Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio rejects flash, builds on values

Spartans football coach Mark Dantonio talks about his program, his hangup, his rival Harbaugh and his lack of smiling.

EAST LANSING  — When your friends say you should smile more in news conferences, it usually means two things: 1) You should smile more in news conferences, and 2) There’s a side of you they see that others do not.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio hears that advice. Smile more. Loosen up. Don’t let things bother you. But he shrugs and says, “I am what I am.”

Popeye said the same thing. He also got really strong when he ate his spinach — which was, interestingly, a deep shade of green.

The many shades of the very strong Mark Dantonio (the ones that aren’t Spartan green) may never be seen in the usual spaces. The sidelines? The podium? The other end of a microphone? Forget it. There he furrows his brow, speaks briefly, often curtly, rarely makes a joke and gets things over with fast. He can come across like a detective being interrupted at a crime scene. Can’t you see I’m working here?

But skeptics have him all wrong. Mark Dantonio, 60, grandson of Italian immigrants, husband for more than 25 years, father to two grown-up daughters, brother to a former high school star who was once recruited to play football for Michigan by Jack Harbaugh, Jim’s father, is not staying up late, head in his hands, worrying about the attention the Wolverines or Buckeyes are getting.

Why should he? Dantonio, whose 10th season at the helm of MSU begins Friday against Furman University, is the reigning dean of successful Big Ten football. Only two coaches in the conference (Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald) have longer tenures, and theirs are far less impressive. Urban Meyer? Been at Ohio State for four seasons. Jim Harbaugh? Been at Michigan for one.

Dantonio, meanwhile, is marking a decade with the Spartans. And things keep getting better. So what exactly should he be worried about? A tweet? A satellite camp? A media snafu? You know what he was doing recently, when the rest of the college football world was chattering about his supposed hang-up on a radio interview?

He was writing a thank-you note.

To Nick Saban.

“I was watching film from our weekend scrimmage and I realized it was 21 years ago I came here as a secondary coach under Nick,” Dantonio says, relaxing on a couch in his MSU office. “On the film, I see we’re playing the same coverage we played when I first got here. And it got me thinking, ‘wow. I remember back then — and now I’m going into my 10th year as head coach.’ ”

So you wrote Saban a note?

“Yeah. Just sort of thanking him for bringing me here.”

You know what Dantonio does after saying that?

He smiles.

A defensive guy

Everyone knows Jim Harbaugh played quarterback in college. Do you know what Dantonio played? Defensive back. The guy who picks off the quarterback’s passes and takes down his receivers.

What was your best attribute as a player, I ask?

“Tackling,” he says.

You weren’t afraid of taking the hit?

“No.”

Dantonio, like many college players, started at an offensive skill position in high school — tailback — but realized quickly that “there were better tailbacks than me. So I learned how to tackle.”

The hard stuff. Dantonio became the guy who charted 18, 19, 20 tackles a game. He’d dive on every pileup. It’s a practical, get-after-it approach that shades his work ethic to this day. He’s not a gunslinger. He’s not seat-of-his-pants. But he will figure out how to hit you hard and drive you to your knees.

And that’s as big a part of football as the long bomb or the flea flicker.

Dantonio was raised in the small town of Zanesville, Ohio, by his father, Justin, a teacher and coach, and his mother, Maryan, whom Dantonio says was “the rock of the family. Still is.” One of four brothers, Mark played his college ball at South Carolina, as did his brother John, who was once recruited by the senior Harbaugh, from Bo Schembechler’s staff at Michigan.

“I remember Jack coming to the house, or maybe a basketball game, and my impression was he was a nice guy,” Dantonio says.

When I point out the irony that his brother might have played for the father of the guy the media can’t stop bringing up, Dantonio shrugs.

“Well, John had already decided he was going to play for South Carolina — but he took an official visit to Ann Arbor anyhow.”

Which is as close as a Dantonio is likely to get to anything maize and blue.

‘I’m a Spartan’

Let’s get that out of the way right now. Mark Dantonio is not obsessed with Jim Harbaugh, not distracted by Jim Harbaugh, doesn’t follow Harbaugh’s movements on a GPS, is not haunted by Jim Harbaugh’s spirit at night. Truth be told, he is not all that concerned with Harbaugh.

“I actually think he’s a pretty good guy,” Dantonio says, without provocation. “And he’s a good coach. And they won last year. Although any way you cut it, they still lost our game last year.

