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Stability is Good, say Michigan State and Iowa

Mark Dantonio

Mark Dantonio

Michigan State is headed to the Big Ten Championship Game for the third time in five seasons. The Spartans are a game away from the College Football Playoff, which would represent a new high point in the best era for Michigan State football since the 1950s.

And Mark Dantonio wants to get on a bit of a soapbox.

“I saw where the assistant coach of the year (finalists) came out,” Dantonio said. “I’ll just say it like it is — I never got anything on that in the mail to nominate any of our guys. I don’t know where the ball got dropped.”

For the record, the Broyles Award folks say they did send materials to Michigan State, but nonetheless, Michigan State won’t have a finalist for the nation’s top assistant.

For Michigan State, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Award-winning assistants become head coaches, as former Spartans defensive coordinator and 2013 Broyles winner Pat Narduzzi did when he took the Pittsburgh job last year.

This season, then, might be another one when Michigan State’s coaching staff stays together. The same may be said at Iowa.

In what is already one of the busier offseasons for coaching moves, Michigan State and Iowa are noted for their stability. And they’re playing for a Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff because of it.

With the retirement of Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz will be tied with Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops for the nation’s longest continuous tenure at a single school at 17 years. (Bill Snyder has coached at Kansas State for 24 years but not from 2006-08.) Dantonio is in his ninth season at Michigan State.

In 2015, any tenure longer than five seasons seems like an eternity.

Since 2000, only one coach who won his first national title didn’t win it within his first four seasons at a school.

Mack Brown won a championship in his eighth season at Texas. Urban Meyer won in his second year at Florida and third at Ohio State. Nick Saban won in his third season at Alabama and fourth season at LSU. Jimbo Fisher won in his fourth year at Florida State. Les Miles and Pete Carroll each won titles by Year 3. Gene Chizik and Jim Tressel won titles in their second seasons. Larry Coker won in his first.

An athletic director with a quick trigger has ample evidence to say that a national championship coach will have his title within four years.

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That’s what makes the Big Ten title game a victory for those with patience. Either Dantonio in Year 9 or Ferentz in Year 17 likely will be in position to play for their first national championship.

Granted, neither coach started their tenures with turn-key programs. And the expectations for Michigan State and Iowa aren’t what they are for Alabama or Ohio State.

Any mention of Ferentz’s up-and-down tenure at Iowa must include his contract: His buyout was believed to be a boondoggle, especially as Iowa went 19–21 in the Big Ten from 2010-14.

After nearly two decades at Iowa, this season seemed to have something special for Ferentz after four subpar years, offensive lineman Austin Blythe said.

“It’s real satisfying,” Blythe said. “When you see that kind of emotion, you want to go out and perform for him. … That’s not who we wanted to be. That’s not the standard he’s set for 17 years.”

In retrospect, continuity has paid clear dividends.

Michigan State endured a rash of injuries all year — from losing linebacker Ed Davis and cornerback Vayante Copeland for the year, offensive lineman Jack Allen and Jack Conklin at midseason and quarterback Connor Cook in the landmark win over Ohio State.

Even with Narduzzi leaving for Pitt, Dantonio still has nine assistants who have been with him during all nine years at Michigan State and at his previous stop at Cincinnati. Two other assistants have been in East Lansing for at least five years.

When Michigan State turned to backups, it turned to backups who have been entrenched in a system since their freshman seasons.

“When you change relationships, you start fresh and those are tough to build,” Dantonio said. “As a coach I can always get better redesign and get better, but when relationships are damaged because of too much changed and there’s something different, a new teacher in the classroom, it’s tough.”

Due to Iowa’s five-year dip after the 2010 Orange Bowl, Ferentz has needed to reinvent his staff within the last four seasons. Only two of Ferentz’s assistants (defensive coordinator Phil Parker and defensive line coach Reese Morgan) have been with him for more than five seasons. But Iowa has been able to inject new blood without changing the culture.

Like Michigan State, Iowa has dealt with its share of injuries through the season — primarily at running back and to star defensive end Drew Ott — but the Hawkeyes have been able to lean on a consistent system to stay in contention all season.

“You have an administration that has stood behind him,” Dantonio said. “That’s rare, as you see, these days. That allows for success to continue.”