Checking in with ... Mark Dantonio, Part II

August, 24, 2008
8/24/08
11:29
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg 

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 Despite vowing to take it one game at a time, Mark Dantonio's Spartans can't help but look forward to the matchup against rival Michigan.

Mark Dantonio discusses quarterback Brian Hoyer, the Michigan rivalry and his influences in the second of of my interview with the Michigan State head coach.

With Brian [Hoyer], you've talked about the fourth quarter and making plays and the difference between the great quarterbacks and the others. Have you put him in more pressure situations in camp and how has he responded?

Mark Dantonio: We constantly work all different types of situations in camp, but it's very difficult to prepare you for 80,000 people at the end of the game with a national TV audience and the chips on the table. That's tough. You've got to go through that first-hand, I think. We can act like that in practice and then say, 'Hey, you need to get this done or that done,' but it's not the same. Quarterback is such a big decision-maker in all those things. As far as how Brian played last year, going into the season our receiver situation was very unsettled, our tight end position was unsettled. One thing we knew we had [Javon] Ringer, but we didn't know if we had a backup tailback. Our quarterback had played a little bit and had a couple nice games, but he was not the starter coming back. So with a quarterback who's thrown the ball over 300 times back, who's seen all the different situations, the different looks, he's going to grow from those experiences. His leadership will be invaluable. He's got presence on the field and he knows our offense such so that he's almost like having another coach on the field. I think we'll take a step forward, but it's going to depend on execution. It all gets evaluated on game day.

You mentioned the Cal game. They obviously have a starter [at quarterback] now, [Kevin] Riley came on last year. How does he affect your preparation at all and how big is it to start off with a game like that?

MD: Cal has a couple of different unknowns there. One, they have a new offensive coordinator and two, they've gone to sort of a 3-4 defense, which they haven't run as much. Riley is an excellent quarterback. Both those guys are. A very well-coached football team, very tied together in all aspects, whether it's the passing game or protection. Defensively, the same thing could be said. So it will be a tremendous challenge for us, going out there on the West Coast, playing a team that at one point in time last year was ranked No. 2 in the nation. We're coming right into the fire. I think we'll learn a little bit about ourselves as we go. It will be a learning experience for us from that respect. I'm sure there's going to be adversity. I'm sure we're going to come away happy with some things and not so happy with some things, but that's football. We're going to be ready for the challenge, I can tell you that. We'll be focused.

You're focused on Cal, but you and the players haven't been shy about talking about the Michigan game and building that up. How important was that when you came in, stressing that game?

MD: Any time you're in a program, I don't care what program it is, a high school program, a college program, there are certain teams that are rivals. They become rivals through the years. You have to recognize that fact. History demands that you recognize that fact because of the players who have played that game in the past. Wherever I've been as a head coach, at Cincinnati and now at Michigan State, we've done that. We did that at Ohio State, we did that at Youngstown [State] when I was there. We did that at Michigan State when I was here before, we did it at Kansas when I was at Kansas. The history of who I've been with as an assistant coach and then my time as a head coach has been about taking one game and making it a little bit more special, providing a little bit more of a sense of urgency for. Right now, we focus on the task at hand, but in the off times of the year, when we reflect back on what's happened, we want to look back and say, 'How did we play against this team?' You need to have games that measure your program and I think that's one of them that does.

You got a little emotional last year about the post-game stuff with Mike Hart. But did that need to happen, some fire from the Michigan State side?

MD: I don't know about that. I just reacted. Internally, I don't need to show that to the public. I need to show how I feel to our football and our players. They got the best of me, the reporters, so I reacted. Any time you're a competitor, any time you compete, you want to win and you want to do well. When you make things a little bit personal, it means a little bit more to you.

You worked with [Ohio State coach] Jim Tressel for a while and coaches borrow from who they work for. Do you still use a lot of things that he taught you, or as you go into your fifth, sixth year as a head coach, are there more Mark Dantonio things now?

MD: What I've tried to do is take things from Nick Saban and Glen Mason and Jim Tressel and Jim Dennison and Jim Young and Earle Bruce, all the people I've had experience with my 28 years of coaching. Also experiencing the times when I played and trying to make it my own program, our own program. I've listened to the coaches and what they've experienced. So we've got a lot of experience on this staff, and ideas flow freely here. Hopefully, we're making a mark on our kids that is somewhat unique in the way that we do it, but there's a lot of carryover from a lot of different programs, and not just ones that we've been on. [Oklahoma coach] Bobby Stoops is a very good friend of mine, so there's some things that we'll do that he has done. But whenever we see a good idea, we're going to use it and just make it a little bit better. You're either getting better or you're getting worse. You're not gonna stand still.

You've also talked about the recent history at Michigan State, you go to a bowl, don't go the next year, high expectations and fast fades. Is that as important as the rivalries, acknowledging the recent history, knowing what the obstacles are?

MD: It's important that our players understand that. Just like last year, we talked about playing for respect. That's what we had to do. Nobody expected us to do a thing. Now everybody expects us to roll and somewhere in between there is common ground. Our players need to understand that what happened last year was a result of a lot of hard work. We started off fast and we're 4-0 and then we lost some close games and then we rallied at the end. But it wasn't easy. There were a lot of emotions, up, down and around. That's the way this season's going to be. That's the way every football season is in everybody's program. It's important that our team realizes this isn't easy. We've got 13 weeks ahead of us that we'll experience all the joys and all the sorrows and all the frustration and excitement that a football season brings. How we handle the tough times is going to be important.

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