Aug. 30, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
"I am a living legacy to the leader of the band."
-- Dan Fogelberg, "Leader of the Band"
Just under a year before he died at the age of 86, Justin A. Dantonio saw his legacy cemented before 78,411 astonished people in Spartan Stadium and a national television audience. It was then burnished countless times throughout the football season, and after, on shows counting down the top 10 plays of the year, best moments in college football and sports highlights in general.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio paid a solemn, but touching, tribute to his father, who passed away peacefully Sunday while surrounded by his family in Zanesville, Ohio, by calling him a "problem-solver" at his first game-week news conference of the season Tuesday.
"He always told me to complete my circles, and if you have the right tool, you can fix anything," Dantonio said.
On Sept. 19, 2010, the Spartans were trailing Notre Dame, 31-28, in overtime. Dantonio sent in the field-goal unit, presumable to temporarily fix the problem by tying up the game and forcing a second overtime.
Instead, he pulled an even better tool, forever known as "Little Giants," and made a fix that will hold up for all time. Instead of having Dan Conroy kick the ball through the uprights, he told holder Aaron Bates to throw what would be a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Gantt.
And, he did, for a 34-31 victory that will stand up as one of the greatest in the storied MSU-Notre Dame rivalry.
Maybe with his father in mind, Dantonio relied on another nifty gadget, a "Mousetrap," a month later to fuel the rally at Northwestern. The fake-punt play, on fourth-and-11, set up a 15-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Mark Dell that cut the deficit to three points, and MSU went on to seal a 35-27 victory that it couldn't win the Big Ten title without.
Often mislabeled as an ultra-conservative coach, Dantonio has grabbed fake punts and hook-and-laterals out of his tool belt when it was least expected, and presumably to the delight of his father, throughout his MSU tenure.
While he was able to go back home to be with his father as his health headed to its ultimate conclusion, Dantonio will work through his loss just his father wanted him to.
"My father was a great man," Dantonio said. "As he told me over the last few days, you have to take the good with the bad. He was a problem-solver who tried to find a way out (of his predicament) right to the end. It was beautiful."
Justin A. Dantonio also asked his son what he was doing in Ohio when he had work that needed to be done in East Lansing, even though that problem was solved by letting defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi manage the day-to-day operation in the interim, with the rest of the staff and players picking up the slack.
See, there are even tools for mourning.