Former Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is one of the most influential coaches in the history of the Big Ten Conference. When he arrived in East Lansing ahead of the 2007 season, the Spartans had not won or shared a conference championship since 1990.
Dantonio won a share of the Big Ten championship in 2010, and then won two conference titles outright in 2013 and 2015. Michigan State hadn’t won the Big Ten outright since 1987.
As part of the week of festivities leading up to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, both Michigan State and Pittsburgh were able to visit the College Football Hall of Fame, located in Atlanta, Ga.
On Wednesday, when asked if Dantonio should be considered for inclusion in college football’s most prestigious collection of players and coaches, current Spartans head coach Mel Tucker gave a vote of support.
“Certainly, Coach Dantonio should get strong consideration to be in the Hall of Fame,” Tucker said. “He's done a tremendous job his entire career, and especially here as a head coach at Michigan State. He's won a lot of football games.”
That’s putting it lightly.
Dantonio is the all-time winningest head coach in the history of Spartans football, compiling a 114-57 record at Michigan State. His winning percentage of .667 is the third-best in school history.
During much of Dantonio’s success, current Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi was by his side, serving as Dantonio’s defensive coordinator from 2007 to 2014.
“Mark, obviously, is a great friend,” Narduzzi said. “The job that Mark Dantonio did at Michigan State, when we first got there, the culture was different. And he came in there, took over a program -- we came in there, took over a program and built it up.”
Dantonio and Narduzzi won or shared two Big Ten championships together. They complied a 75-31 record over eight seasons, and were 4-4 in bowl games, including victories in the Rose and Cotton Bowls in 2013 and 2014.
In 2015, the first of Dantonio’s seasons without Narduzzi as his defensive coordinator, Michigan State won the Big Ten championship and finished with a 12-2 record after falling to Alabama in the College Football Playoff.
“The game's he's won there, bringing them to the playoffs, Rose Bowl victory, Cotton Bowl victory, my last game there. Just watching the build there was incredible,” Narduzzi said. “And that, to me, is what it's all about. And he did it the right way. He didn't do it the wrong way. He did it with integrity and character. The kids loved him. They still love him to this day. I think that's the most important thing is how he did it, not what he did.”
This past summer and into fall camp, Dantonio spent time around both Michigan State and Pittsburgh’s programs. He also visited Luke Fickell and Cincinnati, where Dantonio was the head coach from 2004 to 2006.
The three programs combined to go 33-4 this season, with Cincinnati (13-0) reaching the College Football Playoff, Pittsburgh (10-2) winning the ACC championship and Michigan State (10-2) remaining in contention for a Big Ten championship until Week 12 of the regular season.
“Having Coach D around is a pleasure,” Tucker said. “He and I go way back, all the way to 1997, and so he's a friend first and then a colleague and then also a life-long Spartan. So, every moment that I'm able to spend with him, I truly cherish those times.”
Narduzzi echoed Tucker’s sentiments.
“Mark has been an incredible friend,” he said. “He came down for spring ball, came down for fall camp. … He just shares his knowledge and shares what he sees on the field. And coaches, players, kind of an evaluation of what you're doing. So it was great to get him for practice.”
Dantonio got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant at Ohio, Purdue and then Ohio State in the early 80s. He was then hired to be a defensive secondary coach at Youngstown State under then-head coach Jim Tressel.
After a five-year stint with the Penguins, which included an 11-0 season in 1990, Dantonio spent four years as an assistant at Kansas, before joining Nick Saban’s staff at Michigan State in 1995. After six seasons with the Spartans, Dantonio reunited with Tressel at Ohio State, where he was named defensive coordinator from 2001 to 2003. The Buckeyes won the national championship in 2002.
Dantonio then compiled an 18-17 record in three season as the head coach at Cincinnati, before being hired as the 23rd head coach at Michigan State. His Big Ten success with the Spartans is unmatched – no other Michigan State head coach won or shared three conference titles, and Dantonio went 8-5 against rival Michigan during his tenure.
“Like Pat said, he's done it the right way,” Tucker said of Dantonio. “He's beloved by all Spartans in this country and throughout the world. A tremendous person. He's got a great family, and it was an honor and a pleasure to work with him for five of my 25 years in coaching.”
Yet, there remain questions as to whether Dantonio’s retirement was handled the right way. On Nov. 19, 2019, the head coach declared his intentions to return for a 14th season in East Lansing, however Dantonio suddenly retired just two and a half months later on Feb. 4, 2020.
His announcement came just one day before National Signing Day, and two weeks after the head coach received a $4.3 million retention bonus, which had been written into his contract nearly four years earlier after the Spartans won their third Big Ten Championship and earned their College Football Playoff berth.
It’s rumored that a 2018 lawsuit filed by Dantonio’s former recruiting director, Curtis Blackwell, had been weighing on the head coach and may have contributed to Dantonio’s decision to retire. Blackwell also accused the head coach of recruiting violations. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out of court by a federal judge, and nothing ever came of the alleged NCAA violations.
During the press conference announcing his retirement, Dantonio said Blackwell’s lawsuit had “zero” impact on his decision to retire.
The timing of Dantonio’s retirement left Michigan State in a difficult position – just six weeks before the Spartans were scheduled to begin spring practice, and well after the college football coaching carousel had concluded.
However, all things considered, things worked out pretty well for the Spartans. Michigan State hired Tucker, who won 10 games and led the Spartans to a New Year’s Six bowl in just his second season. The nature of Dantonio’s departure may have somewhat dampened his Spartan legacy, but it does not erase what he was able to accomplish in East Lansing, or in college football as a whole.