EAST LANSING, Mich. — October 2007. The rivalry was dead. Michigan had just won seven straight and 10 of the last 12 games against their in-state rival Michigan State when in the post game-presser following a 28-24 Wolverines victory in Spartan Stadium, Michigan’s Mike Hart called MSU Michigan’s “little brother”.
Then Dantonio took to the podium and changed everything with one (kinda confusing) simple phrase: “The pride comes before the fall”. MSU would go on to win 8 of the next 11 games in the rivalry, turning the Spartans into Michigan’s older brother.
Last Tuesday, Dantonio took to the podium once again, this time to announce his retirement before MSU’s basketball game later that night vs. Penn State. Having already announced his retirement via twitter earlier in the day, nothing out of the ordinary occurred at the press conference. Dantonio conducted the press conference the same way he coached on the sidelines: Composed, quiet, stern, and proud. He fought to remain stoic, holding back tears, while he received a barrage of questions regarding the timing of his retirement.
The timing of his retirement was fishy, having just been given a $4.3 million bonus three weeks prior and a lawsuit from former staffer Curtis Blackwell earlier the same day. But Dantonio said the lawsuit had “zero relevance” in the timing of his announcement, admitting he had only made the decision a week prior when he typed his retirement letter on the way home from a recruiting trip.
The lawsuit against Dantonio likely wouldn’t have ended in anything more than a settlement (see Memphis basketball for evidence on how the NCAA handles these issues) or the loss of a few scholarships, making the belief that “he retired because of the lawsuit” unlikely. The timely $4.3 million bonus he received just before retirement is also a non-issue to anyone within the MSU administration or fanbase. If he did decide to hold off the announcement until after he received the bonus, so what? If anyone deserved it, it was Dantonio.
He’s the one who won 114 games in his career, made 11 bowl game appearances, won three Big Ten Titles, a Sugar Bowl, and a Rose Bowl for MSU.
The same one who nearly died from a heart attack following his “Little Giants” victory over Notre Dame in September of 2010 and less than a month later was back on the sidelines leading MSU to an 11 win season.
But despite his glowing resume, Dantonio still has his detractors.
Throughout his career, he made a living recruiting less touted players and turning them into NFL draft picks. He also was known for giving players a “second chance” that might not have one otherwise. This backfired on him a few times, most notably when he went against his assistants’ advice and brought a recruit with a checkered past, Auston Robertson, to East Lansing… Only to have him kicked off the team shortly after for rape allegations. But for every Robertson, there are ten to twenty players who Dantonio helped mold into model citizens. But you don’t hear about those ones as much.
Dantonio was also a fiercely loyal guy, sometimes to a fault. That’s what made it so difficult for Pat Narduzzi to leave his position as MSU’s Defensive Coordinator for the vacant Head Coaching position at Pittsburgh in December of 2014. He had followed Dantonio to East Lansing from Cincinnati and had coached with him for a long time (over 10 years) — A similarity almost all of Dantonio’s assistants had.
So it came as no surprise as that when the Spartans had a 3-9 season in 2016 and a few lackluster years to follow, fans and media alike called for the heads of his coordinators — But Dantonio didn’t budge.
It might have cost Michigan State a few wins over the past few seasons, by simply shuffling the coaching staff around instead of firing his friends, but Dantonio stuck to his guns and remained loyal to “his guys” — Something you don’t see very often across college football.
It’s because of that loyalty that Dantonio stayed at Michigan State despite his continued success, whereas other coaches across the country such as Brett Bielema (Wisconsin), Mike Leach (Washington State), and Jimbo Fisher (Florida State) left their jobs for the pay raise that the SEC offered. But not Mark, he stayed home in East Lansing.
But the loyalty he always showed MSU wasn’t always reciprocated. According to Spartan Beat reporter Rico Beard, “Dantonio wanted to coach the upcoming 2020 football season, then retire & pick his replacement. However, in the meantime, MSU had hired a search firm to look into finding a new coach. Dantonio found out, was upset, and abruptly retired.”
