Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio retired with a heavy Green heart

by | Feb 5, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

At one point late in what was suddenly his final hour as Michigan State’s football coach, Mark Dantonio winced at a question about a lawsuit.

“We’re not talking about that here,’’ he snapped. “This is a celebration.”

It didn’t feel like one.

And he didn’t look happy.

Sadly, this has always been Dantonio’s burden. The heart of a solider, the face of a prosecutor. Over his long tenure in East Lansing, people trying to read his expression saw anger when he merely felt confusion, saw frustration when he actually felt sadness, saw steel where there was soul.

And in watching his hastily called farewell news conference Tuesday, which, in a week already stuffed with a Super Bowl, an Iowa caucus debacle and a Senate about to unshackle a President from impeachment, felt like, “Wait? Huh? What?’’ — Dantonio showed just enough bristle, just enough defiance, to allow critics to miss what, to me, seemed obvious.

He’s worn out.

“The overwhelming responsibility for people day in and day out just feels sometimes like … a big wave, like you’re always surfing that wave,” Dantonio said during his livestreamed news conference, in describing the pressures of his job lately. “And I just felt like at points in time throughout the season you’re like, ‘What else? What else? What else is there?’…ADVERTISING

“There’s so many things you can’t control … I just found myself never having an opportunity to come up for air … It just becomes complicated. And at this point in time, l want to uncomplicate my life, to be quite honest with you.”

The Straight Man takes his bow. He was never a punster, he didn’t give you pearls, he didn’t do Dabo Swinney  jokes or Ed Orgeron localisms or Jim Harbaugh bold recruiting moves. He never really spoke much about himself at all.

But at 63, there is nothing shocking about Mark Dantonio saying goodbye. He’s put in his years. His money is set (he takes a fat bonus with him). And after 13 seasons, three Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl, a College Football Playoff and more wins than any MSU football coach ever, his football legacy is secure.

Sure, Nick Saban, who hired Dantonio all those years ago, is still going strong at 68. But Orgeron, who just won the national championship with LSU, is 58. Swinney is only 50. Ryan Day of Ohio State is 40.

It’s easy to feel old fast in college football, and even easier when that wave seems to get bigger, nastier and a lot less fun to surf every month. Dantonio admitted he might have been “50/50” on the whole thing, but concluded, “In the end if you’re 50/50 on something, you need to be over here” —  he moved his hands to the side — “because this job demands 100 percent.”

And he’s not running on 100% anymore. At times Tuesday, he seemed to be running on fumes.

The Straight Man takes his bow.

A scale of imbalance

Now I know MSU bashers — and many national media outlets — want to quickly attach a recent lawsuit into the shadowy areas of Dantonio’s farewell. He must be going because of that! There has to be something nefarious! But just as no man should be judged solely by the worst thing he did — a practice we in the media shamefully relish doing — so, too, should a long and mostly admirable career not share an equal scale with a single issue of the moment.

There’s been a lot of scale imbalance with Dantonio in recent years. True, much he brought upon himself, because a coach gets blamed for the players he recruits, even if they’re the ones doing wrong, and too many MSU players over Dantonio’s years have had charges brought against them (primarily for sexual assault-related incidents) to ignore mentioning when talking about Dantonio’s time here. This latest lawsuit, by a former MSU recruiting director (alleging Dantonio committed NCAA violations) puts one more thing on the pile.

But a lawsuit filed is not a lawsuit won. And there were a number of seasons when there were no problems with MSU football or its players. Meanwhile, Dantonio, in recent years, has been unfairly sprayed like a skunk by the smell of Larry Nassar and his tapestry of disgraceful abuse. There was a tendency in some national press to somehow lump them together, or at least in proximity to each other, and nobody who knows a thing about Dantonio would ever do that. It was rotten journalism and it still is.

No one diminishes the actions of MSU football players charged with assault. And no question, Dantonio’s clinging to the old school way of dealing with off-field problems — namely, hiding every detail, refusing to speak about the accused, pulling a cloak of silence over everyone in the program — doesn’t fly anymore.

But Dantonio wasn’t running an Animal House. At worst, he believed too much that his rigid personal rules would rub off on every member of his team. For many it did. For others it did not. And perhaps he foolishly believed he could control the damage.

