Dantonio: A Perfect Fit For MSU Football
Aug. 18, 2007
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Mark Dantonio's Big Ten coaching baptism came in 1981 as a graduate assistant at Purdue.
After 26 seasons and nine more stops on the coaching carousel, he leads a conference program of his own.
Michigan State hired Dantonio last December, hoping he can turn a program mired in mediocrity into a championship contender. He comes with three years of head coaching experience at Big East member Cincinnati, where he had an 18-17 record, after lengthy stints assisting national championship coaches Nick Saban and Jim Tressel.
"At certain times unique opportunities come along, and you know that you're a fit," Dantonio said of his return to Michigan State, where he was an assistant from 1995-2000. "It's not like we're coming here as an unknown, or coming here without a plan or not knowing the issues. We know the situation."
Dantonio, 51, has a reputation as a straight-laced, somewhat conservative coach who preaches discipline and defense. He says it's important to help players develop off the field as well as on it.
Dantonio played defensive back at South Carolina in the late 1970s. But he grew up in Ohio and has spent most of his adult life coaching in the Midwest.
Dantonio was a Michigan State defensive assistant under Saban from 1995-99.
"From Nick, I've learned attention to detail," Dantonio said. "How to study technique. Organization skills, relative to practice and a program. All those things he's known for."
When Saban left East Lansing for LSU, where he would eventually win the 2003 national championship, Dantonio stayed with the Spartans for one more season as associate head coach under Bobby Williams.
Williams was fired midway through the 2002 season with a 16-17 record in less than three seasons. His replacement, John L. Smith, was fired last year and finished his four-year stint with a 22-26 record.
Michigan State consulted Saban during the search for a new coach. Rather than recommend whom to hire, Saban said he gave Michigan State feedback when asked about candidates who previously had worked for him. Dantonio was "a very easy guy to support," Saban said.
"Mark is a good person," said Saban, now the coach at Alabama. "He's got good principles and values. That is important to have in any organization. He has always had a real good sense of people."
Unlike Smith, Dantonio has Michigan State roots and plenty of experience recruiting in the Big Ten. That may give him broad support within the Michigan State community, which Smith never had in part because he was considered an outsider by some of the Spartan faithful.
Dantonio, his wife Becky, and their two daughters have stayed connected with friends in the East Lansing area since they moved in 2000. On their way to annual summer vacations in northern Michigan, they stopped by to visit friends or have their picture taken with the Sparty statue on Michigan State's campus.
Dantonio has even deeper roots with Tressel. They first coached together as assistants at Ohio State in 1984 under Earle Bruce. When Tressel became head coach at Division I-AA Youngstown State before the 1986 season, Dantonio went with him and stayed for five years.
"We kind of grew up in the coaching world together," Tressel said. "We kind of hand in hand started that Youngstown State program."
Tressel became Ohio State's head coach before the 2001 season and lured Dantonio away from Michigan State. The Buckeyes won the 2002 national championship with Dantonio as defensive coordinator.
Dantonio credits Tressel with helping him realize the importance of treating players and coaches as complete people, not just cogs in a football machine.
"It's developing a relationship and having a genuine concern about a person as a human being," Dantonio said. "Having a sense of faith, being involved with the family, academics, how you interact with the community. All these things led to championships. (Tressel) has made that connection."
Tressel said Dantonio and Michigan State are a "match made in heaven." Tressel's nephew, Mike Tressel, coaches linebackers and special teams for the Spartans.
"He cares about the kids," the elder Tressel said of Dantonio. "He will work with them on all phases of their life and care about every phase equally as much."
Dantonio's players already are getting that sense. Some were caught off guard this spring when Dantonio gave them a questionnaire to anonymously rate how he and the coaching staff were doing in their first few months with the program.
"I've never had to do that before," safety Travis Key said. "But it was definitely good to see that he really cares about what he's doing and the relationship he has with the players."
Dantonio scored well in areas such as leadership and honesty. He didn't score well on humor, but he's been working on it ever since.
"I've got to smile more, I guess," Dantonio said.
The Spartans are hoping Dantonio will help them win more. They are coming off three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the early 1980s.
"He's been around a lot of great coaches," defensive end Ervin Baldwin said. "He knows what it takes to win. He's straight with you, he doesn't sugarcoat it. If he says he's gonna do it, he's gonna do it. He's a good fit for us."
By Tim Martin, Associated Press
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