“But I don’t read all the stuff. … I’m sure (Michigan) is going to put the money (into the program) … they’re not going to lose … but they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do and we’re gonna do what we’re gonna do.

“At the end of it all, it’s probably good for college football, probably good for the state. It makes it interesting.”

As for flare-ups over the years between the Spartans and Wolverines?

“I’ve tried to be respectful of who they are — as best I can. But there are times when I’ve had to react. And I react because I’m a Spartan.”

MSU fans know what that means. Don’t make a “little brother” comment around Dantonio. Don’t act like Michigan is entitled to a championship. And don’t forget what the rivalry record is since his arrival — 7-2 for MSU — even though last year’s thriller was a novel with two different endings.

You remember? Michigan stunning everyone, leading 23-21 in Ann Arbor, about to ruin MSU’s unbeaten season. The final play is a punt. The snap is fumbled, the punter tries to get rid of it, a Spartan grabs the ball and races to the end zone, no time left — MSU wins! Pandemonium ensues!

I ask Dantonio if at any point leading up to that play he told himself, “We’re going to lose it.”

“No,” he says, “but there wasn’t a lot of me saying we’re gonna win it.”

Hey, that’s close to a joke, right?

Results do talking

Still, if critics want to point to that as a fluke win, they’ll have to step back in awe at what happened the following month in Columbus. Playing without Connor Cook, its starting quarterback, MSU painted the afternoon a bloody green and white, holding No. 3 Ohio State to paltry yards, holding Ezekiel Elliott to a season-low rushing total, and kicking a winning field goal with no time left — 17-14 — despite using quarterbacks who had less big-game experience than the coin that was flipped

“But if you look at Michigan State football, how many games have we won on the last play?” Dantonio notes. “We got the Notre Dame game, the Georgia game, the Wisconsin game, the Michigan game, the Ohio State game — that’s five right off the top of my head.”

It’s the kind of list that led him to say, last year, “We’re not selling hope here — we’re selling results.”

How can you argue that? His Spartans have won two of the last three Big Ten titles, have finished in the Top 10 in the national polls three years running, competed in the College Football Playoff last year and have won at least 11 games five of the past six seasons, something no Big Ten coach has ever done.

True, in 2007, upon arriving in East Lansing — from Cincinnati — as the new head man, the sales pitch wasn’t the record. “When we first came, we were selling ‘We can make it happen.’ ”

But Dantonio, who had been on the Michigan State staff for six years in the late 1990s, knew the blueprint. The first goal was making the Rose Bowl. Then going for multiple Big Ten crowns. Then aiming for national rankings and playoff games.

“Things have changed,” he admits. “They used to pick the two teams to play for the championship, and everybody had to accept it and say, ‘Well, we had a successful season.’ Now it almost seems like if you don’t go to the playoffs, did you quite make it?”

But that just means he has to up the bar. The Spartans were the first Michigan team to compete in the College Football Playoff. That won’t be taken away. And if the opportunity was crushed by eventual national champion Alabama, 38-0, well, step by step.

“My wife keeps telling me to get over it,” he says, admitting that the New Year’s Eve blowout still stings. “But at some point in time, it should provide us an opportunity of growth. If we get back there again, we should do better.”

And he plans to get back there again.

Lessons to learn from

Along those lines, I mention the “Spartan for life” contract, a phrase used frequently after his extension in 2011.

What does a lifetime contract mean, I ask?

“Well, it doesn’t mean till death, that’s for sure,” he says, laughing. “I think it means if they let you go, you’ll still be set for life.”

Dantonio admits he’s not going anywhere. The NFL has never appealed to him (“I never played in it.”). And no other school could turn his head. He likes the honesty of telling a recruit’s parents, “I’ll be there for your son four years from now” and meaning it.

Still, he dismisses the idea that he could never be fired, understanding that college sports is a microscope under a looking glass. He gets serious when I bring up Jim Tressel, for whom Dantonio worked twice, the first time as secondary coach at Youngstown State, the second as defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes.

Tressel, despite incredible success at Ohio State, was forced to resign amid the scandal of Buckeyes players selling memorabilia — and an apparent cover-up by the coach.

Tressel had seemed beyond reproach, permanently pressed, every hair perfect, the vest, the American flag pin, the no-nonsense philosophy that included him once telling the media, “The only excuse for missing a class is a death in the family — your own.”

Dantonio admired Tressel. Still does.

“He’s an amazing man … A lot of who I am as a coach is patterned after who he is and what he’s done.”

