The only significant common denominator between Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has provided an interesting -- but perhaps unfair -- comparison as the latest installment of the Spartans-Irish rivalry draws closer.
Before their current posts, both punched in for three seasons at Cincinnati. Dantonio guided the Bearcats from 2004-06 and through their transition from Conference USA to the Big East. With an 18-17 record, Dantonio left for MSU before Cincinnati's January International Bowl appearance in 2007.
Kelly ran alongside the Bearcats and jumped into the driver's seat en route to Toronto, steering UC to a victory over Western Michigan. He never looked back, finishing 34-6 with a pair of league titles at Cincinnati, which seemingly overnight became an upper-crust program.
"I don't know [Kelly] that well," Dantonio said Tuesday. "I really don't know him. I know of him, I know his reputation, I know he's a great football coach, etc. But as far as the Cincinnati thing, to me it's sort of a non-issue. The fact that he went to Cincinnati and was able to win championships there, to me, he helped make the dreams come true for some of the players I recruited.
"When we recruited some of those players, we were just entering the Big East, we were just getting new facilities. We recruited them with the idea that they could do something special. The fact that they were able to recognize that dream, and [Kelly] had a part of doing that, I think is a huge statement for what he did for that program and what he did for those young people. So I applaud him for that."
Dantonio is often a tough man to read. But it's safe to assume he'd rather not answer that question again. Nor did he look particularly chipper when asked if MSU is forever indebted to Notre Dame, which scheduled the Spartans 20 times before 1953 -- the first season East Lansing became a Big Ten tour stop. Again, Dantonio was diplomatic in his response.
"I don't really feel a hatred for Notre Dame," he said. "I don't know if our players do or not. I think we have a respect for the rivalry. I think it's been intense. Now some players may say that they just don't like them. I don't know. But I do know the background that Notre Dame was very involved in us coming into the Big Ten because they started playing us back when.
"They made us legitimate, I guess is what I'd say or what I've heard. They made us a legitimate national team and because of that we were able to get into the Big Ten, which is the way I think the story goes. Because of that there's a sense of gratitude there."
Because of Dantonio's upbringing, his preset allegiance to the Irish as a child was another topic he handled with bipartisan gloves.
"I was a Catholic growing up in Ohio," he said. "There was only, what, one game on, there were three television stations and Notre Dame played on Sunday mornings, telecasts [played] back. ... That's just a kid growing up, a Roman Catholic boy growing up in Zanesville, Ohio. So that's where I was."
Cousins hopes to exorcise '09 demon: When the Spartans visited Notre Dame last season, MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins perforated the Irish secondary for 302 yards. But his interception deep in ND territory on Michigan State's final drive secured a 33-30 Irish victory.
Dantonio downplayed how much Cousins dwelled on the costly mistake. However, the redshirt junior told the Grand Rapids Press this week the pick has haunted him ever since.
"Oh, man, constantly," Cousins told the paper. "There will be a lot of emotion built into that game for me, and I need to do a good job and not let the emotion hurt the way I play. I have to approach it as business as usual and do a good job, not play on too much emotion. I need to focus on the game, not last year, and yet at the same time I want to channel it and let it motivate me to play better."