Another disappointing season has come and gone – the third in four years – with Mark Dantonio still leading the Michigan State Spartans.
Before this post is dismissed as another attempt at “bashing” the MSU head coach, we need to address a few very important things: Dantonio is the most successful coach in MSU history, he deserves to be remembered forever for all he did for the program, and there will be no revisionist history here downplaying his accomplishments over the last decade-plus.
Unfortunately, it’s that success that has caused the biggest problems for Dantonio. Simply making a bowl game is no longer enough for the Spartans nor is the occasional prime-time game. Dantonio has taken the program from the bottom of the Big Ten to a featured matchup on almost every opponent’s calendar.
But things have started to slip – there should be no misconception that the Big Ten title goes through East Lansing anymore. After spending the better part of a decade competing with the likes of Ohio State, MSU has fallen to the invisible middle. A big game now means a winnable home game against Indiana, or getting a victory on the road against Nebraska.
The scariest part of all of this is its feeling of permanence. In the early years under Dantonio, the Spartans made a name out of building up mid-tier recruits into dominating senior classes. With that success the recruits improved and younger players began to make a difference. But of late, those younger players have failed to live up to expectations, with many transferring away, all as seniors fail to improve one year to the next.
This, as has been stated before, is a sure-sign of Program Hell.
Dantonio is still a good coach. He can still get big wins out of his players and it would be a surprise if there were many more sub-.500 seasons under his leadership. But it feels like six-loss seasons are here to stay.
It’s a scary thought, moving on from Dantonio, but with no change there are clear blueprints for what the MSU program will become:
About a 15 years ago, Iowa was a program on the rise. Kirk Ferentz had just finished his third season with double-digit wins and was a hot name for just about every coaching vacancy from the SEC to the NFL.
Then things fell flat.
Over the next 15 years, Iowa would win eight games or fewer 10 times, including three seasons at or below .500. Ferentz is now entrenched in his position, as likely to get a new job as he is to be fired.
Even in their best seasons, no one is excited about Iowa. They are looked at occasionally tough opponents who often give great teams a good game. Sure, they could make the College Football Playoff, but it would only happen with a perfect record and a Big Ten title. In all honesty, the best thing that could happen to Iowa is a New Year’s Day bowl game.
Unfortunately, Iowa has something going for it that MSU does not...
Hey, Texas A&M is a good team! They are on national broadcasts all the time and have had some of the biggest wins over the last 10 years!
You can remember most of those wins, right? But that’s exactly the problem, no one remembers each “big win” of a top-tier program. Even worse, most of those national broadcasts ended in losses for the Aggies.
Yes, A&M is a strong program that has remained entertaining. But the difference between the Aggies and the top of even the SEC West is cavernous.
Despite a “down” year for Alabama, they are very much still a title contender every year. LSU has proven to be consistently one of the best teams in the nation, much less in the division. On top of that, Auburn expects to compete for an SEC title every year.
Michigan State is stuck in an uneven Big Ten, where it has to play Ohio State, Penn State (which doesn’t appear to be having a down-turn any time soon) and Michigan (I know...). Odds are even on a good year that means likely a second place finish if everyone else helps out.
But don’t get too excited, things could definitely get worse...
When Pat Narduzzi left the Spartans staff to take over Pitt, fans were rightfully worried that the former defensive coordinator could take recruits from MSU and make the Panthers the new version of the Spartans.
The two programs have since become mirror images of each other, but neither side is all that happy about the results.
Pitt has made a bowl game in four of five years under Narduzzi, but the definition of mediocre even in the good years. They play a likely playoff bound team every year, and are just crazy enough to give them the occasional good game.
But no gets excited about Pitt. They will occasionally pull an upset, but even then it’s more about what the good team didn’t do, not what Pitt did. And it never seems to be sustainable, leading to a big turnaround.
Simply put, Pitt is just “there.” No one really worries about Pitt. No one outside of their fanbase and their current opponent thinks about what Pitt is doing. They are the definition of forgettable, at best a joke only brought up for their seemingly random upset victories.
Dantonio isn’t going to forget how to coach. He’s not going to become one of those coaches who just sits back and counts his money. But he’s also shown that he’s not going to change his stripes.
He’s not Ed Orgeron, who reinvented himself with LSU. Instead, he appears more Bill Snyder, a head coach who could stay on literally as long as he wants, never making a change or truly building the program to take the next step.
Dantonio deserves to be remembered for his success. If possible, he should be allowed to gracefully step away, announcing his “retirement” even if just for one season.
But there isn’t much hope for improvement if a change isn’t made.