Spartan Nationâ€™s EXCLUSIVE Interview with MSU Head Football Coach Mark Dantonio
Q: Mark Dantonioâ€¦ Hi, Coach!
A: Hi, Hondo. How are we doing today?
Q: Thank you for sharing your time. I know this is your vacation time, so thank you.
A: Youâ€™re welcome.
Q: Do you have any transfers coming in this year?
A: No, not really. Not right now. We have a pretty good sense of who the core of our football team is gonna be. Our guys have been working extremely hard thus far and thatâ€™s exciting to me. Right now when I look at our playersâ€¦and after I talked with them and watched them in spring practice and had an individual meeting with every one of them for probably at least 20 minutes to a Â½ hour, every one of our 100 players, I sense an edge to our football team. I think thatâ€™s a good thing. Thereâ€™s no sense of entitlement. Thereâ€™s a sense of competition. Thereâ€™s also a sense of a sort of resolve, as Iâ€™ve said earlier I think we when last talked as a media group. But I think those are positive things that we can build on.
Q: I think Michigan State has the defense to be elite, but a lot is gonna rest on the offense. Am I putting too much pressure on that side of the ball?
A: No, I think what we have to do is we have to look at the broad component of our football team and ask, What do we do very, very well? What do we need to get better at? How can we improve in every area? Not just offensively certainly or whatever, but defensively as well. Thereâ€™s some things that we need to continue to, I guess, complete your circle, I guess I would say, on the defensive side of the field as well. Our sacks have to return. I think we had 49 in 2011. Weâ€™ve gotta return to that. We gotta come away with turnovers. We scored five touchdowns on defense in â€™11. We did not do that last year. We gotta play better in the 2 minute situation. Those are things you critique, but beyond that our defense was outstanding, having ranked I think in the top 10 nationally, I think in six categories. So we led the Big 10 in defense. Coach Narduzzi and our staff, defensively, and then also our playersâ€¦theyâ€™ve done a tremendous job. And then when you can turn and look towards our offense... We need to, again, complete things. We need to catch the ball better. We need to protect the quarterback better. We need to create better when we do have those situations at quarterback where things break down. Those are all things that we need to try and fix. Obviously weâ€™ve gone to work very, very hard in those areas trying to remedy the situation. Whether itâ€™s players or scheme or the coaching aspect of it or how itâ€™s taught or confidence levelâ€¦ I think a lot of this is experience. We had an experienced defense last year, consequently a very, very good defense I think. Last year we were an inexperienced offense. Early on we lost Blake Treadwell. We regained him, but we lost him. We lost Fou Fonoti. We lost Travis Jackson. Those were experienced guys up front and really that was the experienced part of our football team returning, other than Leâ€™Veon Bell. We had a lot of things we had to juggle but in the end we found a way to get things done. We went against some teams like Wisconsin who represented the Big 10 in the Rose Bowl, like Boise who I think were in the top 10 or 12 in the nation. So thereâ€™s some positives along the way...we beat a good TCU team. And then you have some negatives, where you lose by 1 point to Ohio State, you lose by 2 points to Michigan, you got the Nebraska thing. So thereâ€™s a lot of things where youâ€™re very, very close and you wanna try to give some indication in terms of what could sway the needle, what could put us in the win column. Thereâ€™s so many different areas you can look at. Itâ€™s amazing. Because youâ€™re just so close. But thatâ€™s where weâ€™ll play the game. Thatâ€™s where we do what we do. That allows everybody to sort of pause a little bit, recollect themselves and understand that, Hey we werenâ€™t as good as we thought we were gonna be coming into the seasonâ€¦and thereâ€™s a little humility in thatâ€¦but again, weâ€™re right there. Now we just need to put our foot in the ground and drive forward.
Q: Recently I had Edwin Baker and Devin Thomas on the show. Edwin said, â€œI love Coach Dantonio. The influence that he has put on my life more off the field than on, I will never be able to repay him.â€ Devin Thomas said this, â€œCoach Dantonio was the man who looked me in the eyes and asked me if I knew that he loved me and always told me the truth.â€ Those type of things are why you coach. Am I wrong?
