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CHICAGO – In Mark Dantonio’s decade-long run at Michigan State, he’s led the Spartans to three Big Ten championships, a College Football Playoff appearance (2015) and a Rose Bowl victory (2014). In repositioning Michigan State from the league’s middle class to its penthouse, he executed the uprising in such a classy and understated manner that the whole thing felt a bit, well, boring.
But at Big Ten media days in Chicago on Monday, the Spartans belied their bland reputation for all the wrong reasons. No program in college football has nosedived more precipitously in the past 365 days than Michigan State. One year after talking about defending the league title riding a 36-5 three-season run, Dantonio found himself addressing some ugly truths on and off the field. What came out was far from boring.
On the field in 2016, Michigan State went 3-9 and 1-8 in the Big Ten. Off the field, things managed to be much worse. Four players were dismissed from the program for their role in two sexual assault cases, issues so serious that university leadership felt the need to publicly support Dantonio. Overall, 12 players with eligibility remaining left Michigan State last year, a result of the sexual assault cases, other legal issues, academic struggles and other more general attrition.
Dantonio handled a flurry of difficult questions in a dignified and thoughtful manner on Monday. He said he feels “very supported” by the university, considers the last year “the anomaly” and expressed full confidence in how he’s operating the Spartans on and off the field. “The culture that we established is the reason I’m still sitting here, quite honestly,” Dantonio said. “Had that culture never been established, I doubt very seriously that I would be here.”
When I asked Dantonio why we should believe things will be different for the Spartans in 2017, he shot back: “Are you a betting man?” I’m not a betting man, but the crossroads Dantonio faces in 2017 create a compelling over-under scenario. Dantonio is slated to receive a $4.3 million retention bonus if he stays at Michigan State through Jan. 15, 2020. If I were a betting man, my money would be that Dantonio isn’t still on the Spartan sideline to collect that bonus.
Why? It’d be foolish to cast Dantonio as being squarely on the hot seat for 2017. But it would be equally naïve to believe that Michigan State administrators don’t need to see drastically different results on and off the field to have the same support for Dantonio after this season. Lukewarm can simmer quickly to hot. And don’t think for a second that MSU brass isn’t aware of the job former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is doing at Pittsburgh. He’d clearly be their top target to replace Dantonio.
Dantonio has seen his mentor, Jim Tressel, and countless other legends from Bobby Bowden to Joe Paterno fail to get to write their own ending. Sitting here in 2017, Dantonio still has the chance to write his. “Everyone wants to write their own ending to their story,” he said. “I don’t know if you’re able to or not. Everyone wants to. My focus is when I came here, I wanted to re-establish Michigan State football, leave a legacy and leave it in a good place. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s my intent and that’s what I’ll do.”
Dantonio has crushed his first two goals, as he’s put together a borderline Hall of Fame career (108-59 record) while leading the school on a run of unprecedented success. Right now, leaving the program in a good place looks a bit trickier as there’s a daunting road back to the heights Dantonio brought the program.
Michigan State has just nine scholarship seniors and significant personnel issues. They’ll be breaking in an unproven quarterback, redshirt sophomore Brian Lewerke, who is 0-2 as a starter. They are so thin at defensive end they’re relying on a former walk-on and are likely to start a true freshman at cornerback. In other words, this is not the Michigan State of Connor Cook, Shilique Calhoun and Darqueze Denard.
Before completely writing off the Spartans for youth and inexperience, one must remember that Dantonio won by developing three-star recruits. No one knows if Michigan State has the horses to compete because they aren’t familiar with the horses.
But it’s undeniable that the Big Ten is much stouter than when Dantonio’s rise to prominence began. Urban Meyer has Ohio State lodged in college football’s elite, Michigan is in its best place since Lloyd Carr’s tenure and Penn State returns 16 starters from a Big Ten title team. In other words, this shotgun rebuilding project will take place amid a Kentucky Derby field as opposed to an Arkansas Derby field. “Can he do it?” said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry Dinardo. “Yes he can. But he’s going to have to do it in a different environment. His ascension wasn’t in that environment.”
To Dantonio’s credit, he didn’t duck any of the hard questions on Monday. (He did tease this reporter about asking a few.) The most compelling answer came from when he was asked for specifics on what Michigan State did to address the sexual-assault issues. (The two cases resulted in the dismissal of the four accused players and university administrators found Dantonio followed all the proper protocols). Dantonio pointed out the program didn’t have those types of issues through his first nine seasons. He also said that they brought in the school’s director of Title IX, worked with administrators to bring in more speakers and had player-led meetings to address the sexual-assault issues. “I think the biggest educational component is that we’ve gone through it,” he said. Adding later: “We’ve brought speakers in. We’ve done that. When you see it happen in front of your eyes, and you see the result of it on both sides and see the tragedy that unfolds right in front of your eyes, there’s a message there for everybody.”
Dantonio’s overall message on Monday was that Michigan State would return to the Michigan State we remembered. The same program that lost to Indiana and Illinois, gave up 54 points to Northwestern and got blown out by Penn State and Wisconsin would rediscover its grinding “inch-by-inch” identity. “If you want to look in-depth, we’ve won two of the past four Big Ten championships,” Dantonio said. “This is a program that has substance to it, that has been in a great place that took a step backwards. Now we need to respond.”
How Michigan State responds this year will go a long way toward Dantonio’s ability to write his own ending. With an inexperienced roster in college football’s hardest division, Michigan State feels more than a few inches away from being a contender. It would be a great story to see Dantonio right the ship on the field, clean up the mess off it and exit someday with a return to the top. But considering the current state of Michigan State in this new era of the Big Ten, I wouldn’t bet on it.