It's a Monday morning in East Lansing and Mark Dantonio is in his office poring over the film of his team's first and only loss to date in 2015. The could-haves and should-haves have chased sleep away for most of the past 36 hours since Michigan State's undefeated season was felled by a last-minute touchdown at Nebraska.
Losses sting for longer, he admits, now that they've become less frequent. The controversial final score is only one in a long list of plays that will linger in Dantonio's head for the next -- How long? -- weeks, months, maybe years?
Sympathy is easy here. The same chagrined scowl and fatigue-ringed eyes that Dantonio wore on the sideline in the final seconds in Lincoln reappear whenever he reviews the defeat. Empathy is much harder. The average working stiff can't relate to spending a decade building something, then turning it over to a group of 18-to-22-year olds and a handful of part-time officials on a weekly basis to determine if the world will remember you as a hero or a bum.
There's maybe one man within a 50-mile radius of where Dantonio sits that can say with a straight face, "I know how you feel, partner." And here's that man now, stopping by the office to say just that.
Tom Izzo has never been accused of being succinct, so it takes a little longer than a half hour to deliver the message. That's no surprise for the folks at the Skandalaris Football Center, where Michigan State's basketball coach has become a regular visitor. The two coaches watch a couple plays together, discuss the unforgiving nature of college football and trade ideas on where to go from here.
"We just talked about how to deal with the media and the fans and players. I asked him how he addressed his players Sunday when he got back," Izzo said. "Mostly, I was just checking up on a friend."
Izzo and Dantonio have spent nearly a decade together as the most popular and loneliest men in East Lansing. Their relationship is unique in college sports. Publicly, they stump for one another at every opportunity. Behind closed doors, their friendship goes beyond the normal cordial and collegial ties between coaches at most universities. Both men, and anyone else who knows them, say their bond has played a role in ushering in the most successful era of Michigan State sports.
The football team has won 33 of its last 37 games, including four straight bowl victories. The basketball team has reached the Sweet 16 in all four of those years, climbing to an Elite Eight and a Final Four in the last two seasons. On Tuesday, Izzo's crew knocked off No. 4 Kansas in Chicago. Dantonio will try to follow suit on Saturday in Columbus against No. 3 Ohio State.
The two of them and their growing accomplishments are becoming inextricably tied to each other in Spartan history. That was the plan from the start.
"They couldn't be independent," said Mark Hollis, the athletic director and the human suture responsible for creating the Spartans' buddies-in-arms. "They had to be joined. They have to feed off of each other. That was the strategy we took going in. We had to have the right people to do that. There are a lot of great coaches across the country. It was, 'What's the right fit?' That's what we had to find."
Hollis was still a year away from being promoted to athletic director when his boss assigned him the task of finding Michigan State's next football coach during the fall of 2006. He had been around the school long enough to see how devastating mistrust and divisiveness could be to the department's success. He arrived in 1995, just as the football program started to recover from an academic scandal and a thinly veiled feud between its leaders and the university administration. His goal was to find a man who could help pull everyone from the school president to the student manager in the same direction.
He started by creating a grading rubric that would make any stathead smile. Hollis compiled 20 years of data on coaching transitions to search for variables that led to success on the field. He looked at where the candidates grew up, what position groups they coached, their NFL experience and about 70 other categories. He kept his fingers crossed when he dropped this grid over the résumé of his old friend, Mark Dantonio.
Dantonio's first stint at Michigan State (prior to stops at Ohio State and Cincinnati) also began in 1995 when he was hired by Nick Saban to coach the defensive backs. Izzo had just been named the head basketball coach after 12 years as an assistant. Their first conversations weren't about what it would be like when the three guys -- Dantonio, Izzo and Hollis -- from small Midwest towns ran this place. They were too busy talking about preschools.
Hollis and Dantonio both brought toddlers with them to East Lansing. Their wives, Nancy and Becky, met before they did, ushering their oldest kids to mutual playgroups while both tended to newborns. Izzo, who famously roomed with Hollis when he was a graduate assistant for the Spartans, and his wife, Lupe, also became parents around the same time.
