Retirement seemed imminent but Michigan State football lost a great coach and an even better man when Mark Dantonio stepped down on Tuesday.
With Mark Dantonio’s sudden retirement earlier this week, it’s taken me a couple of days to truly process the move. It hadn’t really sunken in, but now that it’s starting to feel more real, it’s time we owe Coach D a massive ‘thank you’.
Let’s start from the beginning of my Michigan State fandom.
Growing up a fan of the Spartans, I always loved watching football on Saturdays and basketball in the winter and spring. Michigan State was always considered a “basketball school” in the early 2000s when I was going through elementary school and that’s why basketball was my favorite sport. It’s not that I didn’t like football, but watching the post-Nick Saban era wasn’t exactly easy on the eyes.
My earliest days of following football, however, were dated all the way back to the late-1990s and early 2000s. My dad had two season tickets and he always brought either myself or my brother, depending on who went last.
Often times, since I was younger, my brother would get the good games, so I watched the famous “Clockgate” win against Michigan from home and as TJ Duckett caught that game-winning pass as time expired, I sprinted around my basement, jumping up and down. I had no idea that that win would be as good as it got for about 5-6 years.
As I grew older and started to pick up football more, I watched as Bobby Williams and John L. Smith took Michigan State through some of the worst football seasons in school history.
It was the dark ages of Michigan State football, but that’s all I knew.
I was too young to understand that Saban was responsible for four bowl trips in his five seasons and no less than six wins in a year during that time. I was too young to realize that winning 4-5 games wasn’t normal. I had grown accustomed to Michigan State football just being that bad.
When Williams and Morris Watts combined to go 4-8 in 2002, leading to the hiring of John L., I thought it was a great hire. Sure, I was young, but I recall being excited over that ensuing eight-win season and Alamo Bowl appearance.
Fourteen wins in three seasons later, Michigan State was out a head coach again as John L. failed to reach another bowl game and won no more than five games each year.
Then Michigan State hired Mark Dantonio.
I was in high school at this point and was fully aware that it wasn’t “cool” to like Michigan State. The hire was more of a “here’s the next coach to fail in East Lansing” than anything else, according to my friends, and I took the brunt of jokes. Michigan State would continue to be a joke and there was no hire that would change that.
The Spartans were just little brother.
That was a term that was uttered by Mike Hart during Dantonio’s first season after Michigan State saw a 24-14 lead with 7:40 to go in the fourth quarter evaporate, leading to a Michigan triumph in East Lansing. The Wolverine running back equated the comeback to letting your little brother get a lead when you play basketball and then just coming back to win.
And then there was the famous “it’s not over, it’ll never be over” quote that still gives me chills. That’s when I knew Dantonio was the right hire.
Coach D took the rivalry personally and from there, it was all Michigan State. He made watching Spartan football on Saturdays fun again.
As a Michigan State student from the fall of 2009 to the spring of 2013, I witnessed the start of the rise of Spartan football. While the 2009 season was a major hiccup, Dantonio followed that up with back-to-back 11-win seasons with Kirk Cousins at the helm. He led two of the most successful teams in Michigan State history.
But that was before 2013 even happened.
Unfortunately, I was out of college at that point as I had to watch from a distance as some of my friends who were still in East Lansing got to celebrate arguably the best season in school history since the 1960s. Michigan State went 13-1, beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and won the Rose Bowl in exciting fashion.
Coach D was responsible for the growth and it wasn’t like he was recruiting at an elite level but rather developing at an elite level.
Countless trick plays, comeback wins and top-10 victories led to his 100 wins in 11 seasons but back-to-back seven-win campaigns in 2018-19 capped off his career.
Even though he hadn’t truly met expectations since 2015, Dantonio’s career was a successful one which should be celebrated and not scoffed at.
While he had his fair share of players getting into trouble off the field (what coach doesn’t?), he also touched the lives of hundreds of student athletes. You can see this by the out-pouring of support from players who graduated from Michigan State and even ones he kicked off the team.
Coach D was respected by everyone in his profession and loved by his players and that’s something you don’t often see a combination of these days.
So for that, we thank you, Coach D. You truly did the unthinkable during a time when it wasn’t “cool” to take the job at Michigan State, turning Spartan football around. You raised expectations for the program and made East Lansing a destination, not a pit-stop, again.