April 2, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - First came the celebration on the morning of National Signing Day as five-star recruit Malik McDowell announced his intention to sign with Michigan State.
Watching the digital video feed from Southfield High School on the big-screen television in the conference room adjoining head coach Mark Dantonio's office in the Duffy Daugherty Football Building, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi erupted from his chair with a vocal release of emotion and high-fives. Dantonio remained seated at the head of the long table, serenely raising both arms as he did after so many important touchdowns over the course of the seven previous seasons.
Then came the trust-building, a deliberate, nearly two-month process that culminated when McDowell faxed in his signed National Letter of Intent at 11:45 Tuesday night, 15 minutes before the April 1 deadline would pass.
This time, the reaction was one of peaceful satisfaction.
"Actually, I laid down and tried to go to sleep," Dantonio said at a media briefing Wednesday afternoon at the Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center. "I think I got to bed about 12:45."
Bringing the towering defensive lineman into the Spartan fold will most assuredly raise the national perception of MSU's signing class, which carried a grade of "incomplete" since Feb. 5, but Dantonio was more concerned with the integrity of the relationship between the parties than a ranking.
The intervening weeks were a study in patience, communication and understanding, and Dantonio felt it was important that McDowell received the recognition that went lacking as signing day came and passed.
"People are thrilled here," Dantonio said. "There is no problem in terms of how Malik McDowell is going to be handled here. He's earned this press conference and he's earned this opportunity to talk about him as a single person because of the perseverance that has existed in this process and because of the length of the process and the questions surrounding it. I think everybody just wants to get out in front of it and make it right."
Although Dantonio never fretted about the resolve behind McDowell's commitment, he felt compelled to give his family the space it needed to mull such a weighty decision.
After all, Ohio State, Alabama, Florida, Michigan and newly crowned national champion Florida State were among the high-profile programs interested in the services of the state's top-rated prospect.
"So what I tried to do on my end was sort of just be still," Dantonio said. "I really didn't talk to Malik much. You're allowed to call the young man once a week. We didn't do that."
Although Dantonio's line of communication was always open for answering questions from McDowell's parents, he spoke directly to him only a couple of times over the past two months.
"It was a long process, there's no question about that," Dantonio said. "I knew that the family had concerns and they were legitimate concerns. So what we had to do was we had to be able to work through the process until everybody felt comfortable with this.
"I think the complexity of the whole recruiting process had something to do with that, but I also think that as a parent you know your child and you're concerned about your child and you want what's best for him. So you take steps to make sure that the decision that he makes is not impulsive, and that that decision is going to be a long term decision. It's something that will last."
Dantonio had never been a part of such a protracted recruiting deliberation, especially one involving such a nationally coveted player, but his instincts were confirmed when he received a text message from McDowell while walking off the spring practice field Tuesday evening.
"I talked to Malik this morning," Dantonio said. "He's thrilled, ecstatic about everything. And I think the thing that we need to understand is that first and foremost, when he comes here, he's a student first, and that was primary in his parents' concerns. And secondly, that he was going to get a legitimate degree and work towards that degree, and that we are going to hold him accountable for that.
"And then third, that he was going to be a football player and help us win championships and continue to get better and be able to fulfill all the dreams that he and his family have in that endeavor."
And what a football player Dantonio envisions McDowell will be, beginning next fall as a highly maneuverable, 6-foot-6, 290-pound true freshman.
"I think Malik will be on the field for us," Dantonio said. "He's too big, strong, fast (not to be). He can play inside (at tackle), he can play outside (at end), be a pass-rush guy; he can play in goal-line situations and short-yardage situations..., based on what I've seen from him in camps and his raw physical ability.
"I think he's a smart player and I think he's extremely coachable. He's got a lot of want-to and he wants to please, and that's a part of it, too. Now, can he stay healthy in camp? Can he learn the defense? Those are the things that you don't really know until he gets here, but I would say from a physical standpoint, he's going to get on the field, most definitely."
Until then, the most gratifying aspect of what Dantonio called a "resolution" is that all concerned are on the same page.
"Malik had to want to come here badly, and that was in existence," Dantonio said. "This is the best place for Malik McDowell, I sincerely think that, but I wanted him to find the best place for him, too. I didn't want it to be all about us, and I think that's what happened in the end."