Mark Dantonio, MSU Ohio-born players ready for home-state Buckeyes
Whenever Mark Dantonio gets nervous before a game, he gives his former boss, ex-Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, a call to settle his nerves.
“Yeah, I talk to Tress,” Dantonio said smiling in his weekly news conference Tuesday. “I get a little nervous before games, so I give him a call.”
Dantonio spent a combined five seasons at Ohio State — 1983-84 as a graduate assistant and as the defensive coordinator from 2001-03.
All of which were under the now-Youngstown State University President Tressel — whose nephew is Michigan State defensive coordinator Mike Tressel — who led the Buckeyes from 2001-10, and was the quarterback and wide receivers coach in 1983, and adding running backs to his range from 1984-85.
And as Dantonio’s 24th-ranked Spartans (6-3, 4-2 in Big Ten) get ready to take on No. 8 Ohio State (8-1, 5-1) at noon Saturday at Spartan Stadium, he’s reminded of where he had his last graduate assistant job.
“You know, sort of everything that really has been accomplished in my coaching career has sort of spun off of that,” Dantonio, who’s a Zanesville, Ohio native said. "I went to work for Jim Tressel. I went to work for Glen Mason (at Kansas from 1991-94 as secondary coach). I went to work for Nick Saban (at MSU as secondary coach from 1996-2000). All of those guys have Ohio State roots.”
Dantonio said because of his coaching career taking off at Ohio State, he became fond of the people, more so than the university itself. That’s what he’s reminded of every time his current team plays the Buckeyes.
“For me, it's always been about the people,” Dantonio said. “Same thing here (MSU). This is about the people that have come here and been a part of something greater than one person, and sharing that experience with them. But I would say that, and then, you know, being from that state has special meaning in that case.”
Playing Ohio State doesn’t only mean something to Dantonio, but to 28 of his players who hail from the state of Ohio. Including linebacker Joe Bachie, who said the Ohio State game to him is like the Michigan game for most of his teammates from the mitten state.
“I grew up an Ohio State fan, most of my life basically until high school,” Bachie, who’s a Brook Park, Ohio native said. “All of my buddies back home, family, friends and stuff, are Ohio State people so it's going to be a good one to hopefully get this year.”
The two teams have had memorable games in recent years, such as the Buckeyes beating MSU 49-37 in 2014 to go on to the Big Ten championship, eventually become national champions. Then the Spartans beat OSU 17-14 in 2015, helping lead MSU to a Big Ten championship win over Iowa, and an appearance in the College Football Playoff as the third seed.
Since Dantonio first came to MSU as the defensive backs coach in 1996, the MSU-OSU game has always “been a big game,” like when the Spartans play Michigan, Notre Dame or Penn State.
“If you're going to be the best, you've got to beat the best and at this point in time, Ohio State is still the defending Big Ten champion,” Dantonio said. “So, you've got to beat the best.”
Which the Spartans didn't do last year when they got throttled 48-3 in Columbus. A game which linebacker Andrew Dowell said “wasn't even a football game.”
“We couldn't even just do what we do and squeak out a win or whatever it takes,” Dowell, a North Ridgeville, Ohio native said. “So we have to step up this week. Us leaders have to lead the team, and we have to have better preparation to prepare for Ohio State.”
But for Dantonio, that game is in the past now. The focus he said is taking it one game at a time, and for his players to prepare for Saturday’s matchup with the Buckeyes like they would for any other game.
“I expect our players to get ready every single game, regardless of who we play,” Dantonio said. “It's too difficult in this league not to be prepared mentally and emotionally. You know, how high can you get?
“I want our guys at peak performance at game time, whatever that is. Their peak performance, whoever that is. Whether it's quarterback, defensive back, or backup. I want them to be at their peak performance.”