As for the scandal, Dantonio says there are many things people don’t know. “Do I think (his forced resignation) was fair? No.

“I guess the climb is always more difficult. And the fall is very fast.”

An arrogant man would think, “That can never happen to me.”

Dantonio is not arrogant. He remembers the fuss after several of his players got in trouble in 2009, and accusations were flying that Dantonio didn’t have his team under control.

“You are defined by how you handle problems,” he says. The tolerance for bad behavior shrunk. The culture improved. Today, players at MSU seem to spread the gospel of control to one another. And while Dantonio says, “Don’t kid yourself” when I suggest the 2009 incidents — including a dorm assault with 11 players convicted of misdemeanors — could never repeat themselves, it’s clear this is a mature program now, and Dantonio’s stamp — which is decency, control, humility, good examples — is all over it.

Him and the media

OK, so what about that interview? The one with a couple of knucklehead radio hosts who began with a rambling question on Harbaugh, went on to ask whether Dantonio and fellow Italian Tom Izzo eat pasta together, and continued an ill-prepared grilling that most of us would have hung up on a lot earlier.

Did you actually hang up on them, I ask?

“No. I didn’t. You see. That’s another one of those urban myths.

“I was on the field when I was talking to them, on a cell phone, watching our players warm up for the run. I told (the radio hosts) I don’t have much time.

So the horn blows, the players are coming up to me, I gotta address them before the run. And the guy asked me another question I couldn’t even understand and I say, ‘I gotta go.’ I said, ‘I gotta go.’ But nobody heard me.”

Instead, it went viral as a temperamental moment, Dantonio being dissed and getting fed up.

And all he was really doing was addressing the team? You know. His job?

Which brings us to those news conferences, also his job, and the paucity of smiles versus the plethora of frowns and short sentences.

“I think the press has been fair with me,” he says.

Really? Then why does he seem so … unenthused?

“I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like — do I really have to get up here and talk? We already know what happened. Do I really need to go through this?

“I think I’m honest with the press. Some coaches just rattle on. I prefer not to. I think I figured out that we can sit and talk for five hours and they’re gonna take only certain points in the conversation and say ‘he said this.’ So the less you say, the more direct you can be …

“But I don’t know. They say I should smile more. I am what I am. I have a good time and everything … .”

As if on cue, he smiles.

“But I am what I am.”

Found his calling

Did you know that a few years back, Dantonio and his family visited his roots in Italy? It was a small town up in the mountains, a place called Montenerodomo — “about 600 people” he says — where his grandfather had lived and where his father’s second cousin was a butcher. They were greeted, celebrated and well-fed, even though no one spoke English.

At one point, Mark went to a cemetery and looked around. So many of the tombstones read “Dantonio,” including people who had died in World War II, when the area was bombed.

“I was related to a lot of them,” he says.

He left feeling enlightened. But something else. He felt connected. A part of something.

As he is part of something now.

What Dantonio has created, while others are fussing over headlines and recruiting class rankings, is a family atmosphere at MSU that branches out from the trio of small-town Midwesterners at the top — athletic director Mark Hollis, basketball coach Izzo and Dantonio — and permeates all the way down through the star players, the backups, the lucky and the not so lucky. Dantonio quietly offers jobs to kids who get injured or never play a down. His staff over the years — from assistant position coaches to strength and conditioning personnel — is crowded with former players. Anyone who wants to remain part of the Spartan family, and is willing to work, seems to find a spot under his umbrella.

And when you ask him his favorite moments as the head coach, he doesn’t point to victories, trophies or podium presentations.

He mentions riding the bus. He mentions walking out to practice in a sea of young men.

“You become so isolated with this sport that a lot of your players become more than players, they’re like young friends. They’re not supposed to be your friends, but in some way you can’t help it.

“Like last night, I’m sitting there, we had our team over the house because it was Sunday, and I’m playing euchre with three of my players.

“I’m the only one, because my wife and children are away. And I’m sitting there, the only guy 40 years older than everybody else, and I’m saying to myself, ‘What’s right with picture?’ ”

Not what’s wrong with it? What’s right with it. That’s the snapshot people ought to take from East Lansing these days. Here is a man who has found his calling, a program that has found its way, a team that gushes about its coach the way he gushes about it, with each side knowing he will take the young men apart if they show any lack of effort, desire, character or will to win.

In certain ways, the grandson of immigrants has re-created his roots right here in Michigan, a small town on top of a green mountain, where everyone may not carry the name Dantonio, but everyone is affected by it.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

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