Former Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer returned to campus for the first time in a few years this spring to watch a Spartans practice. According to current starting quarterback Connor Cook, Hoyer noticed one big difference, and it had nothing to do with the team's new facilities.
Cook said Hoyer told him that head coach Mark Dantonio seemed to have lightened up from the ultra-serious man he remembered from his playing days. Informed of this story a couple of days later, Dantonio scoffed.
"Brian forgets," Dantonio said. "I laughed a lot back then, too."
Any suggestion that Dantonio has made significant changes to his personality or approach needs stronger evidence than mere memory. That's because unwavering consistency has been the driving force behind the rise of both the Spartans program and their eighth-year head coach to the nation's elite, a steady climb that can take another step up with this Saturday's showdown at Oregon.
Like his teams, Dantonio might lack the sizzle and pizzazz of Oregon (though his fierce defenses in East Lansing have been innovative; America just likes offense more). While the Ducks are known for their futuristic uniforms, the look most associated with the Spartans might be the grimace Dantonio usually wears on the sideline.
In news conferences and other public appearances, Dantonio can sometimes come off as stoic, maybe a little robotic, even though that's not really who he is behind the scenes. But it's his focused, even-keeled way of doing things that has helped Michigan State go 43-12 since 2010, post double-digit wins in three of the past four seasons and rise to the top of the Big Ten.
That's the kind of consistency the Spartans rarely enjoyed prior to 2007, when Dantonio took over a program that had cratered under John L. Smith.
"As an alumnus I feel like I can say this, but we'd always heard comments, 'Same old Spartans,'" Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said. "We were known for winning the big game then losing the puppy game. We had spikes within seasons, spikes within decades.
"The way to change that is to get everybody on the same page and moving in the same direction, and that's what Mark has done here."
Dantonio grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, the son of a high school principal, baseball coach and World War II veteran. His father, Justin, imparted an attention to detail to each of his four boys.
"We're all a product of that," said Dantonio's older brother, Frank, who is a tax attorney in Ohio.
Mark walked on and later earned a scholarship at South Carolina as a defensive back, then spent a year teaching and coaching at a high school in Anderson, S.C. "His passion has always been teaching," Frank said. "He has always felt he could teach people, not only football but also in life."
Dantonio soon jumped into college coaching, serving as a graduate assistant at Ohio, Purdue and Ohio State. He quickly made an impression wherever he went.
"The thing that you knew about Mark was that he was a consummate guy," said Jim Tressel, who was an offensive assistant at Ohio State when Dantonio was a GA there. "He wasn't a guy who needed a bunch of attention or instruction, because he was studying what was going on and knew where he could contribute."