Some might say this was “childish” by Dantonio, but he’s always been a “my way or the highway” type of guy (it’s partially what made him such a successful college coach) and for as much as he’s done for this program, it would only make sense that he would have some (if not all) say in who would be his successor… But the same administration that made “Tom Izzo apart of the search for the new head football coach” thought that was a bit much.
So Dantonio retired.
Throughout his career, everyone expected Dantonio to have a “ride off into the sunset” moment, but instead his retirement has been a complete nightmare. When asked in the press conference about whether the timing of his decision might affect the head coaching search, Dantonio responded: “Are you kidding me? People will run here, they’ll crawl here. Michigan State will get an outstanding football coach that will care about young people.”
Since then Cincinnati coach and Dantonio’s friend Luke Fickell has turned down the job, as well as Narduzzi, Iowa State Head Coach Matt Campbell, and Colorado Head Coach Mel Tucker. To make matters worse, Fickell said after his interview with MSU on Sunday that part of the reason he turned down the job at MSU was because of the “culture on MSU’s campus“.
People will blame Dantonio for the mess that has been created in East Lansing since he left, but the blame should be placed on the MSU media, fans, and administration who ran him out of the city. He loved Michigan State. But they didn’t always show it back; Whether it was through telling him how to coach (“fire your coordinators and bring in a spread offense guy”) or blocking him out of the hiring process of his successor…
Dantonio was taken for granted.
This guy made MSU football a national brand and gave their fans a voice, a rallying cry “pride comes before the fall” to combat the Michigan fans who heavily outnumbered him. He brought life back into a rivalry that had been dead for years. He took a down-and-out MSU program, that was still reeling from what coaches Bobby Williams and John L. Smith had done to them and turned them into a College Football Playoff team. He did that. Not the administration, the fans, or his assistants. Him.
We didn’t appreciate it at the time, but Dantonio was a blessing to both Michigan and MSU fans. Michigan fans hated his guts and wanted to beat him more than anything, yes, even more than Ohio State. He was one of those guys who you loved to hate and wanted to beat every time you played them… but you never could. He gave the rivalry balance and gave us some of the best games we could ever dream of: the -48 total yards for Michigan in 2014, the “trouble with the snap” game in 2015, the “monsoon” in 2017, and the “Devin Bush pre-game skirmish” in 2018, to name a few.
Both Michigan and MSU fans alike will look back on the past 12 years the same way we do the “10 Year War” between Woody and Bo… As the best a rivalry can be.
Similar to the relationship between Batman and the Joker, we hate each other but we need each other. Dantonio’s retirement was something I always thought would be a happy day for me (a huge Michigan fan), but oddly enough, it hasn’t. Sure, I hated him. But I never wanted Dantonio to retire, I wanted him and Michigan to go back and forth forever, just like a superhero and a villain would. But unfortunately, the day has finally come for Mark to hang up his cape (whistle), something that won’t set in for people until the Spartans meet-up against the Wolverines on October 10, 2020. When a small part of you will feel like it has died. When you finally realize, Mark is actually gone.
Dantonio’s legacy will always be a complicated one; Filled with some of the best moments in the program’s history, as well as some of the worst. But the good always outweighs the bad and he will forever be synonymous with Michigan State for what he brought them while he repped the green and white.
“I want to un-complicate my life,” Dantonio stated as one of the reasons he decided to retire at his press conference last Tuesday night. Something that he was never afforded in East Lansing with headaches like the Larry Nassar case constantly plaguing him.
But the MSU Football team is not his responsibility anymore. It seems the mantel will be passed to former Defensive Coordinator, Mike Tressel, who will coach one year on an interim basis before MSU looks for Dantonio’s replacement in December.
But there isn’t one. There will never be another Dantonio, he was one of a kind.
Thank you, Mark … you will be missed,
I’m sorry for calling you “the wicked witch of the west” all those times!