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MSU's Dantonio in elite coaching company

12/26/2013

You've probably seen The Scowl. Just about everybody has.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is often typecast on the sideline, where he's most exposed. His standard game-day expression -- furrowed brow, piercing eyes, pursed lips often forming a scowl -- creates a default image.

Saturday snapshots create lasting labels for coaches, as the Mad Hatter (LSU's Les Miles) or The Vest (former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel) can attest. For Dantonio, it's the scowl.

"People always ask me questions, about how he's grumpy or scowling," said Dan Enos, an assistant for Dantonio from 2004 to '09. "My daughter's even said that to me, watching him on TV. I don't know how he portrays himself to the public, but he's very funny, very engaging, obviously very bright -- one of the most pleasant, best people I've ever been around."

There's much more to Dantonio than the scowl. There's the meticulous mind who impressed his superiors as a young defensive coach by providing scouting reports, recruiting evaluations and game reviews. There's the chief who grants autonomy to his deputies while creating a culture of confidence fueled by themes -- this season's: Chase It -- and gutsy decisions.

There's the 57-year-old who names his trademark special-teams fakes after children's movies such as "Little Giants" and dances to hip-hop -- specifically, Rich Homie Quan's "Type of Way," MSU's anthem this season -- in the locker room after wins. There's the man dedicated to faith and family whose beliefs have been strengthened in recent years after a health scare and his father's death.

There's another label Dantonio has earned: elite coach. He has won 41 games since the start of the 2010 season, guiding Michigan State to two Big Ten championships, including its first outright title and Rose Bowl appearance in 26 years. Only five coaches have won more games than Dantonio in that span, including Alabama's Nick Saban, a Dantonio mentor known to scowl occasionally.

"He's just been rock solid," said Tressel, who had Dantonio on his staff at Ohio State and at Youngstown State. "He's always known what he wants to accomplish with his kids. He knew if he established a good, steady program, the winning would come, and it certainly has."

Dantonio's plan is blossoming at MSU, but the seeds were planted decades ago. As a graduate assistant at Ohio State, Dantonio oversaw live scouting (then permitted) and compiled extensive reports.

While serving as Ohio State's defensive coordinator, Dantonio wouldn't let the team recruit defenders unless they were sound tacklers and unselfish, regardless of their raw athleticism.

"He was very strict and stringent in his evaluation," Tressel said. "He wanted to meet every one of those defensive kids."

Dantonio's ability to "take the entire picture of a recruit," as Enos puts it, sets him apart. It helped when he left the brand-name program in Columbus for his first head-coaching post at Cincinnati, which he boosted in three years there.

Michigan State had greater recruiting reach, but, other than the 2009 class, Dantonio's hauls haven't landed on the national radar. Even this year's team, which featured the nation's No. 1 defense, had just three players rated in the ESPN 150/300, including two redshirting freshmen (Shane Jones and Damion Terry).

"They might not have a lot of four- or five-[star] recruits, but they play like four- and five-star," said Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason, who had Dantonio on his staff at Kansas from 1991 to '94. "That's what he went after, that's what he's built it around."

Michigan State men's basketball coach Tom Izzo sees similarities between Dantonio's program and his own, from player development -- "It's not like either of us are loaded with top-five guys," Izzo said -- to core values. The difference: Spartans hoops is a national powerhouse.

Dantonio's teams had been very good but not elite until this year. Player development and staff continuity helped -- only four assistants have departed in seven years, two for head-coaching jobs -- but Dantonio's handling of adverse situations pushed MSU a step further.

"He's gotten better at making tough decisions," Izzo said.

Dantonio suspended 13 players for the 2009 Alamo Bowl for their roles in an on-campus fight after the team banquet. He showed patience with a messy quarterback situation early this fall. Connor Cook eventually emerged.

"Everybody ripped him for having three quarterbacks in the same game," Izzo said. "Nobody stood out; he's trying to give each a chance. He did what he knew was right."

Dantonio made one of his toughest calls Wednesday night, suspending starting middle linebacker and two-time captain Max Bullough for the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

Dantonio's coaching trials have been interspersed with personal challenges. He suffered a mild heart attack in the 2010 season and missed two games. Five days before the 2011 season, Dantonio's father, Justin, died at age 86.

"You hope that all these experiences shape you," Dantonio said.

Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has seen a more relaxed Dantonio, who often reminds players that life is short so enjoy every moment.

"Mark is still the same Mark, but, when you lose your dad, it has an impact," MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said. "Do you shift the rudder a bit? Absolutely.

"But he's used those life experiences, I believe, to complete his life in a positive way."

Hollis hopes Dantonio will complete his coaching career at MSU. Hollis built bonds with Dantonio and Izzo while all three served in assistant roles at MSU in the 1990s. The triumvirate talks daily about player conduct, recruiting, academics and other issues.

"The three of us literally are like brothers," Hollis said.

Hollis has kept the family intact despite NBA overtures to Izzo. He must do the same as Dantonio's stock soars.

Named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2010 and again this season, Dantonio is arguably the nation's best bargain, earning about $1.96 million, ninth among Big Ten coaches. A substantial raise is coming.

"Coach D and I are in a very good place," Hollis said. "We both know what the future is going to look like for him and his staff."

Deep-pocketed programs such as Texas still might court Dantonio, but the Zanesville, Ohio, native is rooted in the Midwest and at MSU, where both of his daughters are students.

Asked recently about the Texas job, Dantonio called it flattering but said, "I see Michigan State as a destination, not a stop."

Those who know him best agree.

Mason: "He might want to be the Tom Izzo of football at Michigan State. He's definitely put his footprints all over that program."

Izzo: "Mark's not all about the money, he's not about the name, he's about building something that's his. I'd say this is home for him."

Tressel: "He's never been a guy that's bounced around. All signs are he'll be wearing that green and white."

For Spartans fans, that's nothing to scowl at.