- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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This week, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talked about the road to success, one he's traveled for more than two seasons.
"This road to success is not always even," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "There's going to be a lot of challenges. There's going to be a lot of holes in this road. But you've got to be able to work around them and fill them in when you can."
Dantonio reached two junctions on the road -- one professional, one personal -- during the night of Sept. 18, 2010.
Michigan State, coming off a disappointing 2009 season both on and off the field, hosted Notre Dame under the lights at Spartan Stadium. The game seesawed back and forth and spilled into overtime, where Notre Dame had the first possession and converted a field goal to take a 31-28 lead. Michigan State's drive stalled, setting up a 46-yard field goal attempt for young Spartans kicker Dan Conroy.
Until that point, Dantonio had been best known known for coordinating Ohio State's national title-winning defense in 2002, responding to Mike Hart's "little brother" comment after the 2007 Michigan-Michigan State game, and providing some stability to Michigan State's erratic program. He wasn't known as a gambler. But at that moment, he said a prayer and made the gutsiest call of the 2010 season, a fake-field goal pass that he'd nicknamed "Little Giants," after the Rick Moranis/Ed O'Neill movie about peewee football.
Notre Dame bit, holder Aaron Bates threw a strike to tight end Charlie Gantt, who raced to the end zone and the celebration in Sparta began.
Asked Tuesday if he'd ever made a call like "Little Giants" before, Dantonio replied, "You mean on the last play of the game? In overtime? No, I've never done that. Not many have, probably."
It's safe to say no major college coach has had a night like Dantonio had on Sept. 18, 2010. He reached the second junction about an hour after the game, out of the spotlight, when he began to feel tightness in his chest. The 54-year-old was having a mild heart attack and underwent surgery to put a stent in a blocked blood vessel.
"It was surreal," Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "I'm not sure everybody knew that night, but I got a call from his wife saying, 'Hey, Mark's in the hospital.' You went to bed going, 'What the heck is going on? We just got this win, Coach is in the hospital.'
"It was an interesting evening, that's for sure."
Dantonio has been through a lot since that night. He has led Michigan State to consecutive 11-win seasons, the inaugural Legends division championship, two more wins against archrival Michigan (four straight overall), an Outback Bowl championship and both a top-10 finish to the 2011 season and a top-10 placement so far in 2012. He was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2010.
There also have been challenges: missing two games during his recovery in 2010; losing his father, Justin, days before the 2011 season; and seeing his mentor and closest coaching friend, Jim Tressel, exit Ohio State in disgrace after a scandal.
He also has made small but significant changes to his routine: eating better, working out more, not stressing over every detail. As No. 20 Notre Dame prepares to return to Spartan Stadium on Saturday night, Dantonio, in his sixth year with Michigan State, is at the top of his game.
"If you choose to look to grow, you're going to grow," said Dantonio, 56. "If you want to stay the way you are and stagnant, then that's where you're going to be. There's got to be change. Change keeps everybody fresh."