But he didn’t encourage it, and he didn’t slough off the seriousness of the misbehavior. Dantonio is the father of two daughters. He has a soft spot for children and particularly sick and challenged children. He is not an indifferent man. As his career comes to a sudden end, it should not be summed up by those players who abused their privilege in his program. Because for every bad apple there were dozens and dozens of good ones. There were big success stories. There were guys like Kirk Cousins, Jeremy Langford, LeVeon Bell.

“I told them the truth,” Dantonio insisted Tuesday, “good or bad.” And the truth is that he lifted the Spartans’ program tremendously. His record in East Lansing was 114-57, with only two losing seasons in 13 campaigns. In the six years from 2010-15, MSU won 65 games, including seasons of 13-1, 12-2, and 11-2 twice.  

That 2015 season saw the Spartans beat Ohio State and Urban Meyer, win the Big Ten title and make the College Football Playoff — still the only team in the state to achieve that.

Perhaps this is why, when someone asked if it might be hard to find a replacement at this late time, Dantonio interrupted.

“Are you kidding me? People will run here. They’ll crawl here. Michigan State will get an outstanding football coach that cares about young people. We have a great foundation coming back. This (program) has won a lot more than it’s lost.”

What he really was saying was simple. I left this place in good shape. Who wouldn’t want the job now?

The Straight Man takes his bow.

A man who lost his spark

Now, you can argue the timing. And from a school standpoint, you’d have a grudge, because it’s easier to find another coach at the end of a season — like, say, two months ago — than shortly before spring ball. And it’s no coincidence that by staying this long, Dantonio qualified for a $4.3 million bonus (although supporters will argue that money was as much a recognition for what he’d done as what he would do. And if you had that much money coming, would you quit before getting it?).

You can say the program has been declining since that high point in 2015, with back-to-back 7-6 records the past two seasons, both disappointments by anyone’s standards.

But none of that explains the reason for his sudden departure. It’s deeper than that. And having spent time privately with Dantonio, having witnessed him actually make a few jokes, admit a few flaws, confess that his own family tells him to smile more in news conferences (yet he still can’t do it), you know to look for something deeper than just the transcript of his news conference comments. 

What I saw was … weariness. Perhaps when you get older yourself, you recognize weariness more quickly. In watching Dantonio behind the microphone, I saw a guy who lost his spark.  At some point, in all jobs, the joy is wrung from the sponge. It’s not that there aren’t still fun moments. It’s just that they seem fewer and farther between. You wonder about the hamster wheel you’ve been running on. You think about revving it all up again for another year. You start listening when you wife tells you — as Dantonio’s wife, Becky, has for a while — that it’s time to start enjoying your life.

Forever a Spartan

College football, as Dantonio correctly noted, has intensified to a 52-week-a-year job. There are no off periods. Just a few off hours.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Hey, Coach, what you do you like to do in your off time?’ ” Dantonio said. “I can’t even give them an answer.”

Young people will read that and shrug. Older people will read it and nod sadly. It’s the famous song, “Is That All There is?” Once that question gets in your head, it’s an echo chamber. I can believe Dantonio when he said the echo finally got too loud, and that this time was as good — or as bad — as any to step down. He said the team was “reset” and suggested to go any further would be a point of no return.

“I will miss our coaches. I will miss our players. I was very emotional today.  … I care very, very much about this football program.”

The Straight Man takes his bow. It should surprise no one that there weren’t fireworks or big videos or a parade of loving sendoffs from former players and coaches.

It’s not that all that couldn’t have been organized. But I doubt Dantonio wanted any part of it. He suggested that his players and coaches didn’t even know until earlier in the day.

Maybe you think that’s a man on the run. Or maybe it’s just a man who wanted no trumpets when he arrived and none when he departed. He thanked everyone he should have thanked. He said the job had been his “dream come true.” He said he would “forever be a Spartan.”

And then, with the questions answered — or at least dealt with — he half-mumbled into the mike, “I guess that’s all I got. Go Green.”

And moved quickly to the exit.

Some saw indifference. Some saw escape. I saw sadness, weariness and a furtive glance into a void called “the rest of your life.” The Straight Man, in taking his bow, would never let you see him cry. But make no mistake. That wasn’t a carefree turn to retirement. That was a man with a heavy green heart.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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