A: No. I appreciate you saying that Hondo and I appreciate the words of those players. That is why you coach. That is why you get into coaching as a young person. You probably get into coaching because you never want the game to end for you. I just had my anniversary yesterday and I was talking with my wife. Iâ€™ve never had an August, since the second grade, never had an August where I sat around and wasnâ€™t involved in football, whether I was playing it or coaching it. I think thatâ€™s why you get into it. But then as you invest yourself in football, because it is such a great game, thereâ€™s all the things with the plays and critiquing things and all the different aspects of it. But then you cut to the real heart and soul of it, itâ€™s about people and itâ€™s about trying to impact young people and see a young man who comes in at 18 or 17â€¦ They come in at 18 and they leave at 22 and they still are a young person when they leave. You try to make a difference in their life. Youâ€™re hoping that when they leave here theyâ€™re able to make the difference in 100 peopleâ€™s lives or maybe 1,000 or maybe 10,000. In some cases you look at a guy like Kirk Cousinsâ€¦how many thousands of people has he made a difference in? Youâ€™re trying to just help cultivate that. Itâ€™s not that youâ€™re gonna be the end-all answer to a lot of young people. I think, for example, you look at Kirk Cousinsâ€¦he had great role models at home, etc. He had a good foundation when he came, but you just allowed him to just continue to take root in what was good and then try to improve on those things. For others itâ€™s about growing up. For others itâ€™s about stability. For others itâ€™s about being able to handle adversity and being able to move forward. For others itâ€™s about getting the degree, first degree member in their family, first person with a degree in their family. Itâ€™s so many different things for so many other people. You just try and be the best you can. My goalâ€¦whether a young man stays here throughout or whether he inevitably leaves before he graduates, or maybe he leaves the program as Ashton Leggett didâ€¦he went on to play at Illinois State for two years and gain 1,000 yards each year. I just want them to be Spartans for the rest of their life. I want them to know that I was consistent and fair with them. But I had to look them in the eye and give them the brutal reality sometimes too. Thatâ€™s what a coach does. Itâ€™s very rewarding when you hear those words because you understand that you are making a difference.
Q: This next subject I want to ask you about is the issue of fathersâ€¦young men that come in who already have children or have children while theyâ€™re at Michigan State. Is it happening more now than before and how does it impact you as a football program?
A: I think every football program in America is just a microcosm of society. When you look across society right now there are a lot of good things going on in the world, and thereâ€™s a lot of things that are tough. There are a lot of people that are dealing with issues or problems or different things. I think that thatâ€™s one of the things that has happened in this world, a little bit maybe. Iâ€™m just gonna embrace whatever problems my players bring me. I try to embrace them to be honest with you. I try and give them their time and allow them to flourish as men. When they come to me with those type of things the first thing I ask them is, Okay you have an opportunity now to be a great father and you will be a great father. Remember your young child, boy or girl, right now because you love them. Understand that you try and bring them into this world and give them the things that they need to be successful. Iâ€™m not the person thatâ€™s gonna judge our players...right, wrong or indifferent. I try and support them. I try and protect them. I think, again, you go back to coaching. I donâ€™t have all the answers. I take one problem, one at a time. I try and deal with the problem, try and take that problem and turn it around and make it a blessing. Or make it an opportunity to grow or an opportunity to handle adversity or whatever it is. We try to build on the things. Itâ€™s not a perfect world. Youâ€™re gonna lose close games, youâ€™re gonna have guys not do well in a class, youâ€™re gonna have off-the-field problems, youâ€™re gonna have issues like you just talked about, you have issues at home, you have families breaking up, youâ€™re gonna have parents going through divorces that directly affect our young people here. Thereâ€™s so many problems that you deal with on a day to day basis that you just have to take one at a time and try and solve them and do it with compassion.
Q: Do you have a number right now on the number of scholarships youâ€™ll give out in 2014?
A: I think that you always have a little bit of attrition, so Iâ€™m thinking the number is right around 20. My assistants would debate me with that a little bit, but I donâ€™t think weâ€™ve ever signedâ€¦ Our biggest class was the 2008 class. Other than that itâ€™s been a class of 19 or 20 or 21. I think this year itâ€™s 17 or 18. So itâ€™s always been in that ballpark of around 20. I think that weâ€™ll try to stay with that. I just think that we try and be selective. We gotta find the right people and the right type of people that will grow in this environment. This environment is not for everybody, I understand that. We do what we do. I think weâ€™re growing as a program. The one area we didnâ€™t talk about was special teams. I think weâ€™ll have a very good special teams this year as well, because we a lot of good football players on this team. Our specialists are awfully good as well, especially Mike Sadler. So I think weâ€™re gonna grow. Like you said earlier, Iâ€™m not naÃ¯ve. Weâ€™ve gotta win. But I think the basis of who we are and what weâ€™re trying to beâ€¦itâ€™s coming. You can be a champion off the field and on the field at the same time.
Q: What do you think will decide the place kicker position? Do you have a criterion that youâ€™re looking for specifically in camp?
