Going to the end of the line: Mark Dantonio's year in East Lansing
College football does not allow graceful departures. Woody Hayes punches an opposing player on camera, Joe Paterno fails as a mandated reporter, Bobby Bowden’s succession plan is made without the assistance of Bobby Bowden. Few decide on last call. They’re cut off before one more trip up to the rail. These are some of the greats of the game afforded luxuries through the prominence and success of their job performance.
The sweetheart deals come with tickets to all home and road football games, so many hours of use of a private jet, and membership to an affluent country club as an environment to alleviate the stress of electing to punt on 4th and short. Such perks do not exist in perpetuity when your team fails to live up to expectations you previously set for them.
When you’ve had a good run you’ve had a good run, but you aren’t granted the power to make your own decision unless you get out in front of it. Country club memberships don’t go to also-rans.
Mark Dantonio nears the end of the night. Now it all depends on whether he calls it early or Michigan State cuts him off.
There are a few ways to play it: Dantonio can murmur and whisper among his players and coaches before the Michigan game this week that this is his last year, or to muster that extra ounce of motivational pull, announce Saturday as his last game; Michigan State can choose to end things prior to January 15, 2020 when a bonus of $4 million plus kicks in for him; Dantonio could retire and receive a farewell package of $7 million; or Dantonio returns for another season with the alarming expectancy of CBS programming.
Notice anything from the last paragraph? Outside of the dig at “Young Sheldon,” that’s a lot of money. Money is the focal point in any discussion, but Michigan State threw that at Dantonio after he oversaw the peak of Michigan State football. Money is a wonderful shield to come to the decision that Dantonio will not coach Michigan State anymore. Find a few donors to dig deeper into their pockets, throw out some naming rights, honor them at halftime of a Michigan State men’s basketball game and take whatever they have to fix the problem of the football team.
Blame the money, but the lack of buzz, the downward trend, those are the largest bell-ringers to signal the end of his tenure. No succession plans allowed.
Mutual agreements between coach and school in regards to when and how to end things after a period of time rarely end ceremoniously. Thirteen years is a heck of a run at one place, the amount of time where the message, once poignant and intuitive is now hackneyed and stale. It doesn’t help that Dantonio is set in his ways and dismissive when he deals with the media.
The combination of time and mundane results made Michigan State unwatchable in 2018. Uninventive offensive football and cracks in a once dominant defense made Michigan State a punchline in 2019. Dantonio is to blame for that when he put the interests of his coaching staff ahead of the interests of his program.
Instead of showing a spike in urgency and bringing in some new blood to his offensive staff Dantonio trusted the group that finished second to last in total points scored and total yardage in 2018 for another season. He shuffled a deck of individuals that yielded 4’s and 5’s last year and expected to draw a royal flush in 2019. As of now, the Spartans are second to last in the conference in offensive touchdowns. Things somehow took a turn for the worse this past weekend.
The loss at home to Illinois with Michigan State leading by 21 points in the fourth quarter is the sort of escape clause necessary. What started as raised eyebrows and double-takes after losses to Arizona State and Wisconsin has become a stink pile of confusion. And though the Illinois loss disheartened fans who held out hope for a marginal bowl, it at least set the course for change at Michigan State.
No one is owed a lifetime contract for the amount of goodwill engendered towards their place of employment through their efforts, let alone a coach who oversaw a healthy dose of sleaziness and will be deposed around the start of the year for his handling of a former assistant coach. Dantonio ushered in and lorded over the sort of golden age of Michigan State football that gave him some benefit, but when his loyalty to his assistants trumped loyalty to the program and its success, he lost almost all of his equity. Dantonio knows the rules of the game but digs his heels in when, if he had any intention of staying beyond this season, he should play nice.
His terseness tells everyone around him it’s time to go. You wonder how many more losses like the one to Illinois will everyone else need to hear the same message.
That message may be garbled talk for the university for now, but they’ll hear it loud and clear just before the bonus kicks in. Then again, I guess Dantonio is going out on his own terms, doing it his way. He chose to get defensive, still in search of the offense that eluded him in the past two seasons.