Dantonio shapes Spartans in own image

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
11:00
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The signature sideline scowl had disappeared, leaving in its place a look of genuine pride.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
AP Photo/Al GoldisFor all his success at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio knows he still has work to do.
As Michigan State's players and coordinators stood at a podium and reviewed Saturday's destruction of Michigan, head coach Mark Dantonio watched from the back, admiring the men who had helped his vision become reality. He leads a Michigan State program that appears headed for a third 10-win season in the past four years and a second Legends Division title in the past three seasons. The 29-6 victory against Michigan marked the Spartans' fifth in the past six seasons, their best stretch in the series since winning six of seven between 1956-62.

Dantonio didn't look satisfied. Not after a regular-season win, even against a rival. Not for a guy who considers Nick Saban and Jim Tressel his two main coaching influences.

The 57-year-old looked more like an architect admiring his latest and greatest creation. College football's best coaches are often praised for shaping their programs in their own images. That's what Dantonio has done in his seventh season at Michigan State.

How many other Big Ten coaches can say the same?

"We're going to play to win, and we're going to play hard, and we're going to play like I've been taught throughout my coaching career," Dantonio said Saturday. "We're going to play good defense. We're going to try and run the ball. We're going to try and physically win."

Good defense -- actually, great defense -- along with the power run game and physical play are three characteristics of a culture Dantonio feels has been in place at Michigan State for some time. It has translated into 28 Big Ten victories in the past five seasons, more than any other league squad. Michigan State's seniors are a win away from becoming the program's all-time winningest class, a mark currently held by the 2011 seniors.

The 2012 season -- when the Spartans, a popular preseason pick to win the Big Ten title, dropped five league games by a total of 13 points -- has become the exception more than the rule in East Lansing. But Dantonio sensed better days were ahead when Michigan State won its final two games, including a come-from-behind victory against TCU at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

At the team banquet, he told the group: You will be the ones.

"I felt like they were destined for greatness, but we've got to do the work," he told ESPN.com this week. "It's not our God-given ability. It's an attitude and a culture. What separated last year's team from this year's team, quite honestly, were inches.

"We're just finding the inches this year."

The offensive woes that plagued MSU in 2012 spilled into this season, as the Spartans, despite more superb defense, scrambled for answers on the other side of the ball. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun scored three touchdowns in the first two games, more than the entire Spartan offense.

A 17-13 road loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 21 suggested another season of what-ifs, but Big Ten play once again has brought out the best in Dantonio's team, which now complements the nation's best defense with a decent offense led by quarterback Connor Cook.

 


We're going to play to win, and we're going to play hard, and we're going to play like I've been taught throughout my coaching career. We're going to play good defense. We're going to try and run the ball. We're going to try and physically win.


-- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio

 

"People left us for dead after September and said, 'They're playing good defense but they can't score,'" Dantonio said. "Now it's sort of changed through October, and the first week of November, all of a sudden, people are saying, 'Hey, maybe.'"

Dantonio has tried to incorporate the best elements of the men he has worked for, whether it's Saban's famous "process" and attacking defense, or the way Tressel approached rivalry games. He hopes to be a combination of Saban, Tressel and his other former bosses (Glen Mason and Earle Bruce are two others), but the MSU program undoubtedly belongs to him.

Dantonio believes in empowering his players and assistants.

He allows players to help structure open weeks like this one and choose uniform combinations on game days (the Spartans went all green against Michigan). Although his external image is, fairly or unfairly, characterized by that game-day scowl, he has a lighter side, as he showed after the Michigan win, when he danced with players in the locker room to Rich Homie Quan's "Type Of Way."

"Our team has done it this entire year after every win," he said. "I told everybody, 'Hey, I'm not dancing until the Michigan win. When we win, then I'll dance.'"

Dantonio can come off dry in public, but he showed his sense of humor after the Michigan win, telling Spartan fans, "Walk the streets. Don't burn any couches, though."

"Everybody says I'm very stoic on the sideline, but I like to have fun, and I want our team to have fun, and I try to make it fun for them," Dantonio said. "At the same time, they don't need somebody soft sitting at the head of the table, either."

Dantonio isn't soft. He's quickly becoming one of the nation's better coaches. But like his team, he has one step left and that's taking Michigan State to the Rose Bowl.

The Spartans came close in both 2010 and 2011 but lost out to Wisconsin in both seasons. Despite a win against the Badgers in 2010, the Spartans were passed over for the Rose Bowl because of Wisconsin's higher ranking in the final BCS standings. The following season, the two met in the inaugural Big Ten championship, an exhilarating game that Wisconsin won 42-39.

Heading into this season, Dantonio made "Chase It" the team theme, not to be confused with Ohio State's credo, "The Chase."

"That's what we'll do, we'll chase it down," Dantonio said. "We've been to New Year's Day bowl games, won one against Georgia, beat TCU last year, but to truly get there, you've got to win a championship. To truly establish yourself, you've got to do that. And that's something that hasn't been done here for a while.

"So we truly are chasing it."

The Spartans hope to catch it Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. If they do, "Type Of Way" will play in the locker room, and Dantonio will once again dance along.

This much is clear: Dantonio's type of way is working at Michigan State.

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