Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch and Detroit Free Press / LSJ MSU beat writer Chris Solari break down the latest happenings from MSU football practice, with highlights from Friday’s practice in the background.
Graham Couch / Lansing State Journal
It was a ridiculous question a year ago: Is Mark Dantonio’s job safe?
But this was also an unthinkable scenario.
I joked on Lansing radio last August that, just once, I’d like cover a 3-9 Michigan State football season. I chose that record off the cuff because it seemed too far-fetched to be serious.
Well, 3-9 happened. Then, in the offseason, things got worse.
The question isn’t so silly now. And the answer is no, Dantonio’s job isn’t safe.
Because, in college football, real job security is only found when nothing that happens on the field this season prevents you from coaching next season.
If 3-9 were to happen again, I think Dantonio would probably be out of a job. Same for 4-8. Perhaps even 5-7.
I don’t think that would necessarily be the right decision. And I’m certain the folks who’d make that call haven’t drawn such a line. But momentum in major college football is a bear.
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For most of a decade, the momentum has been with Dantonio. The Spartans’ football rise was improbable and thrilling. MSU had swagger. Its fans, proud and euphoric, took over Southern California at the Rose Bowl four years ago.
MSU’s goals were suddenly the same as those of Ohio State and Alabama. Dantonio appeared to be doing in football what Tom Izzo had done in basketball. MSU had become the Camelot of college athletics.
Then, thud. A historic football season on the opposite end of the spectrum, followed by an offseason of turmoil.
Two sexual assault cases involving four players added to the impression, fair or not, that a once-stable culture was collapsing.
The Larry Nassar case piled on. The former MSU and USA gymnastics doctor, charged with 20 counts of first-degree sexual assault, had nothing to do with football, but his case was an easy transition in conversation, part of the larger picture.
Dantonio described it as a perfect storm.
For the purposes of this column, we’ll assume there are no major off-field incidents in the next few months — no more alleged sexual assaults, no bar brawls or team couch burnings that create the impression that the program has run amok. Coaches only get so many lives with that stuff.
What Dantonio has to do now is win again, at first just modestly, but then at a rate that satisfies a new standard at MSU — one he created, one only he’s been able to live up to.
Spartan fans should root like hell for this to happen. Because no football coach has ever been a stronger fit or better hire at MSU than Dantonio. No other coach in the modern era has taken MSU where Dantonio has. And, given MSU’s success rate in identifying and hiring new football coaches over the last 45 years, the odds MSU hits the jackpot again aren’t great.
Don’t just take it from me. Take it from those who’ve been a part of the decision process at MSU for decades, who played a role both in hiring Dantonio and the dysfunction before him.
“Of all the coaches I have seen at Michigan State University, there is no better fit than Mark Dantonio,” said retired MSU vice president and spokesman Terry Denbow, who arrived at the beginning of the George Perles era and was in on the interview process for every football coach after that, Nick Saban through Dantonio.
“If we were having a coaching search right now, applying the same principles, values, strategies and tactics that we did when we hired Mark Dantonio, we’d hire Mark Dantonio.”
“It would be hard to go get anyone of his caliber,” said Joel Ferguson, a member of MSU’s Board of Trustees for three decades. “He understood our culture when he walked in the door. I’ll never forget when (MSU president) Lou Anna (Simon) put (athletic director Mark) Hollis in charge of the search. He said, ‘I’m going to go after Mark Dantonio.’ Because Dantonio understood the culture and what we needed. And Mark Dantonio is still what we need at Michigan State.”
Saban ran from the Michigan rivalry. John L. Smith didn’t believe MSU could stand eye-to-eye with the Wolverines.
Dantonio dove into it with bravado, seeming to recognize and embrace the deep-rooted insecurities of his fan base, one he’d gotten to know during his time as an assistant under Saban in the late 1990s.
When Michigan running back Mike Hart mocked the Spartans in 2007 with a too-close-to-home characterization of what MSU football was — and perhaps is again — to Michigan, its “little brother,” Dantonio showed teeth, rather than cowering.
