The Rise & Sudden Fall of Michigan State Football

Mark Dantonio was hired at Michigan State on November 27th, 2006. Then, a 50-year-old head coach with just 13 wins in his two-year stint University of Cincinnati was taking over a Michigan State program that vastly underachieved under Bobby Williams and John L. Smith. At the time, Michigan State epitomized mediocrity as they had one 10-win season from 1965 to 2006.

To say Dantonio was the perfect hire for MSU was an understatement. Under the tutelage of Nick Saban and Jim Tressel, Dantonio’s blue-collar approach meshed well with the Spartan faithful and he was a great up and coming coach.

It didn’t take long for Dantonio to right the ship as he went 7-6 his first season. That win total was the highest the university seen since 2001. Just three seasons later, the Spartans were 11-2 giving them the most wins in a season in school history. From 2010 to 2015, Michigan State was amongst the top teams in the Big Ten and the country.

With Dantonio at the helm, the Spartans were in unfamiliar territory as a national power. While they weren’t in the same pantheon as the Ohio State’s and Alabama’s, they were becoming special in their regard. More importantly, they were the top team in the state as the Michigan Wolverines, became the “little brother” to the Dantonio-led Spartans.

The Spartan Dawgs played a ferocious style of football. They played great defense led by NFL standouts Trae Waynes, Vernon Gholston, Darqueze Dennard, and many more, ran the ball well the likes of Le’Veon Bell and Jeremy Langford, and they were a cradle of quarterbacks as guys such as Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins, and Connor Cook led them atop of the Big Ten.

They won three Big Ten Championships, made an appearance in the College Football Playoffs, and won a Rose Bowl. Spartan Football on the Banks of the Red Cedar was king. Mark Dantonio could do no wrong and he was to Michigan State Football as Tom Izzo is to Spartan hoops.

Fast forward to today. If you were to tell me that Dantonio would abruptly resign without warning one day before National Signing Day years after a historic run, I would call you crazy.

As we know, this just occurred on February 3rd, 2020.

The semi departure of MSU’s beloved head football coach raised questions and some of those answers rose quite a bit of speculation. It’s difficult any time a head coach steps away from the team, but especially difficult when it’s unexpected. It’s even odder to resign 20 days after he received a $4.3 Million retention bonus, but that’s what transpired.

For those who have been following MSU Football for years they knew the day was looming, but not in this manner.

Since 2016, Dantonio was 27-24. Outside of a 10 win season in 2017, the Spartans failed to surpass the 7-win mark. During this time Dantonio’s loyalty to his style of play, philosophy, and staff became his Achilles heel. Rumors surfaced about him being fired, but as arguably the best coach in school’s history he earned time to turn the tide around. Change never came and redundancy became the norm. Dantonio’s organizational restructuring consisted of playing musical chairs instead of firing inept coaches.

He also failed to alter his style of play to compete with the teams’ top teams in the country. Dantonio held on to three yards and a cloud of dust mantra, while his peers focused on lighting up the scoreboard by using tempo and spread concepts.

The most glaring issue is and was recruiting. This comes as a surprise given that there are accusations that MSU and Dantonio broke NCAA rules while doing so.  The 2020 Class—now Dantonio’s last class is ranked 10th out 11 Big Ten teams per 247Sports. However, just five short years ago, the 2015 class was ranked 3rd per 247Sports. Dantonio was never an elite recruiter, but he could get the most out of his recruits. Over time that was no longer a thing.

So what happened?

Some can say that their style of play isn’t attractive to top-tier high school talent. With 8 players in the transfer portal, it is evident that what was being sold during the recruiting process didn’t materialize. Top skill players in the state of Michigan glanced over East Lansing as they chose other schools. One would think to be a great college town such as East Lansing would be attractive to recruits.

With the recent news of depositions and possible NCAA involvement, It seems like there was a volcano brewing that has begun to show signs of erupting in EL. Former MSU Director of Player Personnel Curtis Blackwell’s contract wasn’t renewed in 2016 and since then the program has gone downhill.

Coincidentally, since Blackwell’s departure, their ability to recruit top in-state and national talent has suffered. And now with Dantonio stepping down amid legal issues, what happens to Michigan State football from here?

With legal troubles and possible NCAA sanctions, recruiting will continue to take a hit. Today things are murkier than they were when Dantonio took the job thirteen years ago. There is a huge talent gap compared to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State.

Mark Dantonio cemented his legendary status during his time in East Lansing. In thirteen years, he achieved just about every imaginable accolade. He turned a once dormant football program into a national power. Despite that, he leaves a complicated legacy that is still being written. For now, we have to sit back to see what unfolds.

by: Ron Hampston

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