Restoring the Recruiting Foundation with Honesty and Trust

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One of the first things Head Coach Mark Dantonio talked about after being introduced as the new leader of Michigan State football was rebuilding the foundation of the program through recruiting. Dantonio has since worked to rebuild that foundation, with honesty and trust. This unique approach has resonated with young men, their high school coaches, and their families. Its impact has shown up in Michigan, around the mid-west, and is starting to spread throughout the country.

Perhaps no college football coach today has been groomed by a better set of mentors than Mark Dantonio. He spent the bulk of his years as an assistant developing under future Hall of Famers Jim Tressel and Nick Saban. Dantonio learned early from Jim Tressel that recruits and their families do not care what you know until they know how much you care. Coach Tressel also made it a recruiting priority for Ohio State to capture the very best from their home state, arguably the most prolific football talent state in the nation.

Dantonio learned from Saban how to identify the talent level needed to play in the Big 10, win in the Big 10, and compete for championships. The importance of identifying talent cannot be underestimated, and Saban and Dantonio are arguably two of the best talent evaluators in the nation. During a portion of his time under Saban at MSU, Dantonio served as the Spartans recruiting coordinator. That experience undoubtedly gave him an edge to quickly regenerate the Spartans recruiting efforts in the state of Michigan, and throughout the mid-west.

 The John L. Smith regime did not cultivate relationships in the state of Michigan like successful Spartan staffs of the past. That’s not to proclaim that success could never occur at MSU with such an approach, but it is to note that it simply did not happen during the Smith era. Dantonio has followed a regional recruiting plan similar to Tom Izzo’s, which makes recruiting within a four hour radius, especially within the borders of Michigan, a top priority. It did not take Dantonio long to hit the recruiting trail upon his return to East Lansing. Nor did it take him long to confront the strained relationship between Michigan State football and high schools in the state of Michigan, especially in the fertile southeast corner.

“Michigan State didn’t come into the city as much (under Smith) as Coach Dantonio. Actually, they really didn’t come into the city at all,” Detroit Southeastern Coach Donshell English told Spartan Nation. Detroit Renaissance Coach Antonio Watts recently echoed that sentiment. “The previous staff…he never came down to Detroit, he never sent any of his coaches here, never called.”

Times have certainly changed. “Dantonio has come down here, he has put on coaching clinics…he told us in our gym that he wants the state of Michigan to be Michigan State’s,” said Coach Watts. The coaches in Detroit have taken to Dantonio’s new approach to selling Michigan State. “He’s firm but he’s fair…you can’t ask for anything better than that,” Coach English told Spartan Nation. “The kids like the honesty and integrity he brings to the table.” 

Coach Watts has kept a close eye on how the young men he sent to Michigan State have been handled by this staff. “He’s been a man of his word and I like what he’s done with our kids (Chris Norman and Dana Dixon) so far. He cares about them as players, cares about this state, and he loves football…I feel really great with three of my kids, two up there already, one on the way, and hopefully one the year after, going to State because the entire coaching staff is very positive and I feel comfortable with them.” 

As any member of Spartan football will tell you, everything about the program starts at the top with Coach Dantonio. The programs attitude and approach starts with who he is and what he stands for. If you surveyed players, recruits, and high school coaches, you would quickly hear that Coach D tells it like it is. His honest and straight forward approach has been well received in this era of big time college football, too often fueled by over inflated coaching egos and “win at all costs” greed. 

Latwan Anderson of perennial football power Glenville High School (OH) is still going through the process of selecting a school to attend in 2010. He recently told Spartan Nation that Dantonio does not sound much like the other college coaches out there. “I’ve talked to a lot of coaches and a lot of them sound exactly the same, but Coach Dantonio is one of the few I’ve talked to that sounds completely different from the rest. He sounds like a guy that is like a second dad, basically. When I talk to him he talks more about life and growing up, and education and life after football, than what I was doing on the field…I’ve had some coaches that only cared what I could do on the field.” Coach English also recognized Dantonio’s propensity to shoot straight. “There’s like a truth serum he (Dantonio) spreads every time he opens his mouth. He’s very up front and very frank with you, whether it’s good or bad.” 

