A night unlike any other for Dantonio
Earlier 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 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."
You mean on the last play of the game? In overtime? No, I've never done that. Not many have, probably.” -- MSU coach Mark Dantonio on if he ever made a call like "Little Giants" before
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."
Dantonio called the 2010 Notre Dame win "a starting point" for what Michigan State has since accomplished, but some of the most significant steps came in the days after the game. Don Treadwell, then the team's offensive coordinator, took charge in Dantonio's absence, along with help from Narduzzi and the rest of a staff that Dantonio had kept almost entirely intact since he first became a head coach at Cincinnati in 2004.
When a blood clot forced Dantonio back to the hospital two weeks after the heart attack, Treadwell and the staff guided Michigan State to a signature win against then-No. 11 Wisconsin. The next week, Dantonio watched from the press box as the Spartans beat Michigan for the third straight time. When he returned to full sideline duty two weeks later at Northwestern, the Spartans were just as he'd left them -- undefeated.
"That would be the time where I knew we had a program in place," Dantonio said. "It was the smoothest transition. ... We didn't miss a beat, and actually went forward. When you can do that and there's missing links, whether that be a player or a coach, that's a big positive, and you can draw strength from that. I think we did."
Dantonio always had delegated well and let his coordinators oversee their units. But there have been subtle changes since September 2010.
"Some coaches will micromanage, and I can't say he was a micromanager before, but he wanted to know everything that was going on," Narduzzi said. "On Wednesdays we'd talk third-down-and-long, and then he has to do his press conference. He'd come back in the office while I'm scripting for practice and say, 'What are we doing on third down?' Like he had to know now. Now he'll go to his press conference and say, 'I'll see you at practice.'"
The coaches' work schedule hasn't changed the past two years, including Dantonio's. Like their colleagues around the country, they still put in long hours.
Narduzzi has seen Dantonio change his diet, stiff-arming most of the junk food the staff orders in for lunch and dinner. Although Dantonio worked out before the heart attack and wasn't overweight, he's now diligent about exercising daily.
"He's not as gung-ho about work, work, work, work, work," Narduzzi said. "He finds time to get a workout in, and then he really does eat a lot better. He eats a lot more fish. He'll pass on the wings. He's really treating his body better, which we all should, but I haven't learned yet.
"Instead of stressing through lunch and watching this game or that game, he's got a bicycle next to his computer, so he can watch tape and work out at the same time."
Dantonio felt he always had balance in his life, but he's doing better at practicing what he preaches.
"There's going to be long hours and there's going to be some pressure," he said. "But like I've told our players, pressure is good, stress is not. Stress is the enemy. So we're trying not to stress out about too many things around here."
That would be the time where I knew we had a program in place.” -- Dantonio after he missed games in 2010 and the Spartans did not lose
Dantonio leans heavily on nine assistants, six of whom were with him when he started his head-coaching career at Cincinnati in 2004. He also talks with Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and often with Tressel, his former boss at both Ohio State and Youngstown State.
No coach has influenced Dantonio more than Tressel, whom Dantonio describes as "a sounding board for me throughout my life in terms of the direction to head and how to handle things." Although Dantonio has forged his own legacy at Michigan State, his similarities to Tressel are obvious to those who know both.
Narduzzi recalls a conversation with Caron Baldwin, whose son Darryl decided between playing for Tressel at Ohio State or Dantonio at Michigan State (Baldwin ended up as a Buckeye).
"The mom said, 'Those two are so alike. I see the same person. They talk the same,'" Narduzzi said. "No question Jim Tressel has rubbed off on him in a great way."
Until scandal struck, Tressel traversed the road to success better than any Big Ten coach in recent history. Dantonio looks well on his way at Michigan State.
"When you've had success, and we've had success here, it's not total, but you gain confidence in the way you do things," Dantonio said. "There's a little bit more acceptance when things don't go quite right. It's hey, you figure it out, you change this and you get it right.
"I believe success breeds success."