Look, I know I am not the first person to write this column, and I won’t be the last either. This isn’t about hot takes, or revolutionary thoughts, or click baiting. This is just me, putting to words my thoughts about the journey the Michigan State football program has taken over the last 24 months.
Because that is really where this story of redemption begins, almost exactly two years ago. On December 5, 2015 we witnessed MSU’s version of “The Drive.” A nine minute and four second, 22 play, 82 yard masterpiece that culminated with L.J. Scott’s reach into the endzone to give Michigan State it’s second Big Ten Championship game victory.
The next day, we learned that the Spartans would indeed be headed to the College Football Playoff to face Alabama in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve. On December 6, 2015, the Michigan State football program was at its highest peak in 60 years.
And then it all came crashing down. It started with the beat down the Spartans took in the Cotton Bowl against eventual champ Alabama. The 38-0 loss left Spartan fans feeling like they were still a ways away from actually having a chance to win a national title, not just be in the mix for one. It would be the first of many humbling moments for the football program over the next year.
What followed was a season so bad, it was hard to even believe at times. After starting the season 2-0 after a win against Notre Dame in South Bend, the Spartans dropped seven straight, and nine of their last 10 games. They finished the season 3-9 overall and 1-8 in conference play. It was their worst season since 1982.
Throughout the season there were rumors of infighting among the players, motivational problems, discipline issues, and an overall lack of leadership. By the end of the season it appeared that the coaches had lost the locker room. Dantonio had spent a decade building the program as a family that would face all challenges together. That all seemed to come apart in 2016.
It was a humiliating and nearly unprecedented fall from grace. It took the MSU football program, its coaches, players, and fans by surprise. Worst of all it lent some credence to the idea served up by rival fan bases that MSU’s time was done with the arrival of Harbaugh, Franklin, and Meyer in the division.
And then things got even worse.
The off-season was spent dealing with a slew of off the field issues. Two separate sexual assault incidents led to the dismissal of four players from the team. All four of those players were four star recruits from the 2016 class, including Donnie Corley, who was the team’s second leading receiver in 2016.
In addition to the player dismissals, football staff member Curtis Blackwell was also dismissed from the program. The university held a full investigation and even brought in an outside firm to assist them. They wanted to know whether or not the correct steps were followed by those in charge of the program, and the athletic department.
For the first time in his decade long tenure at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio’s job security was in jeopardy.
Eventually, the investigation determined that Dantonio acted in accordance with the university procedures, and he was more or less in the clear. But that only meant that he was now tasked with once again re-building a football program that had fallen on hard times.
Expectations coming into this season were pretty minimal. Most people, myself included, thought that getting to six wins and a bowl would be a huge accomplishment.
The Spartans would be one of the least experienced teams in the country, and lost four of their best recruits from the previous year’s class. Then when you add in the tumultuous off-season and the expected strength of their division, it sure looked like tough sledding once again for the Spartans.
So what did Dantonio’s crew come out and do? Oh, just flip their record from 3-9 to 9-3, beat Michigan in Ann Arbor (again), knock off Penn State, stay in contention for Indy until mid-November, and set themselves up for a New Year’s Day bowl.
If I had given you that scenario in August, every MSU fan I know would have signed up in a heartbeat.
You simply cannot say enough about the job this group has done. They went from the highest of highs, to the lowest of lows, stayed the course, and came out the other side. And they came out winning.
Dantonio will likely never be doubted again in East Lansing. His status is fully solidified after this impressive turnaround. And quite frankly, when you look at what he has accomplished, he deserves all the credit he gets, and the benefit of the doubt from now on.
Dantonio’s next win at MSU will be his 100th as coach of the Spartans, and will put him just 10 away from passing Duffy Daugherty for the all-time school record. His .688 winning percentage is the best since Biggie Munn’s from 1947-1953. His .659 winning percentage in Big Ten games is the best in school history, even with that 1-8 mark last year. With a win in their bowl game, Michigan State would have its sixth 10-win season in the last eight years. They had two in their entire history before that.
There have been some memorable teams at MSU under Mark Dantonio. The Rose Bowl champs, the playoff team, the first Big Ten title team, the team that lost the first Big Ten title game…but I think this year’s squad will rank right up with the best of them in the hearts of Spartan fans. The Rose Bowl team will probably be number one, maybe the playoff team, but this year’s team brought them back from the brink.
This group banded together, when no one gave them a shot, and went out and made MSU students, fans, and alums proud to be Spartans again. After a year of embarrassments on and off the field, this group went out and represented their university well on and off the field.
I’m not sure you can give Dantonio and his staff enough praise for the job they did this year on the field. And these players deserve to be praised too. They weren’t the biggest or the most skilled team, but they “found the inches” as Dantonio likes to say.
As I said at the top, I am not the first to write this piece. But I felt the need to nevertheless. This team made football fun again, and it washed away a lot of the bad feelings of the previous year. Things won’t get any easier from here out, but I think that we can all at least learn to give Mark Dantonio the benefit of the doubt from now on. He has earned it. His leadership qualities should be unquestioned at this point.
When Dantonio arrived on campus he said he was going to beat Michigan and win championships. He is 8-3 against Michigan, has three Big Ten titles, three division titles, and four bowl wins. I’d say he’s made good on his word. And I don’t think he is done yet, and neither are the Spartans, despite what you may have heard at this time last year.