A: Yeah, I wanna see the guy... I wanna try and put pressure on that individual and give him the opportunities, give our guys the opportunities to kick. But you canâ€™t kick them all. We address this scholarship right now in Michael Geiger. I was very impressed with him in camp the previous summer. The guy is a goalie, heâ€™s an All Ohio Goalie. Heâ€™s an athleteâ€¦he played wide receiver and played in the secondary as well. Heâ€™s got a toughness to him, heâ€™s explosive. Kevin Cronin had a great spring. Iâ€™m trying to keep Muma in the mix. I think he needs to kick better. Heâ€™s been our kickoff specialist. But we have to find out, Is Geiger the guy? Can he kick it right now? Can he be the guy? Weâ€™ve had guys come here, like Bates and Sadler, I think from the beginning they were game ready. Even though we took Mike Sadler and redshirted him, I think he was game ready as a true freshman. Those guys performed very, very well. Weâ€™ve got other guys that have to grow into it. So weâ€™ll give them opportunities and weâ€™ll try and put pressure on them and weâ€™ll try to put them in situations where thereâ€™s something to gain or lose by their kick. Weâ€™ll try and do that as much as we can and then settle on a guy. But I do think what we have is really a good core group. We have a great snapper back, Peppers, our holders back at Sadler. Which thatâ€™s part of the kicking combination, so that makes it a little bit difficult because now weâ€™re switching up two guys. But we have other guys who can hold as well. I think we have players surrounding them that will be very, very good special teams players. Youâ€™ll see some of our redshirted freshmen and a couple of our true freshmen guys probably participating in those areas. Theyâ€™ll be very, very good football players. I think you win on special teams.
Q: Two questions for you from a radio show I did in California. The first one was from a mother with an 8th grade son. She asked me what I thought of hiring recruiting services to promote her son to help get a scholarship. My answer to her was to put that money into taking the kid to camps; nothing beats putting a kid in front of a coach live. She also asked what you thought.
A: I think the services maybe can help them in some respects at some of the smaller schools maybe. But I think inevitably if they can get to camps and show who they are and show some skill levelâ€¦ Their high school film is readily available on so many of the differentâ€¦like Huddle. Huddle is a recruiting software that is a service that goes to every college in America probably. They can get on and dial up whatever young person they want to look at. There it is and they look at them. I think inevitably it comes down to how they play football. The marketing aspect, the stars behind their namesâ€¦ They earned those stars to some extent, but thereâ€™s so many different people making those decisions and thereâ€™s so many players. I wonder how many people that are actually looking deep into, beyond 20 or 30 plays, deep into the profile of a young person and their football ability. Have you watched 150 plays? Have you seen them in camp? Have you seen them in games? Have you seen them compete against the type of players theyâ€™ll have to compete in college, relative to the level of college? So thereâ€™s so many different aspects. I would try and get them to camp. Iâ€™d try to get them on the universities and take the time to come and visit so you can at least put a person with a frame, physically in front of a coach. They can say, Hey that guy fits the profile of what an offensive tackle should look like at Michigan State. Those type of things. Thatâ€™s how I would handle it. I think a lot of times recruiting services are just making a buck, to be perfectly honest with you.
Q: The other question I was asked was if I had ever seen you more excited than after a Michigan win. I said I haveâ€¦early in fall camp when youâ€™re with a walk-on or maybe a guy buried in the depth chart, youâ€™re just getting back to being a teacher. When you retire I expect you to go be a flag football instructor for your grandkids because you love teaching. Am I being fair?
A: I think that when you become a head football coach you become an administrator to some extent. I think you can return to being a coach on the field during summer camp. During fall as well, and during the game weeks and all that kind of stuff, butâ€¦ I laugh a lot. I have a lot of fun with my players. I have a lot of fun out on the field. I do love teaching football. I love coaching defensive backs or going down and spending a little bit of time with the defensive tackles or on the sled or whatever it is. Just being around them keeps you young, I can tell you that. Being around young people keeps you young, keeps you young. I always feel after a big win, whether itâ€™s against Michigan or whether itâ€™s a big Bowl win or whatever, I always feel a sense of fulfillment when we win. Everything is good, everything is right. I donâ€™t go over the top, I donâ€™t think, jumping around hugging people. Thatâ€™s not me. As far as that sideline demeanor, I am who I am. Thatâ€™s my time of business. When itâ€™s about business, you better be about business, otherwise the gameâ€™s gonna pass you by. I do my job and try to do it to the best of my ability and not joke around about it. Itâ€™s not a laughing matter. But I have a great time with my football team. I was just down in the office right now, just saw a bunch of our guys here this afternoon, sorta walking through. I just like being around them. Theyâ€™re good people, good young people.
Q: By the way, donâ€™t tell Becky I talked about you having grandkids yet.
A: Yeah, I wonâ€™t. I wonâ€™t go there.
Q: Sheâ€™ll kill me. Jim Tressel told me the other day I had to ask you if youâ€™ve had a staff meeting yet since heâ€™s arrived where Jim Bollman put those glasses at the end of his nose and looked over the top of them at you with that look?
A: Yes, we have. The moose is loose. The moose is loose.
Q: Some day when his career is over at Michigan State I will write a book about the things he did behind the scenes that you donâ€™t know about and youâ€™ll be even more proud heâ€™s a Spartan. He is the only coach I have ever covered who has asked me to kill certain stories that painted him in a very good light. That is character, that is integrity and THAT is the kind of Coach Michigan State is blessed to have. Thanks Mark for taking time from your vacation to do this.
A: Thank you, Hondo.