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Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Spring Q&A: Michigan State's Mark Dantonio

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Mark Dantonio is changing the culture at Michigan State. In his first two seasons as Spartans head coach, Dantonio has gone 16-10 and guided the team to back-to-back bowls for the first time since 1996-97. A program known for midseason collapses and a lack of mental toughness made a push for the Big Ten title last fall before stumbling Nov. 22 at Penn State. The Spartans ended a six-game slide to archrival Michigan in October, and Dantonio and his staff have made major upgrades in recruiting. More challenges lie ahead, as Michigan State must replace All-American running back Javon Ringer, quarterback Brian Hoyer and standout safety Otis Wiley, among others.

Dantonio sat down last week to discuss the upcoming season and his vision for the program.

 
  Fernando Medina/US PRESSWIRE
  Mark Dantonio has produced a 16-10 record since taking over as the Spartans' head coach.

You mentioned last year that this team overachieved a bit. Do you sense it will have to be like that again this year?

Mark Dantonio: It's something we constantly talk about here. I don't care where you're at and the status of things, how long you've played, whether it's [All-Big Ten linebacker] Greg Jones or whoever, it's always important to overachieve because you're always going to face adversity. You want to be known as that type of player, regardless of your ability level. We'll continue to concentrate on that.

Are you about where you thought you'd be as far as your short-term and long-term plan for the program?

MD: I've never really said, 'This is what we need to do in Year 1 or Year 2.' We've set goals, tried to get to those points and places, and we've accomplished some goals. We haven't won a championship yet. That's the goal that we set out for every single year. Why coach if you're not excited about trying to make those goals? Why play if you just say, 'I hope we can win seven games this year?' So I never really put a timetable on that. I've always said, 'This is what we've done. Now what are we going to do next year?' I've never felt like we've arrived. But the culture is changing, which is important. The ability to stay in games and play hard, I hope we're changing that. I look at the 26 games that we've played since I've been here, and there's two games -- the Ohio State game and the Penn State game [in 2008] -- where we've been out of the game. I would hope that perception is changing. But you can always slip right back into it if you're not careful.

How hard is it to do that, to avoid slipping back to the culture that was here before?

MD: That culture where things would fade quickly on us, that existed when I was here before [as an assistant from 1995-2000]. The Wisconsin game, boom, in 1999 [a 40-10 loss], or you beat Ohio State and lose to Minnesota, or whatever the case it was. Or whether it was getting shellacked by Nebraska or going out to Oregon [and getting beat]. That was here. What we have to do is make sure we're changing that perception. And I think we are. Our players need to understand they truly need to play one play at a time. That's a coaches' adage, but you have to do that in this day and age because one slip-up -- you don't take advantage of an offensive opportunity, or you have a poor special-teams performance, or one mental assignment on defense -- can cost you. You have to be able to play with attention to detail or you can't play. There's too much parity in college football. You hear the perception about the Southeastern Conference versus the Big Ten, but you look at it and you look at how close the game was between us and Georgia, it could have went the other way. Texas-Ohio State could have went the other way. So it's just tight out there. You better be ready to play. It's mental toughness. I believe that.

The problem with mental toughness was here before. Was it a coaching thing? Was it the type of players coming in who maybe didn't have what you're looking for now?

MD: The coaches coach it, but there has to be a level of confidence among your players that you're never out of a football game. And that's easy to say. But when you're in front of 80,000 people, national TV and things start going bad, there has to be some type of leadership there, and I'm not talking from a coaching standpoint. It's from a player standpoint on the field that can stop the thing from unraveling. Hopefully, we're getting to that. The one thing that I'll say about our [tenure], and we can point to this very proudly: our seniors, the last two years, had their best senior years. When you look at a guy like Jehuu Caulcrick, had his best year in '07. Travis Key, best year. Last year, Javon certainly ran the ball enough, but he had a good year, 22 touchdowns. Brandon Long had a good year, Ryan Allison. These aren't guys who are household names, but they had great years as seniors. That makes all the difference. If you have a great senior year, you've got a chance of doing great things. If you have a subpar or bad senior year, that undermines the whole football team because of the leadership involved from your seniors. When your leaders are feeling good and confident, others will feel confident.

Where do you feel the team leadership is at this point?

MD: We have quite a few players back who played. You look at our secondary, we have five senior defensive backs. We have two senior offensive linemen, they've played. Blair White's played. They're poised for a good senior year, but it's a little bit of an unknown until you get there. It truly is a journey and confidence is very, very fragile. You could see teams that go into the season ranked very high in the polls, and all of a sudden, at the end of the year, where are they at? And then you can also see these teams come out of nowhere and perform very well. It's a credit to our seniors last year that in the last game of [the regular season], we're playing for a Big Ten championship. That was real. They accomplished a lot, but we weren't co-champions, so I can't sit there and say that we met expectations.

