Michigan State Recruiting: Mark Dantonio following Tom Izzo’s path


Michigan State recruiting for football and men’s basketball are in different positions in approaches, and at the root of the difference is each program’s stage of development.

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Football now has its own trademark: As new recruits join, players become ‘Spartan Dawgs.’ Football’s success is uniting everyone involved in the program.

Its player reputation has built rapport with recruits and excited fans. Spartan Dawgs embody a team-first mentality, and expel any selfish motives. They grow tight, consider themselves family and work together with winning as their sole priority.

The team personifies discipline, some of the fruits being players who’ve begun their collegiate careers lesser known, and have developed into stars.

One example is defensive back Darqueze Dennard, who was deemed a two-star wide receiver out of high school in 2010 without a scholarship offer, before drawing an offer late from MSU. Dennard matured into becoming the best defensive back in the nation his senior season, and being chosen in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Nov 8, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans offensive tackle Jack Conklin (74) against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Another is offensive tackle Jack Conklin, who arrived in East Lansing unranked by recruiters. After being rejected of offers from programs he had interest in, including Michigan, Conklin has developed into a dominant force on the Big Ten’s best offensive line.

The core of the team’s recruiting mindset has not been landing five-stars, largely because of the requirement of competing against traditional programs for the higher-ranked recruits. Instead, it has revolved around winning primarily by teamwork and toughness.

While the team’s 2016 recruiting class is likely to be the highest ranked of Dantonio’s tenure, the unselfish mentality hasn’t left. After the Spartans landed their most sought-after quarterback Messiah DeWeaver, the four-star passer devoted himself, with other acclaimed commits Abdul Adams and Cam Chambers, to recruiting others.

They’ve actively reached out to Spartan prospects, even creating a Twitter account “Dream Team 2016” to help draw recruits to East Lansing, while emphasizing the necessity to keep working.

Dantonio is at the relative beginning of a Spartan football dynasty if the program can continue on its path. Early in Tom Izzo’s tenure, however, basketball recruiting followed similar steps.

If any Michigan State athletes have been ‘Spartan Dawgs’ implementing a tough team-first mentality, it was the original Flintstones who helped build the establishment of Izzo-era success.

Mar 27, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Michigan State Spartans former player Mateen Cleaves talks with Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo during practice for the east regional of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

After the program’s status skyrocketed 1999-2001, gaining highly-ranked recruits became more common and maintaining the same belief-system led to years of accomplishment.

The basketball program has brought in high school stars, but has still overachieved through brilliant coaching utilizing players who maximize talent with toughness and commitment. Beyond talent, the team seems to end up with players who possess the personal qualities and character traits needed to succeed.

The formula of skilled playmakers playing games as underdogs with a grudge, and following Dantonio’s brilliant leadership, is building the foundation of a Spartan dynasty.

Michigan State basketball isn’t typically the place for one-and-done players solely with the NBA in mind, but that doesn’t mean Tom Izzo wouldn’t mind having that talent and the team’s recent recruiting efforts show that, following an unfortunate pattern the last few years.

The pattern has involved singling out superstar recruits in whom all focus is placed, gaining spots on the stars’ final lists, and ending up falling short and seeing their invested energy wasted. Since 2012, this has taken shape in the losses of Jabari Parker to Duke, Cliff Alexander to Kansas, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones to Duke and Tyler Ulis to Kentucky.

Jan 1, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; Michigan State Spartans coach Mark Dantonio hoists the Leishman Trophy after the 100th Rose Bowl against the Stanford Cardinal. Michigan State defeated Stanford 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The latest example of recruiting bombs exemplifies it all. The Spartans recruited Caleb Swanigan for years. They stepped it up during his months of indecision to gain a verbal commitment, only to have the freshman waver again and change his mind.

Swanigan is the opposite of a ‘Spartan Dawg’ – being uncommitted and seemingly self-centered in pursuit of personal attention.

Now that the football program under Dantonio is winning Big Ten Championships and BCS bowls while leading several players to the NFL, expectations of the program will continue to rise.

As the program’s praise and popularity grow, Dantonio gets more offers to leave, and the team beats traditional football powers more for highly acclaimed recruits, the Spartans must not abandon the mindset that has gotten them to this level.

Future highly-ranked recruiting classes are likely to follow. The football program needs to exemplify how Spartan basketball attracts high school stars who are also coachable with strong work ethic.

The formula of skilled playmakers playing games as underdogs with a grudge, and following Dantonio’s brilliant leadership, is building the foundation of a Spartan dynasty.

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