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Looking back on the Mark Dantonio era and why it ended the way it did

Mark Dantonio is a legend, but his final years were tough.

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Mark Dantonio
© Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Mark Dantonio was a legendary Michigan State football coach, but his time in East Lansing ended on a sour note. Why?

The Mark Dantonio era at Michigan State could easily be described as a rollercoaster. One that started out with a bad football program being left behind by John L. Smith and then ending with a mediocre football program.

There were several factors that went into why things ended the way that they did and we will talk about those reasons, but if it was not for Mark Dantonio, Michigan State would not have the expectations it has had for its football program. Those expectations were built throughout the years and it all started in 2007 when Coach D was hired.

For those of you that do not remember the John L. days, that’s probably a good thing because it was quite a few years of bad football where Michigan State would either blew a huge lead or lose to a team much worse. If you want to hear a talk that basically sums up the John L. days, just go listen to Mike Valenti’s rant after the infamous 2006 Notre Dame loss.

After the 2006 season, John L. was fired and Dantonio was brought in.

In his first three seasons, Dantonio built a record of 22-17. This was a solid start to his tenure because, again, he was inheriting a program that was essentially in the gutter. After his first three years, Michigan State would go onto win 11 games in five of the next six seasons.

How could this Michigan State team go from the John L. days to this run in a decent amount of time? The answer: recruiting and players buying into the program. One of the reasons Michigan State football expectations have changed is because Dantonio brought in a whole new mindset especially when preparing for Michigan. It’s no secret that Michigan would absolutely dominate year after year before Dantonio came in. Once he was hired, however, that changed because of the mindset of having a chip on the shoulder and also the type of players he was bringing in.

Under Dantonio, Michigan State was not recruiting the elite prospects from around the country. What he and his staff were doing was bringing in underrated guys that had a chip on their shoulder and that were overlooked. This allowed players like Kirk Cousins, Le’Veon Bell, Connor Cook, Darqueze Dennard and many other players to come to Michigan State and develop into NFL players.

These players would go on a run of winning the Big Ten, and winning 11 or more games multiple times. And that was because of coaching and being able to develop the above players.

But if Michigan State couldn’t get these underrated players, that would cause some issues, which is what happened. Not getting these underrated players was one of the reasons Michigan State would eventually stumble at the end of Dantonio’s coaching career — but it is not the only reason.

There were several reasons the Mark Dantonio era ended with back-to-back 7-6 seasons.

One of the main reasons most people will point to is the coaching staff. When things went right, the coaching staff looked great but things just started to sour as the years went on. It seemed like the play-calling was not good anymore, especially when you saw jet-sweeps to the short side of the field more often than not. Instead of firing some coaches, Dantonio shuffled the staff and while this improved things slightly, Michigan State was falling further behind not only nationally, but in the Big Ten.

The coaching staff was a disaster at the end but development and recruiting were reasons that people do not talk talk about enough.

Now, there is no doubt that recruiting kept getting worse as Michigan State was trying to find those underrated guys and they were just not hitting. When this happens, your talent level will drop which caused the above seasons to happen. One of the factors to Michigan State being so good for so long was also its ability to develop players.

There are many examples of two or three-star players or even walk-ons that developed into NFL players. One of the most interesting aspects of this is while Michigan State didn’t get a lot of four-stars, it did have 52 under Dantonio. An article by The Athletic was released last week by Ari Wasserman that showed that out of the 52 four-star players that played under Mark Dantonio, only five of them got drafted. That is a low 9.6 percent of four-stars getting drafted that played under Coach D. Coaching and developing towards the end was some of the main reasons for Michigan State’s struggles before he retired, but it also shows how special of a coach Dantonio was because he was able to bring a run of wins to Michigan State that fans had not seen in decades.

While Dantonio’s ending at Michigan State was a disappointment, he should still be remembered for being a great coach and a man that brought a lot of really good memories and moments to the program.

Michigan State would not have high expectations today without him.

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