The secret of Dantonio's success

Mark DantonioAllen Kee/ESPN Images

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."

'He went to school on his craft and created his own way of doing things'

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."

Tressel would later hire Dantonio as his defensive coordinator at Youngstown State and later at Ohio State, where the two won a national championship in 2002. Dantonio's other mentors included Earle Bruce and Nick Saban, the latter of whom was his boss at Michigan State from 1995-2000.

Dantonio said he has taken things from each of them and his father while cobbling together his own philosophy.

"Mark had the good fortune to work with a lot of good coaches, but he was always going to be his own guy," Tressel said. "He's such a bright person, and he went to school on his craft and created his own way of doing things."

Dantonio got his first chance to lead a program in 2004 at Cincinnati, a program that had long been mired in mediocrity at best and disrepair at its worst. He quickly went about instilling a sense of toughness in his team and ended up taking the Bearcats to two bowl games in three years. People around Cincinnati still credit Dantonio for laying the foundation that Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and now Tommy Tuberville have built upon.

"Cincinnati is not a easy place to win," said Bob Mangine, who came out of semi-retirement to serve as Dantonio's head trainer with the Bearcats. "You have to be able to fight through adversity. Mark never lost focus on his long-term goals or who he was.

"I could walk out to him during the middle of a game and tell him we just lost half the team to injury, and he'd be like, 'OK, let's just keep moving on.' Some coaches, you tell them you've got a kid with a hangnail and you're worried they're going to punch you."

'Stay the course ... weather the storm'

In 2006, Hollis -- who was then Michigan State's associate athletic director -- was put in charge of finding the school's next football coach. He wanted someone who not only had a sterling won-loss record but who also understood the dynamics of the place.

"You can hire a great coach, but if they don't fit the environment, they're going to have some challenges," Hollis said. "Mark knew the board of trustees, he knew the faculty and he knew how to get one side of campus to another."

Dantonio's years as an assistant coach for the Spartans under Saban allowed him, he said, "to know where the pitfalls were." When asked what his biggest obstacle was to overcome, Dantonio answered, "Probably belief. Overall belief and confidence."

Things didn't always go smoothly. After leading the Spartans to nine wins in his second season, the team dipped back down to 6-7 in 2009. The end of that year was marred by the ugly Rather Hall brawl shortly after a team banquet. That incident led to criminal charges, dismissals and suspensions for nearly a dozen players.

That difficult time was a perfect example of Dantonio's steady hand, Hollis says. Though he and the program received waves of criticism and bad publicity from the fight, Dantonio went to work trying to improve the character of the team. The Spartans bounced back to win 22 games over the next two seasons, including a share of the Big Ten title in 2010 and a Legends Division crown in 2011.

"We've tried not to panic when things have gone wrong," Dantonio said. "We've tried to stay the course and weather all storms."

Another bump in the road arrived in 2012, when Michigan State -- despite fielding one of the nation's top defenses -- went just 6-6 in the regular season and suffered a slew of close losses. While some called for major changes to an offense that struggled to score, Dantonio instead promoted from within, elevating longtime assistant Dave Warner after offensive coordinator Dan Roushar left for a job with the New Orleans Saints.

That shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone, because Dantonio is incredibly loyal to his staff. Several of his assistants, including highly respected defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, secondary coach Harlon Barnett, linebackers coach Mike Tressel and offensive line coach Mark Staten, have worked with him since 2004. He gives his coaches great leeway to run their positions while letting them share credit for success.

"There are several children of our coaches whom I've known since birth," Dantonio said. "They're not just my staff; they're my friends."

'He had a plan ... he just went to work'

The Spartans' steady climb in the Dantonio era reached a crescendo last year with a 13-1 season capped by a Rose Bowl win over Stanford. Dantonio has often referred to last season as "completion."

It also cemented his status in the game.

"You look at what he did at Cincinnati and Michigan State," said Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason, who employed Dantonio as his defensive backs coach at Kansas from 1991-94. "Some coaches are born on third base and think they've hit a triple when they take over places that have won year in and year out. Mark didn't do that, and I think that's what puts him in the elite status.

"He had a plan. He knew what he wanted to do and he knew what kind of players he wanted to recruit. Then he just went to work and built it from the ground floor up."

Dantonio is working now to get Michigan State in position to win a national championship. That goal would receive a major boost with a win at Oregon this week. Regardless of the outcome, however, don't expect Dantonio to change. Those close to him say last year's success might have made him a little more confident, but that's about it.

"He's the same brother, the same coach and the same guy he's always been," Frank Dantonio said. "You could not tell if they won the Rose Bowl or lost it."

That consistency might not be flashy. But it sure has been effective.