Spartans can take another step in Saturday's marquee game against Oregon
Mark Dantonio didn’t set out to be everyone’s favorite coach in the Big Ten.
Seven seasons after he arrived to fix a broken Michigan State program, there’s a sense he still wants to be seen as a full-time taskmaster.
The image, though, is becoming tougher to maintain. Just as Michigan State has shed it’s image of the second fiddle to Michigan, Dantonio has transformed his demeanor, though it’s been an incremental process.
At the conference media day, the Big Ten Network asked one player from each team for the coach — other than their own — for whom he’d want to play.
The leading contender wasn’t the coach with the national titles and name recognition, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. It wasn’t the younger, effervescent Pat Fitzgerald or James Franklin. The winner, with five of 14 votes, was Dantonio, one more than Meyer.
At least Dantonio can claim he won a plurality of votes and not the majority, allowing Michigan State to continue to play the underdog card that has worked so well during the last four seasons.
That may change Saturday if Michigan State is able to topple Oregon in Eugene, a game that could allow the Spartans to carry the Big Ten banner for the first College Football Playoff while giving Michigan State wins over national powerhouses in its last four games.
The Dantonio coaching at Autzen Stadium, though, isn’t the same Dantonio who took the job in 2007 after a three-year stint at Cincinnati. For all the changes at Michigan State, including its rise to one of the powers of a changing Big Ten, the biggest transformation may have been Dantonio.
Quarterback Connor Cook is playing for a different coach than the one who signed him. And even more different from the one Dantonio’s first quarterback, Brian Hoyer, knew.
Like Cook, Hoyer played high school football in Cleveland, and the two have remained in contact, including when the now-Cleveland Browns quarterback during spring practice visited East Lansing for the first time since his pro day in 2008.
Much had changed for Hoyer since the last time he was here — including a $24.5 million renovation of the stadium’s north end zone, locker room and recruiting room — but there was another upgrade Hoyer noticed.
“The main difference wasn’t new facilities,” Cook said. “The main thing was Coach D and how he changed. He’s all business when he’s around the football field and he’s in meetings. When it’s time to have fun, he does have fun. Coach D is human.”
Dantonio brushed off the compliment with the characteristic dry wit.
“Brian’s just older now, but he knows me better,” Dantonio said.
The evidence speaks to itself, though.
Dantonio joined in the now-requisite locker room dancing video after a big win, in this case, a 26-9 win over Michigan.
The song, “Type of Way” by Atlanta rapper Rich Homie Quan, became the unofficial theme song of the season when cornerback Darqueze Dennard made popular among the team. By the time Michigan State won the Rose Bowl, Quan was in Pasadena and in the Spartans’ locker room after the game.
Before the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in 2012, Dantonio rode into practice on a horse — and that was after a 6-6 regular season (7-6 after the bowl).
“He’s way more loose,” Cook said.
Maybe that’s because Michigan State has scaled the Big Ten, winning the school’s first outright league title since 1987 and first Rose Bowl since 1955.
Dantonio certainly couldn’t afford being light when he first took over at Michigan State.
The program had four losing seasons in five years under John L. Smith and Bobby Williams. The Spartans had been known for mystifying in-game collapses, falling apart in the second half season and media histrionics from the head coach in Smith.
“When I came to Michigan State in 2007, the culture needed to be changed,” Dantonio said. “I don’t want to say anything about anyone in the past, but we hadn’t been to a bowl game in a while. We needed to establish who we were and the parameters of our program.”
Re-making Michigan State wasn’t a smooth process. The most visible speed bump came in Dantonio’s second season in 2009 when several of his players were involved in an on-campus fight. Dantonio had given one of the players arrested in the brawl a second chance after a previous altercation.
After that season, Michigan State’s program turned a corner that’s included 10 or more wins in three of the last four years.
“I’m here for our players; I like to mentor them,” Dantonio said. “But I tell them when we have a discipline issue, you don’t want someone soft sitting behind the table. You have to establish discipline. That means treating everyone fairly and consistently.”
That’s the Dantonio that Cook first got to know, first through Hoyer and then through the recruiting process.
“Watching in him in high school when I was junior and sophomore to watch Brian Hoyer, I’d see Coach D on the sideline and there was never a smile. None. Not in an interview. Not on the sideline. When I was being recruited, I thought, Coach D is pretty freakin’ intense.”
While Dantonio says he hopes his freshmen now have the same impressions Cook did originally, odds are they don’t.
Perhaps it’s the Big Ten title that’s lightened his mood. Perhaps a mild heart attack in 2010 — a subject he’s still reluctant to address — has given him a sense of perspective.
Or perhaps by Year 8, the discipline is ingrained enough in the program, as safety Kurtis Drummond said. That leaves Dantonio a little wiggle room to enjoy himself.
“You’ve got to start off strong. You have to lay a foundation,” Drummond said. “The respect is definitely there. He doesn’t need to be as stern anymore because guys understand.”