By prolonging his own exit, Mark Dantonio crippled the program he'd built at Michigan State

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports

Mark Dantonio did more to pull Michigan State football forward than any other coach in the school’s history. 

Then, in announcing he was stepping down Tuesday — on the eve of National Signing Day via a letter posted on Twitter no less — he did plenty to shove it back. 

Dantonio, 63, won 114 games at MSU, led the school to Big Ten titles, the Rose Bowl and even the College Football Playoff. He maxed out the place. Yet his run of excellence was clearly over the past few years — a 3-9 season in 2016, consecutive 7-6 campaigns in 2018 and 2019. 

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If he wanted to set the program up for the future, he should have announced last October or November he was stepping down at season’s end. Then State would have had plenty of time and a fair shot to attract the very best replacement possible. The new guy could have salvaged the recruiting class and started trying to re-establish momentum that doesn’t come easily in East Lansing. 

Instead, Dantonio remained defiant that much of anything was wrong. He bristled at suggestions he should retire or that he couldn’t rebuild. He extended the malaise that hung over everything. In the process, he stuck around long enough to pick up a $4.3 million retention bonus by being employed by the school on Jan. 15. 

And then a few weeks later he quit. 

Now State is left reeling. Who takes the job at this late date? What kind of staff could be built at this point? What happens to a recruiting class that was already ranked a pedestrian 36th by Rivals.com

Michigan State is an exceptional place, something Dantonio understood, believed in and reminded others about during his 13 seasons there. It’s capable of greatness, capable of standing toe-to-toe with the best of the Midwest. 

It isn’t simple though. You don’t just roll out the ball and win there. It happens only when everything is right. It’s still surrounded by Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame. It’s still in the Big Ten East. The margin for error is small. 

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio leaves the field after an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio leaves the field after an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

This is a self-inflicted wound, for both MSU and Dantonio’s legacy. Maybe it works out and someone such as Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell or Iowa State’s Matt Campbell decides to take the job and the good times quickly return. Maybe a brilliant succession plan is already worked out.

That’s the Spartan dream come true. More likely, however, is that getting the ideal candidate is far less likely than if Dantonio had announced his retirement last fall and given the school a fighting chance.

Did he stick around for the money? That will always be a narrative. That will always be the belief of some. That probably isn’t fair though. A buyout could have been worked out, at least, you’d think. Yes, the school is still lacking strong administrators following the Larry Nassar scandal, but was the topic even broached by Dantonio’s people?

Dantonio had earned that retention bonus money. He was extremely successful in East Lansing and hadn’t spent each offseason holding the school over a barrel for another extension by floating his name on the coaching rumor mill.

It’s what makes this so disappointing. This was the ultimate Spartan, or at least that is how he saw himself. So why do it this way?

One of Dantonio’s most famous quotes came early in his tenure when he took a shot at rival Michigan and all but predicted the reversal of football fortunes that came when MSU won eight of the next 10 meetings.

“Let’s just remember,” Dantonio said, “pride comes before the fall.”

Was this more of Dantonio’s pride leading to the fall? Was this just a continuation of a man who wouldn’t shake up his staff the past few years despite repeated failings? Was this one more example of a program that fell apart by recruiting higher-rated but less-coachable players, and in the process lost its blue-collar identity?

Or was this Dantonio running just as allegations of NCAA rule violations emerged in a court filing in the case of former staffer Curtis Blackwell against the school? 

On Monday night, Blackwell’s attorneys claimed that Dantonio arranged for the parents of two MSU players to get employment with a Spartan booster and that Dantonio had Blackwell accompany him on a recruiting visit, which isn’t allowed. 

By Tuesday, Dantonio was gone. While rumors of Dantonio stepping down were floating as of late, that will be a tough coincidence for some to overlook.

“I feel it is now time for change as we enter a new decade of Michigan State Football,” Dantonio wrote.

Thus far, that’s his only explanation. A news conference is scheduled for Tuesday night. In his announcement letter he added that he plans to stay on with the university in some kind of job.

By college football standards, he more than earned that golden parachute. Fine, but why didn’t he pull the cord sooner? The program he built deserved that much.

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