superstars become YouTube sensations overnight and are as glamorous, if not more, than players already putting in hard time at the college level. What Dantonio does is quite impressive if viewed from a larger perspective, more so because he allows space and time for the athlete and his guardians to decide what is best for him.

Larry Caper told Spartan Nation that when he was being recruited, he knew almost instantly that he wanted to be a Spartan. The head ball coach still told him to take his time and evaluate the decision on every level. No pushing, no prodding. It has become the Dantonio way.

“I really feel like every man young man that goes into this time of his life is gonna be challenged,” Dantonio said. “They’re gonna meet their specific challenge, whether that’s socially or being away from home for the first time or whether it’s an injury or academics. They’re going to have to meet those challenges, fight through adversity.

“I’ve always felt and told players that were gonna come here that, ‘It’s not going to be easy. You need to sit down and think about this.’ You do want this to be like a marriage, you want it to last a lifetime.”

While the intention is there, even Dantonio knows it doesn’t always work out.

Some kids just don’t pan out, whether it’s the physical drive or academically or not getting along with fellow teammates and coaches. Many factors go in to one player signing on the dotted line to play at a college or university, and then you have to multiply that number by a lot to comprehend how many players have been recruited and decided to play at Michigan State.

When viewed from afar, football is more than just a game in the college ranks. It is about preparing young men for the next step in their lives, whether it continue to be football or working at a company. Coaches have plenty of responsibilities which many people don’t see on Saturday afternoons, but as Dantonio has said all along, if the coaching staff grooms these young men for life and not just football, success is eminent and the future will be bright.

Some programs do that, some don’t. Michigan State’s football program strives to excel at teaching the difference.