Michigan State’s coaching search to replace Mark Dantonio is already off to an interesting start. Top candidates like Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi and Colorado’s Mel Tucker passed on the job, leaving the administration looking to the next tier of options as the search stretches into its second week.
Dantonio’s surprise retirement concluded a successful tenure in East Lansing. He guided Michigan State to 114 wins from 2007-19 and had just two losing records in that span. Additionally, the Spartans played in the CFB Playoff in 2015 and finished a perfect 8-0 in the Big Ten with a trip to the Rose Bowl in 2013.
With the top candidates already out and a less-than-ideal time to hire a coach, where does Michigan State go next for its next coach?
Athlon polled a group of editors and college football contributors to find out who their pick would be if the decision was theirs to make. As you can see below, a variety of names were mentioned for the job.
Michigan State Football: Who Should the Spartans Hire to be the Next Head Coach?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Considering the timing, interim coach and defensive coordinator Mike Tressel seems more viable by the hour. However, if I’m calling the shots in East Lansing, I would look to the MAC for my next head coach. Buffalo’s Lance Leipold or Eastern Michigan’s Chris Creighton would be outstanding hires and both are proven winners at different levels. Former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is worth a look, but Leipold and Creighton would be my first two calls (in that order) to replace Dantonio.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Mark Dantonio did Michigan State no favors with the timing of his departure. And regardless of what your thoughts are on the eventual outcome regarding the allegations leveled by former staff member Curtis Blackwell, it's no stretch to say that this job has lost some of its luster.
However, even though the Spartans have shown some slippage in recent seasons I don't think they need a complete teardown and rebuild. That's why I believe the best choice right now is to remove the interim tag from Mike Tressel and see what he can do after serving two years under Dantonio. If anything, it gives the decision-makers at Michigan State plenty of time to assess the football program and decide what changes need to be made in order to put the Spartans in the best position for sustained success.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
Given that many of their top choices have already turned them down, Michigan State might do well to hire someone with recruiting experience in the Upper Midwest. That would make Buffalo's Lance Leipold a strong option, considering the eight years he spent building Wisconsin-Whitewater into a Division III powerhouse. Leipold has quickly turned around the Bulls' program too and will likely become a major coaching candidate soon with another successful season in the MAC. The Spartans should make a move before his star is too bright to attract to East Lansing.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
Right from the start, I was on the Bret Bielema bandwagon. And why not? Bielema was very successful during his time as the head coach at Wisconsin and he would be jumping right back into more familiar territory for him. We're going to see Bielema coaching college football again at some point, I believe, and throwing him right in the fire of a rivalry with Jim Harbaugh would be so much fun. Make the call, Spartans.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
I'd keep an eye on Clark Lea, current defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. He was rumored to be a player in the recent Boston College hiring, and was also talked about as a potential for the defensive coordinator position at LSU before they hired Pelini.
Lea is a high-character guy, something that should be at the top of the list for any Michigan State University opening at this point. He also happens to be one of the best up-and-coming defensive minds in the country. He has experience recruiting Michigan State's region and has set up pipelines nationally.
If the Spartans were able to pull Lea away from South Bend, it wouldn't be a splash, but it would be as close to a slam dunk as you're going to get.
Brandon Cavanaugh (@eightlaces)
If I were Michigan State and could somehow snag Bret Bielema at this point, I'd do everything in my power to do so. He won 40 games in his last four years at Wisconsin, knows how to recruit the conference and isn't afraid of anyone in the Big Ten East. While he struck out at Arkansas, he can capitalize on what he learned going up against SEC-caliber staffs in a familiar locale and is a name that should get fans excited despite the increasing talk of potential NCAA violations.
Chip Minnich (@ChipMinnich)
With the obvious candidates having pulled themselves out of the running, Michigan State may want to turn to Bret Bielema. The threat of looming NCAA violations that are hanging over the program is going to/have scared other people away. Why not go with a former B1G head coach who has had success and is looking for professional redemption himself? The program would get to retain its rugged mindset of running the ball and playing tough defense, and the in-state barbs that would be thrown between Bielema and Jim Harbaugh would get the media's attention.
Podcast: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State and National Signing Day