Any way you look at it, Mark Dantonio's ending at Michigan State was hypocritical and awful
If I’m a Michigan State fan right now, I’m at a loss.
The guy who was at the helm during the program’s best 3-year run in 60 years retired … the day before National Signing Day and roughly 6 weeks removed from the Early Signing Period … when he signed the majority of MSU’s lowest-rated recruiting class since his first year in East Lansing in 2007.
Oh, it gets worse. Dantonio is 3 weeks removed from getting a $4.3 million one-time longevity payment per the terms of his contract. That’s right. A life-changing lump sum was added to his bank account, and gone he is, just a few weeks after the fact. But hey, at least during those 3 weeks, Dantonio got 2 more verbal commitments to MSU and he spoke publicly … zero times.
Ignore the fact that MSU was coming off a pair of underwhelming 7-win seasons and consider those factors alone. That’s awful. Everything about this is awful.
It’s awful for the recruits who were expecting to sign on the dotted line with MSU on Wednesday. It’s awful for the players who spent a season or 2 there and now either have to wait on a new coaching staff or find some place else to play in the middle of the college football offseason. It’s awful for fans who had their expectations raised throughout the 2010s thanks to a coach who embodied the “chip on the shoulder” mindset (or at least he once did).
Instead, though, Dantonio stepped aside.
He came off defeated not only by his unwillingness to make coaching staff overhauls (he just moved his offensive staff to different positions like that would work), but by MSU’s lackluster performance against top-tier programs. Getting outscored 144-27 against the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin was the product of a team that not only didn’t have the talent to compete at those programs’ level, but they didn’t have a coaching staff that inspired.
In every way, this is awful. This is the type of move that in the ever-competitive B1G East, can turn an uphill climb into one that’s as steep as any in the sport. The irony is that Dantonio elevated a program that even Nick Saban struggled to take to new heights, and now, a major rebuild is ahead.
The “why” might actually be the most awful part. As we found out on Tuesday, the timing of Dantonio’s retirement wasn’t simply “I’m taking my ball (and bonus), and going home.” He allegedly committed NCAA violations:
Late Monday night, lawyers for Curtis Blackwell detailed allegations of two NCAA violations they say Mark Dantonio may have committed.
Hours later, Dantonio retired.https://t.co/nQlsOG9DEq
— Tony Paul (@TonyPaul1984) February 4, 2020
By the way, Dantonio’s lawyers called the alleged violations “a sham.” Those allegations from former MSU staff Curtis Blackwell, were (via Detroit News):
- Dantonio orchestrated employment for the parents of two MSU football players, with mega-donor Bob Skandalaris, whose name is on the football facility.
- Dantonio had Blackwell accompany him on a Metro Detroit home visit of an unnamed five-star recruit, when Blackwell, in his role as director of college advancement and performance, wasn’t authorized to conduct off-campus visits.
I don’t want to assume that because Dantonio retired that he’s automatically guilty of everything Blackwell alleged, but at the very least, it’d be an odd move for an innocent person to step down amidst those allegations.
It wasn’t long ago that it felt like Dantonio was somewhat out of the public crosshairs. Remember the response to the “Outside The Lines” report that detailed Dantonio’s failed actions which led to a sexual misconduct involving several players getting arrested and kicked off the team?
Months after he delivered an emotional response saying he was going to do everything in his power to change his approach of policing his program, he said this:
Dantonio says definitively he never considered quitting. “I don’t think you walk away from problems.”
— Kyle Austin (@kylebaustin) June 6, 2017
Well, Dantonio walked away from this problem. And he did so leaving behind a roster in flux, as well as a recruiting class that didn’t have a single 4-star recruit (Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Purdue, Cal, Iowa State, Northwestern, Cincinnati, Virginia and Boston College all got at least one 4-star recruit).
Once upon a time, that would’ve been a feather in Dantonio’s cap after he rattled off another 10-win season. As crazy as it sounds, that wasn’t that long ago. He actually looked like he put the disaster that was 2016 — easily one of the most embarrassing seasons by a Power 5 program the last decade — behind him with that bounce-back year in 2017. Shoot, this was what I wrote after MSU’s Holiday Bowl win to cap the 2017 season:
The most credit, obviously, should go to Dantonio. All he did was put his head down and go to work. After perhaps the most embarrassing year possible, he did everything in his power to ensure that wouldn’t happen again.
The Fox Sports 1 broadcast crew asked Dantonio about why the 2016 collapse happened. I thought his answer, as told by FS1’s Joel Klatt, said it all: “There is no sale on success. It never goes on sale. You’ve got to pay the price every single year in order to have that success. You’ve got to do the work. And if you don’t, you’re gonna lose.”
I’d love for Dantonio to revisit his words. I’d love to hear him admit that taking chances on guys like Auston Robertson who had major red flags in his background was the beginning of his demise as a head coach. I’d love to hear Dantonio explain how his refusal to modernize MSU’s offense fueled 5 consecutive losses to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, none of which resulted in the Spartans scoring more than 10 points.
I’d love for Dantonio to announce that he’s donating exactly $4.3 million back to MSU because he, being a man of integrity (I think), couldn’t willingly accept a longevity bonus amidst those circumstances.
But I’m not holding my breath on any of that because Dantonio has plenty of good that he can hide behind.
He walked away from MSU as the program’s most successful coach of all-time. A program that had 2 top-10 finishes in the 40 years prior to his arrival experienced a golden age better than many thought possible. I wouldn’t bet on MSU posting 6 seasons of 10-plus wins in the 2020s like Dantonio did in the 2010s, nor would I bet on Dantonio’s successor leading the program to a top-25 finish in Year 2 like he did.
It’s become an all-too familiar theme in the B1G throughout the last decade. The best coaches — Jim Tressel, Joe Paterno, Urban Meyer and now Dantonio — all exited amidst bizarre circumstances. At the root of all of those situations was, in completely different ways, an abuse of power.
It was Tressel’s staff who Dantonio served on at Ohio State and now, it’s Tressel’s nephew, Mike, who will serve as MSU’s acting coach. The irony doesn’t stop there. Luke Fickell, who took over for Jim Tressel at Ohio State after his NCAA violations in the “Tattoo Gate” scandal, is now one of the favorites to take over for Dantonio. Fickell just finished his third season as Cincinnati’s coach. Sound familiar? It should. Dantonio took the MSU job after 3 years as Cincinnati’s coach.
Still, what happens next at MSU is anyone’s guess. How Spartan fans remember Dantonio is anyone’s guess, too.
The best comp for that might be at Dantonio’s alma mater, South Carolina. There, Gamecock fans watched Steve Spurrier lead the program to its winningest stretch ever, but when he quit in the middle of an awful 2015 season, it seemed like he took the easy way out. Fans felt — and still feel — conflicted. Grateful, but incomplete. Spurrier admitted that he lost the energy, and his program spiraled as a result. It feels like the same could be said for Dantonio.
He might not have planned it, but Dantonio walked away from his problems. There’s no denying that. It’ll undoubtedly impact the way we talk about his polarizing career.
And man, what an awful ending it was.