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Mark Dantonio’s Legacy

MSU’s all-time leader in wins retires and leaves behind a much more complex legacy than once expected.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Dantonio retired on Tuesday, bringing an end to one of the most successful eras of football in Michigan State history. His announcement came suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, after it appeared he was gearing up for a 14th season at the helm. But despite the sudden nature of the decision, it felt like something that had been looming for a while, and it was only a matter of time before Dantonio came to that conclusion.

The legacy of Dantonio as Michigan State’s head coach is a bit murkier now than it would have been a couple of years ago, both on and off the field. While there will be tendencies by some to focus only on one or the other, all things must be taken into account when evaluating the legacy of someone that was an institution in East Lansing for more than a decade.

Let’s start on the field, where the good greatly outweighs the bad.

Dantonio won more games than any other coach at Michigan State, racking up 114 of them in his 13 seasons. He won three Big Ten titles, also the most in school history. His 12 bowl appearances and six bowl wins are also the most in MSU history.

Dantonio won 64% of his conference games at MSU, had six 10-win seasons, won Michigan State’s first Rose Bowl since 1988, and led the Spartans to the College Football Playoff.

When Dantonio stepped on campus he said that Michigan State would play for championships, and they certainly did. Even in the years they didn’t win, the Spartans played for or were in position to win conference titles. And in playing in the playoff, one of only two Big Ten teams to do so, the Spartans had a chance at a National Title. That is something that would have been unthinkable when Dantonio started at MSU.

Under Dantonio, 31 Michigan State players were taken in the NFL draft, including three first-rounders. Kirk Cousins and Le’Veon Bell are among the highest paid players at their positions.

The ability of Dantonio and his staff to turn unheralded recruits into NFL players was something to behold. And it was probably a big factor in developing the chip on the shoulder underdog mentality that would define Dantonio’s best teams. Disrespect became a rallying cry for MSU fans and players.

The last four years however, have been mostly underwhelming, and puzzling. Following a three year stretch where the Spartans went 36-5, won two Big Ten titles, and played in the playoff, it looked like Michigan State was ready to plant itself as one of the nation’s elite programs. The recruiting was finally starting to catch up to the results. Certainly this was only the beginning.

But that was really the end of the golden age of Dantonio’s run. The blowout to Alabama was followed by the first, and only, losing regular-season of Dantonio’s tenure, and the first season without a bowl.

That season was followed by a surprising 10-3 run, with a big win in the Holiday Bowl, and the belief that the 2016 season was just a hiccup on the road back to title town. That was not the case however, as MSU would finish the next two seasons at 7-6, fighting for bowl eligibility and struggling on the offensive side of the ball.

By the end, the fans were starting to turn on their beloved coach. The lack of changes to the coaching staff with each passing season of sub-standard to downright futile offenses began to erode support Dantonio, something that seemed impossible just a few years before.

Which seems as good a time as any to transition to talking about the off the field issues that plagued Dantonio’s later seasons. These are no secret, and in fact most of it has played out rather publicly. It started with the arrest of three of the members of his big time recruiting class, who were subsequently dismissed from the team, which led to an independent investigation of how the MSU football staff handled the incident.

That incident and investigation are still playing out today with the lawsuit filed by former recruiting director Curtis Blackwell, who was the lone member of the MSU staff dismissed as a result of the investigation.

Following that was the ESPN report from Outside the Lines that alleged a culture of cover-ups and looking the other way by Michigan State and its two big name coaches, Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo. Both coaches were able to weather the storm, but questions plagued the two of them for months.

Questions that continue to be brought up to Mark Dantonio in relation to the Blackwell lawsuit.

All of that took place under the backdrop of the Larry Nassar scandal that rocked Michigan State University to its core. The school continues to attempt to correct the mistakes it made that led to the Nassar situation, a stain it will likely never shake, and nor should it.

When asked about his legacy yesterday Dantonio had this to say:

“I think that my legacy, as defined by me, will not be about the wins and losses, although there’s a lot of them. It will be about the relationships I made with my players.”

That is a sentiment that was echoed by current and former Michigan State players throughout the day on social media. Story after story came out about things Mark Dantonio had done for those young men that helped them along their journey, whether that journey was in football, or elsewhere.

Dantonio has coached hundreds of student athletes during his time in East Lansing, and his impact in those players lives goes well beyond the field

I have covered more than a few Dantonio press conferences over the years. From media days to post-game pressers, I have heard him answer a lot of questions and give plenty of statements about his team. One of the main themes that he always returned to was about helping his players grow. To grow as football players, as students, and as people. He wanted to prepare them to be better when they left East Lansing than when they arrived.

Which is why it seems very fitting that Dantonio plans to transition to a role inside the athletic department that will focus on “transitioning players to their next challenges.”

So as Mark Dantonio leaves the Michigan State program for another coach, the question becomes, did he leave the program better than when he arrived?

Dantonio’s answer to that question was, “Well, I think that’s pretty safe to say,” meaning of course he did.

I would tend to agree with him, but I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as he makes it out to be.

When Dantonio took over at Michigan State, the program was a mess. The program had seen just two winning seasons following Nick Saban’s departure, and none in the last three years of John L. Smith’s tenure. MSU was an afterthought in the Big Ten.

Dantonio brought them into relevance, both locally and nationally. He built a brand, especially on defense, that has drawn talent that would not have considered MSU in the past.

However, over the last four years, the program has slipped, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The easy answer is that Dantonio just hasn’t adapted to the way the game is being played now. And in the world of football, you have to adapt, or risk falling behind and out of relevance.

Whoever takes over the program will be able to put their stamp on it, on both sides of the ball. They are not coming in to find the cupboard bare and nothing but scraps left. They are coming into a place with improving facilities, a loyal fan base, and a new administration that will give them plenty of support.

There is work to be done, no question about it. But this is not a complete overhaul as much as it is a remodel. If MSU can find the right guy, they can get the program back on track to being a factor in the Big Ten. It just takes the right guy.

And ultimately that’s what Dantonio was, the right guy. He was the perfect man for the job when Michigan State hired him. He knew what was in front of him and had no intention of leaving before the task was finished. He was unapologetic, unafraid, wry, sometimes grumpy, and loyal. Sometimes he was all of these things to a fault, but more often than not, these were the qualities that endeared him to Spartan fans.

And barring some unforeseen revelations in the coming days, I believe this is how Dantonio will be remembered. Not for the way his tenure ended, but for what he accomplished overall.

An entire generation of Spartans, myself included, were given memories of a lifetime under Mark Dantonio’s time at MSU. Attempting to list all the amazing plays, games, players, and moments of the Dantonio era reminds you of just how lucky Spartan fans were for the past 13 seasons.

Nothing lasts forever, and we all knew this day would come. And maybe the saddest thing about all of it is that it came like this. A tweet and a statement on a Tuesday afternoon in February. No farewell tour, no grand send off. Some of the reasons for that are of Dantonio’s own making. Some of it is just the nature of being a head coach.

I think I speak for many Spartan fans when I say that I will remember the Mark Dantonio era fondly, and I thank him for all those wonderful memories. I am also excited and ready to see what the next phase of Michigan State football brings, and believe that it was time for something different.

Thank you Mark Dantonio. For the championships, the Rose Bowl, for Little Giants and Rocket and Rangers, for reminding those guys in Ann Arbor that it will never be over, and for all the times MSU football made us feel some type of way over the last 13 years.