EAST LANSING — Mark Dantonio spent the past few weeks hitting the recruiting trail as always, visiting schools and talking to high school prospects.

He realized that it was getting increasingly hard to promise kids that he would still be the coach when they came in 2022. The nonstop grind began to weigh on him. He realized he was 50/50 on what to do about his future. As he explained this all at a press conference on Tuesday night at the Breslin Center, the former Michigan State football coach extended his hand out to his right.

“In the end, if you’re 50/50 on something, you need to be over here, because this job demands 100 percent,” he said.

As Dantonio flew back and forth from those visits, he began to draft a statement about why he wanted to step away, a decision he announced Tuesday afternoon.

The timing is awkward, to put it generously. The coaching carousel has long since come to a halt, and many of the top young coaching candidates already have new jobs. Dantonio announced his decision the day before National Signing Day, after all but three of his 2020 recruits have signed National Letters of Intent, binding themselves to a program that is suddenly without a coach. The Detroit News reported earlier in the day that, in an ongoing lawsuit filed by former recruiting director Curtis Blackwell, Dantonio was alleged to have committed multiple recruiting violations in his time with the Spartans. And Dantonio recently earned a $4.3 million retention bonus for remaining with the team through Jan. 15.

Dantonio offered up his own justification for the timing, explaining the many cycles of being a college football coach, including the one every February where he resets his football team, saying goodbye to the seniors and bringing in the rookies, in preparation for spring ball.

“As I’ve gone into schools in the last week or two weeks, these last two weeks of the dead period … I would find myself saying, there’s gonna be a gap,” Dantonio said. “There’s gonna be a gap created if I don’t stay, if I leave after next season, it’s gonna be a gap in recruiting. And the best time, I felt, to step away, when you reset your football team.”

Meanwhile, Dantonio denied that his decision had anything to do with the Blackwell lawsuit or the recent deposition he was required to give. When pressed further, he said, “We’re not talking about this. This is a celebration.” Athletic director Bill Beekman later derided the allegations as “patently false.”

Dantonio waxed poetic about the three Big Ten championships, the Rose Bowl, the Playoff appearance and the players he’d had a chance to work with. There was no doubt, he said, that he’d left the program in better shape than he’d found it.

Still, that program is now on a downward trajectory, having finished the last two seasons 7-6 with losses to Michigan in both. The Spartans have the 10th-best 2020 recruiting class in the Big Ten, per 247Sports, and haven’t secured a single commitment for 2021. Now, Beekman has to find a coach who can restock the Spartans’ cupboard while also competing in the difficult Big Ten East.

“I don’t know that there’s ever a good time (to retire),” Beekman said. “There are times that are better than other times. But I think that when you’ve won 114 games and you’re the all-time winningest coach and you’ve taken us to the places Mark’s taken us, you’ve set the bar where Mark’s set it, that I was comfortable operating on his timeline, whatever that would be, and I think that we’ll find a very good coach.”

Dantonio and Beekman both reflected on what they wanted in a new coach and were largely in agreement: someone who is familiar with the Midwest, knows Michigan State’s history and culture and has a high character. The Spartans’ top candidates are reported to be Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell and Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi.

But Dantonio isn’t worried about finding the right candidate.

“Are you kidding me?” Dantonio said. “People will run here. They’ll crawl here. Michigan State will get an outstanding coach that will care about young people. They have a great foundation coming back. This program has won a lot more than it’s lost, as indicated by 13 years of what has been. … My hope for anybody who’s choosing to coach, I may be involved a little bit, maybe not, but that they hire somebody who will be here 13 or 14 years and win 114-plus games.”

Meanwhile, Dantonio plans to move into a special ambassador role with the athletic department, a provision that was afforded him in his contract. Beekman and Dantonio haven’t quite decided what that role will be yet, but Beekman offered up a few possibilities they’ve tossed around, such as alumni and donor engagement and perhaps teaching a class on leadership.

For Dantonio, it’s the best of both worlds. He gets to stay involved with the program while cutting back on his workload, allowing him to spend more time with family and developing hobbies he’d never had the capacity to explore.

When asked to characterize his legacy, Dantonio said it wasn’t about the wins and losses, “although there’s a lot of them.” When he looks back on his career, Dantonio will remember the people he got to work with and the careers he helped shape. More than most other coaches, Dantonio has come to define Michigan State football — for better and for worse. He was the coach who brought the Spartans back to prominence, flipped the rivalry with Michigan on its head and made a Big Ten laughingstock into a powerhouse. He’s also the coach who was stubborn, showed arguably undeserved loyalty to his assistants after down seasons and allegedly mishandled sexual assault allegations.

It’s hard to envision Michigan State without him, but that’s exactly the task the athletic department now has on its hands. He may have defined the program as it is today, but now, Dantonio wants more than just the program to define him.

“I’ve told my players on many occasions that Michigan State is bigger than any one person,” Dantonio said. “It’s the program that’s so important. Someday there will be someone else talking to you from this podium. That day has come.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *