Mark Dantonio has been the most successful football coach Michigan State has employed during my lifetime and I’ve been watching college football since the late 1970s, if I may date myself. That period includes a five-year stretch where Nick Saban was in East Lansing. It also includes the tenure of George Perles, who went to a Rose Bowl.
Thus, Dantonio has done more for Spartan football then the greatest college football coach of all-time and the man who was defensive coordinator for the great Steel Curtain defenses of Pittsburgh in the late 1970s. And if we go even further back into history, Dantonio’s record compares reasonably with Duffy Daugherty, merely the most hallowed name in Michigan State football history.
Therefore any discussion of Dantonio being on the hot seat after last season’s 3-9 disaster and a poor prime-time showing last Saturday at home against Notre Dame, sounds utterly asinine to anyone whose memory reaches back before a week ago.
But in a social media age where 140-character soundbites churn out at rapid rate, asinine things tend to happen. Ask Mark Helfrich, who took Oregon to the brink of a national title in 2014 and was fired by the end of last year. And watching Michigan State just look a step slow against Notre Dame—who is far from an elite team—one realizes just how much of a crossroads the Spartan football program is at.
Michigan State generally recruits good talent, but not great talent. They recruit better than programs like Wisconsin and Iowa, and they’re about on par with Nebraska. Given Dantonio’s demonstrated ability to develop the players he brings in, it wouldn’t be a problem for Michigan State to compete with those teams year-in, year-out.
But that’s not the world Sparty lives in. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa are not the competition in the Big Ten East. Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are. Three brand-name programs with big budgets and that all happen to be run by head coaches who know what they’re doing.
I write as one who roots for Wisconsin and enjoys what the Badger program has been able to accomplish. I also write as one rooted in reality and know how different the landscape would look and feel if Sparty and Bucky flipped divisions.
This is where the Michigan State athletic department has to make some serious decisions about what is realistic. They did what a good middle-class program does—they took advantage of a period when both Michigan and Penn State were down and turned it into a couple Big Ten titles, a Playoff appearance and a couple great wins over Ohio State (2013, 2015). Trying to do that right now just isn’t possible.
Michigan State would be insane to make Dantonio’s seat even lukewarm. Yes, last year was bad and this year might be a struggle. But I recall that when Barry Alvarez turned around Wisconsin, he had some rough years, even after the ascension to contender’s status. After the Badgers made the Rose Bowl in 1993, they had step-back years in 1994-95. After consecutive Rose Bowl wins in 1998-99, the season of 2000 was a disappointment and the 2001-02 campaigns quite forgettable. Wisconsin stayed the course and things turned back upward. Michigan State should do the same with Dantonio.