“It’s not over. It’ll never be over. It’s just starting.” he insisted.
Dantonio lifted the spirits of the MSU faithful in that postgame press gaggle. He stared down the Spartans’ lifelong bully and set a new tone for the rivalry. He put himself in the foxhole with every battered fan, every tired alum, making promises he surely couldn’t keep. Then he kept them. No one had ever done that.
MSU is 7-3 against Michigan in Dantonio’s tenure. Easily forgotten amid Michigan’s rebirth, Jim Harbaugh mania and 3-9 in East Lansing.
The rivalry will be key again to Dantonio’s next act. The parameters of his hot seat change if he wins in Ann Arbor this October. He could easily survive 5-7 then. If MSU wins there, chances are that’s not an issue anyway. If he keeps winning his share against Michigan, he’ll be able to choose his retirement date.
The term “hot seat” with Dantonio is also overstated. Coaches facing true heat usually have to win like they never have before. Dantonio just has to avoid another disaster. You’d know it when you saw it. A duplication of his next worst season at MSU would easily have him back in 2018, when he’d have a veteran quarterback, an older squad and Michigan and Ohio State on the home schedule.
It’s dangerous and unfair to attach a number of wins required in a season to a coach’s job status. Or even to set expectations with an adjective. Denbow recalls the “outstanding” season expected of Perles in 1994.
“I was part of that, and I regret being part of that. I really do,” Denbow said. “I was the one who said it first. And that was wrong.
“I think it is wrong to send a signal internally or externally that there’s an expectation based on number of wins or losses. I think that is wrong to do to a program. It’s wrong to do to an individual. It’s wrong to do to a university. It makes people use a metrics-based expectation that just might not exist. And it allows game-to-game, week-to-week, sometimes half-to-half analysis where that just isn’t right.
“You support them 100 percent or you don’t support them at all.”
Dantonio has the support of Hollis, Simon and the MSU Board of Trustees.
“He’s done it before, and I have confidence that he can do it again,” Hollis said in June.
“Folks close to the program — the president, athletic director and other key people — know that you have a quality person and replacing him would be a step back,” Ferguson said. “The quality of our program from the head coach on down is something that would be very hard to (duplicate).”
That administrative support, however firm, is conditional.
MSU shouldn’t be overly sentimental if the program goes south. Yet Dantonio is 20 months removed from taking the Spartans to the College Football Playoff, from winning 36 games in three years.
That three-year win total will likely never happen again at MSU. Not while you or I are alive. Dantonio promised a Rose Bowl and delivered an extraordinary Pasadena pilgrimage. MSU might have been the best team in the country in 2013, pre-playoff. He’s taken the Spartans to the top of college football.
“I mean we’re not that many months away from talking about the greatest era in the history of MSU football,” Denbow said. “We were calling it the golden era. Golden eras don’t dissipate after a few losses or even many losses in the now.”
They do, however, if 3-9 is followed by 4-8. Still, be careful what you’re willing to discard, even if you think former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is an ideal heir apparent.
The Narduzzi factor complicates the fan dynamic. His presence — as head coach down the road at Pitt — leaves folks thinking an upgrade is readily available. I’m not sure, at MSU, there is an upgrade from Dantonio. Remember, Saban didn’t get it done in East Lansing. Not like Dantonio. Saban didn’t have the patience to find out if he could. Those were different times, a different Big Ten than what Dantonio came into a decade ago, a Big Ten closer to what exists now.
MSU might have to live with being the Iowa of the East Division from here on — usually good, occasionally great, once in a while down. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz followed up his worst season, 4-8, with 8-5 and, two years later, went 12-2.
Fans in Iowa get frustrated with Ferentz, as fans do around here with Dantonio. They’re both stubborn and loyal coaches. Dantonio’s strength, his loyalty, can also be a weakness. Iowa has been patient with Ferentz and has been rewarded. Ferentz is a perfect fit there. Iowa won’t ever do any better over two decades.
Ditto for MSU over a decade. Dantonio is the standard.
“The worst thing you could do is not to be really loyal to the right fit,” Ferguson said.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.