Coach Dantonio and his staff place a premium on recruiting character. They believe a team’s character can make the ultimate difference between success and mediocrity. As Linebackers Coach and Special Teams Coordinator Mike Tressel recently told Spartan Nation, “the difference here, in the end, when we win a championship, is going to be about the character of our players. We’ll have talent, but a lot of people have talent, it’s going to be about the character of our players.” 

           This staff’s recruiting efforts focus on building relationships with young men who might end up ultimately donning the green and white. Recent verbal commitment and national “blue chip” recruit William Gholston, from Detroit Southeastern High School, told Spartan Nation back in March his early impressions of the staff. “I’ve got a lot of respect and a lot of love for the whole coaching staff. Everybody’s nice, they’re genuine, they’re real people, they’re not just telling me stuff just to let me hear.” Gholston also added his appreciation for being treated as more than just as a football commodity by the Dantonio staff. “I love football…but letting me know that you care more, not just me as an athlete, but me as a whole person, that’s refreshing to me because it’s not like I’m just an item to them, I’m a person and they want to help me mature as a man.”

           Cornerback Mylan Hicks, another recent verbal commitment from the Detroit area, felt a connection to Michigan State early on in his recruitment. “My first day I met with the coaching staff I really bonded with them from day one…It felt like they were just more than a coaching staff, aside from the football. It was probably the best relationship I gained from all the schools that had interest in me.” Latwan Anderson had a similar first impression, “when I first talked to Coach Dantonio he told me that if I ever needed help, if I was going to come to Michigan State, they’d be there first to help me.” 

Recent verbal commit Nick Hill, of Chelsea (MI), told Spartan Nation his initial impression of Coach Dantonio came with clarity and specifics. “The day he offered me, he talked about three main principles…he wants his guys to compete on and off the field, get an education, and also give back to the community.” Incoming two sport prep star Dion Sims, from Orchard Lake Saint Mary’s (MI), also found Coach D’s demeanor and approach to be refreshing and reassuring. “Coach Dantonio is very honest and modest. He made me feel real comfortable with the system and everything around there. I just felt that could be a second home for me.” Perhaps William Gholston summed it up best when describing this staffs approach to recruiting and building relationships with players, “it seemed like they were real…not going to say one thing and then do another.” 

Recruiting in the year 2009 is not exactly the same as it has been throughout Dantonio’s now somewhat lengthy college coaching career. Perhaps more than ever, recruits are taking a stronger interest in the academic programs an institution offers. For potential 2010 recruit Christian Bryant of Glenville High School (OH), academics are a primary concern. “Academics (are) always first. It should be first on everyone’s list because if you don’t have academics you’re not going to go anywhere.” William Gholston separately told Spartan Nation “football isn’t promised to you, any day you could get hurt and you need something to fall back on…a degree is a necessity now.” 2010 recruit Nick Hill has even thought about education beyond an undergraduate degree. “I want to graduate early, and I’m thinking about getting my masters before I leave Michigan State.”

           Coach Dantonio has led the Spartan’s recruiting resurgence without resorting to the old and tired tactic of negative recruiting. Most programs that recruit negatively do so from a point of insecurity, and often desperation. And Negative recruiting is probably more prevalent than the average fan would think. But as William Gholston told Spartan Nation, recruits pay close attention to what comes out of a recruiter’s mouth. “If you’ve gotta talk down about another school to make you seem better, then you must not be that good.” Gholston said. “If I had a friend like that…I wouldn’t want to be his friend because you never know, if I’m not around, they’re gonna talk about me to make themselves look better.” 

           The Dantonio led approach to recruiting inspires loyalty and devotion from the young man that pledge their commitment to Michigan State football. It encourages players to “take ownership”, as Nick Saban used to say, of this football program from the time they make the commitment to go green. By building recruiting relationships upon the pillars of honesty and trust, the Dantonio staff has poured a sound foundation for this program which promises an era of continuing success and pride for the entire Spartan Nation.