Mark Dantonio faces much tougher rebuild now than he did 10 years ago
An optimist would look at Michigan State’s current situation and come to the following conclusion.
“Well, if Mark Dantonio rebuilt MSU before, he can do it again.”
When Dantonio arrived in East Lansing 10 years ago, he had his work cut out for him. MSU was 19-40 in B1G play from 2000-06, and 1-7 in 2006. For him to get the Spartans to the level they were at — three top-six finishes in a row — was nothing short of incredible.
Who’s to say MSU — coming off a disastrous 3-9 season both on and off the field — can’t get back to that elite level once again? After all, it’s not like Dantonio became a worse coach in the last 10 years. He’s still just 17 months removed from leading a team to the College Football Playoff.
But a realist would look at MSU’s current situation and come to the following conclusion.
“Dantonio might’ve rebuilt MSU before, but he’ll have to overcome a significantly greater challenge if he’s going to do it again.”
B1G East Battle
Watching MSU stumble its way to a 3-9 record was a good reminder that the margin for error in college football is slimmer than most realize, especially in the B1G East. Lose focus for a season and suddenly you’re in the basement.
Yes, MSU lost focus in 2016-17. Dantonio said on Tuesday that he felt his team was being painted with a “broad brush.” Sorry, but that’s what happens when a team is making negative headlines on a weekly and sometimes daily basis during the offseason. After the final game of 2016, 10 Spartans either transferred or were kicked off the team. Four of those players were booted after they were arrested for sexual assault.
That doesn’t sound like a team that was focused on winning football games.
You know which teams do seem focused on winning football games? The three B1G East teams (Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State) that finished in the top 10 in 2016 and are likely to start in the top 15 in 2016 seem pretty focused.
All of those teams are recruiting at an elite level with coaches who appear to be in for the long haul. That’s different than what Dantonio dealt with while he was building MSU the first time.
Here’s a look at a few of the things that happened in Dantonio’s first few years at Michigan State:
- 2007: Lloyd Carr retires as head coach at Michigan
- 2008: Rich Rodriguez takes over as head coach at Michigan
- 2010: Tattoogate puts Ohio State on probation
- 2011: Jim Tressel resigns at Ohio State
- 2011: Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal goes public
- 2011: Penn State fires Joe Paterno
Did Dantonio’s arrival at Michigan State have anything to do with those things? Of course not.
But you’re in denial if you don’t believe his teams benefitted from those events. It’s easier to recruit and win B1G titles when three of the conference’s traditional powers are going through major transitions.
Timing is key with rebuilds. The ball bounced MSU’s way. Things can change, but it doesn’t look like Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh or James Franklin are slowing down anytime soon.
As if that was enough, there’s also the nine-game conference schedule. Based on MSU’s 1-8 mark in conference play last year, it isn’t just B1G East powers that the Spartans have to overcome.
Perspective is everything in college football. When Dantonio took over in 2007, he brought a fresh mindset. He threw out MSU’s spread offense and instituted a pro-style system. Dantonio was also a defensive guru who helped lead Ohio State to a national title in 2002.
Schematically speaking, that’s an easy sell to prospective recruits. There was positive energy and reason to believe that Dantonio could change the perception of Michigan State football. Everyone wants to be part of an up-and-coming program, which MSU was in Dantonio’s first few seasons.
Ten years ago, Dantonio had a knack for developing the Michigan and Ohio recruits that didn’t get the attention of Michigan and Ohio State. Can he still do that? Absolutely. If MSU is ever going to return to prominence under Dantonio, those type of recruits will be the core.
But in the world of negative recruiting, the Spartans made themselves easy targets.
MSU was finally at the point where it was starting to beat Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State in recruiting battles for top-100 recruits. Do you think those programs won’t reference MSU’s last year to a recruit? They might not even half to. It’s common knowledge at this point. That’s what happens when you make as many negative headlines as the Spartans did.
Dantonio just had four true freshmen — all of whom were four-star recruits with other big-time offers — get kicked off the team after being arrested for sexually violent crimes. Never mind the fact that his team just went 3-9 while his main competitors were bidding for playoff spots. How is Dantonio going to be able to walk into the home of a four-star recruit and tell his mother, ‘I’m going to take care of your son and help him become a man.’
Good luck with that.
For what it’s worth, Dantonio said and did all of the right things publicly upon learning about the sexual assault investigations (watch and learn, Baylor). His character would’ve been in question if he turned a blind eye to the serious accusations against some potential future stars.
But that doesn’t change the fact that it happened under Dantonio’s watch. He knows that he’ll take the hit for that.
Gutted 2016 class
The only silver lining of MSU’s free fall on the field last year was that the 2016 class was loaded. Billed as Dantonio’s best yet, it was supposed to be the group that got MSU back to competing for B1G titles.
Who were the top three recruits of that class again (via 247sports)?
Josh King, Auston Robertson and Donnie Corley were the aforementioned Spartans arrested on sexual assault charges, as was Demetric Vance. That’s four of the top eight recruits in the class. The No. 11 recruit in MSU’s class was Kenney Lyke, who announced he was transferring last week because he was academically ineligible.
Five of those 11 recruits are gone after one year in East Lansing. That’s a tough blow to take for a program that just lost every B1G game that wasn’t against Rutgers.
The young core is a major question mark. Still, Dantonio’s best teams usually had a nice mix of senior leadership with some young playmakers sprinkled in.
MSU’s top recruits from 2014 — the guys who would’ve been seniors this year — were Malik McDowell and Montae Nicholson. Both of them left MSU for the NFL. Craig Evans was the No. 3 recruit in that class. After he was suspended, he transferred. Dantonio’s top recruit from 2013 was Jon Reschke, who transferred this offseason following an incident with a teammate.
MSU was planning on relying on that 2016 class a lot more than typical second-year groups. The Spartans upperclassmen just don’t have the experience or talent they’ve had in years past.
Unless Brian Lewerke is the second coming of Kirk Cousins, it’s hard to see a way in which MSU suddenly gets back to being a winning team in the near future.
So what now?
Think about this scenario. Let’s pretend Dantonio built his current résumé at another school the last decade and that MSU was still in its current state, but it was looking to hire a new coach. The Spartans would be absolutely thrilled to land a guy like Dantonio. Rebuilding programs don’t often have a coach like him.
Having said that, Dantonio has to change. He can’t take risks on recruits with histories of sexual violence like Robertson. Allowing Delton Williams back on the team without a game suspension after he waived a gun in a road-rage incident won’t fly, either.
MSU had its fair share of off-the-field problems before 2016-17. But MSU never had an offseason quite like this. The fact that it came after a 3-9 season is all the more reason for Dantonio to tighten the screws and do everything he can to avoid more negative press.
More than anything, the Spartans need a boring summer. The conversation must shift back to “who’s going to be the No. 1 receiver?” instead of “who’s on red lock this week?”
Ten years ago, Dantonio’s biggest obstacles were on the field. Now, he’s at a disadvantage from every angle.
If Dantonio can rise above this set of hurdles, it’ll be his greatest feat yet.