It sounds like [quarterbacks] Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol are a lot more similar players than people think. How are they similar as people and leaders?

MD: They're a little bit different, personality-wise. They're extremely hard-working people. They don't take things for granted, they have good leadership qualities. I've seen that. They are good examples of leadership because they are such hard workers. They have great physical toughness. They're both loyal to this program. So all the intangibles that you see and want to measure, they're very similar in those things.

You d
on't seem to be in a hurry to make a decision on a starter.

MD: What we're building for is consistency in performance over the long term. I want this program to be built with a great foundation. We've laid a couple big bricks in there with bowl games and some of the different things we've done, but with the quarterback and from the team perspective, when the game starts heating up, slow the game down. That's what we'll do with these guys. We'll make sure they'll have opportunities and that they make or break it based over a period of time. It's not just [snaps his fingers] spring practice, and August, for that matter. You're going to have a feel and somebody's going to get the nod. You can't run both of them out there, and maybe I will, just see who walks up under the center [laughs]. But I want them to feel good about where they're at. There's enough pressure on quarterbacks today without having that additional pressure. I want them to do that I have faith in both of them, we as coaches have faith in both of them.

How flexible is the offense? It was pretty straightforward last year with Javon, the power run, Brian did some things. But with these two guys and some different types of backs, is there more flexibility in this year's scheme?

MD: We're going to see. We certainly need to be able to grow as a program. The beauty of being together as a staff, not just here but Cincinnati, is we're not creating. We're not coming in here and creating something new. We're evolving and trying to build on something we have. We're trying new things. We're trying to see what works best for these people. That's a positive thing. If your staff stays together, intact, you can continue to do that and take steps forward. That's what we'll do.

Defensively, can you see this group taking another step?

MD: We have a lot of players back. In the secondary, we lost one player. We played nine. And we've got a really good player in Trenton Robinson coming in, some good freshmen coming. Our linebackers all can run. [Adam] Decker, who's a backup right now, started for us half the year last year. We have experience there. And then our defensive line, we lose three guys -- Long, [Justin] Kershaw and Dwayne [Holmes] -- two of them were starters, but I think we're pretty good there. When I look at our defense right now, it's coming. When I look at our offense, we're retooling the offensive line and you can see the different levels of how they're gaining confidence. There may be a breakdown here or maybe that guy is playing well on the other side of the ball, but I see us as one unit and I see us working in rhythm. You have to do that. Our running back situation, they need touches. When they got their touches last year, they lost the ball. But they're talented. And we have two very talented freshmen [Edwin Baker and Larry Caper] coming in. You look at our wide receivers, relatively young last year with a redshirt freshmen, two freshmen, a sophomore and Blair White, who sort of came into his own. But [Mark] Dell was hurt much of the year, B.J. [Cunningham] was hurt much of the year, Keshawn [Martin] was hurt part of the year. We have four guys, and probably will look for a fifth or a sixth competitively. The specialists are very solid.

At running back, could that be a situation where four or five guys could share carries?

MD: You have to get guys in rhythm, so we're looking for two or three. I don't think we can go to four or five. Three's the max. But we used three at Cincinnati when I was there, and all of them would get over 70, 80, 100 snaps. But you need to have two and then a third be ready.

You got a new contract in December. It seems like you're putting down some roots here. Is that how you thought it would be when you decided to come back?

MD: That's how it was going to be when we came back here. As a family, we don't look to move. We went to Cincinnati, had never really been to Cincinnati, but it was an opportunity to be a head coach. There were only probably two places that I would go, and that would be here or 'the other place,' as [Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel] put it to me. I said, 'I don't know,' and he's like, 'There's only two places, and I'm not leaving.' I think we had limited success at Cincinnati, but I knew this was a place where I knew people. Our family had roots here. I knew my children could be happy. I knew my wife would be happy. I knew I was going to work for an athletic director -- I knew Mark [Hollis] was going to be the guy -- and we had a relationship before. Tom Izzo and I had a relationship before. I knew all the secretaries. I knew the trainers, I knew the managers, I knew everybody. So it was a place where I could come back and feel at ease and at home. We've had a limited amount of success early because of the coaching staff's ability, because of my knowledge of this place and having been here, and because of the resources around us here.

Can this be a destination job?

MD: Yes, that's how I looked at it. It is a destination job. If you read the fine print, that's it. I'm 53. I'd like to coach here seven, eight years, as long as I can hang. But you've got to win. This is a process, and that's what I've tried to say. This is not a quick fix. All I'm trying to guarantee to our players is we're going to work hard, and that gives us a chance. As soon as you think you've arrived, you don't have a chance, in my mind. Maybe at the premier places can that have been winning forever, just by sure dominance, but we're not there yet.