Conversations about life with daughters proved to be kindling for talks about work-life balance and coaching philosophies. These talks sparked trust and opened lines of communication that grow each year, lines that very much include the family matriarchs. "Our wives are a big part of it," Dantonio said. "I feel like I can call up Nancy Hollis and talk to her or call up Lupe Izzo and talk to her and feel completely at ease. I think they feel the same with me. My wife feels the same with Mark and Tom. It's not just the male figures in the family. It's our families."
It's not rare for one of the wives to add her opinion to a discussion about the department. It might come via text or on one of their many trips. From bowl destinations to NCAA Tournament sites to the occasional getaways to Mackinac Island they plan together, the three families spend a lot of time outside of East Lansing with one another. Their kids didn't have much choice in becoming friends.
The oldest, Kristen Dantonio and T.R. Hollis, graduated from Michigan State a year ago. Katy Hollis and Raquel Izzo, both juniors, are roommates. They share a place a couple miles from where their dads lived together 30 years earlier. Lauren Dantonio, also a junior, is a frequent guest.
"To think a lot of them started pre-school together is cool," Becky Dantonio said. "For us to leave and come back is pretty special, I think."
Hollis and Izzo both played a role in bringing the Dantonios back. After Hollis laid out his extensive grading rubric for hiring a football coach, he put together a panel of advisors to help him interview candidates and pick a winner. The group included his boss, a former player and Izzo, who remained involved while preparing his team for the 2006-07 season.
Both Hollis and Izzo had kept in touch with Dantonio, who was in the midst of his third year as the head coach at Cincinnati. He refused to chat about the potential job opening until his season was over. Finally, on Thanksgiving Day, Dantonio relented and called Hollis to see if a return to Michigan State was a real possibility.
Two days later, Hollis flew to Ohio to meet Dantonio at the airport after the Bearcats beat UConn on the road in their season finale. Izzo wrapped up an early season win during the afternoon then joined Hollis on the plane. The sales pitch was an easy one. Dantonio talked to the school president on Sunday and was officially introduced as the Spartans' new coach on Monday.
"Even though I had little say in the deal, I felt a part of it," Izzo said. "I went down there. You take a little ownership in how that guy does because you were a part -- a small part -- of hiring him. That was brilliant on Hollis' part."
The Dantonios bought a house five doors down from the Izzos. There have been plenty of nights after big wins and tough losses where one coach has walked down to the other's kitchen to dissect the day or provide some empathy.
They bounce ideas off of each other when it comes to player discipline, dealing with success or even strategy from time to time. Dantonio often snuck over to basketball practice to watch their intensity and communication in his first few years back on campus. Izzo has borrowed ideas from the football program, too. A couple times after poor rebounding performances he has borrowed shoulder pads and helmets. Dantonio has often said his favorite feature in his office is the north-facing window that looks out across the intramural fields and the Breslin Center.
"I've always said that ever since we moved into this building in 2008 that all I had to do was look across Munn Field to the basketball arena to see how championships are made," he said.
Last March, after Izzo's team clinched its seventh appearance in the Final Four, Dantonio walked across the fields to Breslin where a pep rally was about to take place. The football coach waited in the bowels of the arena to be one of the first to greet his friend when the basketball bus arrived.
When they arrived at the celebration, Izzo grabbed a microphone and reflexively threw out a plug for the football program.
"About seven or eight years ago," Izzo told to the crowd, "when Mark Hollis asked me to be on board to pick a football coach, and we got one of the best in the country, we said we're going to have a day when we both win a national championship. We're not there yet, but we're getting close."
That's the bar now in East Lansing -- one that would have sounded laughably high a decade ago. In a world where jealousies and egos and budget restraints make that goal a fool's errand for many universities, Dantonio and Izzo have turned it into a real possibility. A week ago Izzo signed his best recruiting class in 20 years as a head coach, one that has the talent to win more big games like Tuesday's victory over Kansas and potentially carry the Spartans back to another national title. Dantonio is also on pace for his biggest influx of talent to date when signing day arrives in February. This weekend's trip to Columbus presents another chance to woo some more of the country's top prospects and prove that Michigan State belongs in the playoff hunt. Of course, battling their respective sport's bluebloods and attracting a new breed of talent brings with it new coaching challenges. As usual, they'll be able to tackle those together.