To find the real Mark Dantonio, start with his lakehouse, not the football field.
That’s where former Michigan State linebacker Darien Harris remembers seeing his coach as a person, with a life and mind away from schemes, play designs, X’s and O’s.
“You get to see him just being a guy, being a human being,” Harris said. “You see him out on the paddleboard. You see him in the water doing those types of things with a smile on his face.”
It’s the Dantonio most people don’t get to see.
When Dantonio strides down the sidelines of football fields on Saturday afternoons, he displays one of his outermost personas: an all-business, no nonsense, ready to go to work football coach.
That’s the side of him most of the world equates to his success at MSU.
Dantonio has accumulated 109 wins since becoming the head honcho at MSU. He’s won multiple Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl and has been to the College Football Playoff.
He’s also tied with Duffy Daugherty for the most wins in program history. With one more win, he will stand alone as the winningest coach in university history.
Thirteen years into his Spartan career, that’s how the public knows him.
But inside the MSU football program, there is a lot more to Dantonio.
Which inner personas form the football coach with 109 wins to his name, and what moments helped Dantonio turn a failing Big Ten program back into a contender?
Dantonio’s former players can help tell that story.
He’s a family man. He’s a father figure. He’s as genuine as they come.
“Guys are coming from all over the country and they are looking for another family,” Harris said. “And that’s what we got under Coach Dantonio’s lead.”
As former linebacker Taiwan Jones said, Dantonio is — shockingly — also a comedian. But the jokes come when they’re least expected.
“It’s not like he tries to be funny, but he would crack a joke and nobody will laugh ... he’ll do a little gesture and everyone will start cracking up,” Jones said.
And, yes, Dantonio has been a damn good football coach. With one more win, he has a chance to add another layer to his legacy.
Everything Dantonio has done — from the time he was given the keys to the Volkswagen that was MSU football in 2007 to transformed it into a well-oiled machine — has led up to this moment.
His former players knew this day would come.
“He came in and said what he was going to do ... and he’s a man of his word,” Jones said. “I expect nothing less than him to break this record. I’m looking forward to celebrating that.”
‘He did what he said he was going to do’
Justin Kershaw spent a lot of his college recruitment in deep conversation with Dantonio.
Dantonio recruited the Columbus, Ohio native to come play for the Buckeyes when he was their defensive coordinator. And then to Cincinnati when Dantonio got his first head coaching gig.
“I thought I was going to end up at Ohio State, but it didn’t work out, and then I wanted to go to Cincinnati because of him,” Kershaw said.
Kershaw, however, committed to MSU.
“I remember him saying, ‘Michigan State is a beautiful place, isn’t it?’” Kershaw said. “When coach (John L.) Smith got fired, the guy I wanted them to hire was Coach Dantonio.”
Kershaw said he was meant to play for Dantonio. And when he got hired at MSU, it was “divine intervention.”
“Simply put, it was a terrible program,” Kershaw said. “We had poor leadership. With Coach Dantonio, I knew the caliber of the coach he was. I knew his pedigree and I knew what type of guy he was, so I knew what we were getting.”
Kershaw, a defensive lineman at MSU from 2004-08 only played two seasons for his dream coach. He remembers MSU’s 31-14 win at Notre Dame in 2007. That’s when he started to notice the culture in the program beginning to change.
The Spartans entered the season finale against Penn State with a chance to be bowl eligible for the first time since 2003. After MSU won 35-31, Kershaw said the culture change had come full-circle.
“It was an ugly game and it was cold outside. We really should have lost but we kept fighting,” Kershaw said. “That’s when Jehuu Caulcrick ran that fake punt. It was really emotional. It gave us a winning season and we clinched a bowl game for the first time in a while.”
The following season, MSU beat Michigan for the first time since 2001. Kershaw said Dantonio made an effort to re-emphasize the rivalry.
Those small installations — the culture change included — were calculated.
And they changed the landscape of MSU football.
“The guy set an intention to do it right, do it slow ... to be intentional with every aspect of the program and he did what he said he was going to do,” Kershaw said. “I know he’s got a lot more left in the tank. But (even)if he stops now, he’s the best coach in Michigan State history.”
‘He was always a big father figure’
Dantonio and the Spartans had just completed their comeback against Iowa in the 2015 Big Ten Championship game. Naturally, Dantonio’s — along with Harris’ — first motion was to run on to the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The celebration had begun.
Harris made his way onto the trophy presentation stage. Only there was one problem: He didn’t have a championship hat.
Dantonio had him covered.
“Coach D actually handed me his hat and said, ‘Hey, you can wear this right now,’” Harris said.
Harris, an MSU linebacker from 2012-15, did eventually have to give the hat back when it was time for Dantonio to accept the championship trophy. Harris said he’s held on to a picture of that funny moment.
This is the real Dantonio.
The one who creates and establishes life-long relationships with players — like they’re extended family.
“He was definitely like a father away from home,” former Spartan safety Demetrious Cox said. “He definitely had all of the guys’, not only my, best interests in mind every day on the field (and) off the field. He was always a big father figure. And a big part of molding us into men.”
Dantonio is more than just a football coach to his players. He has been a source of wisdom and assistance to anyone who asked for it. Jones said he could sit down and talk about anything with Dantonio.
“It would be, you know, ‘How is everything?’” Jones said. “If I had a girlfriend, ‘How is the girlfriend?’ Just trying to get to know me as a kid and as a man rather than everything being football, football, football.”
That’s something Dantonio’s former players appreciate about him. The bond created between them extended far beyond the football field. Some of Harris’s best moments spent with Dantonio didn’t take place between hash marks or in end zones — rather, at that lakehouse. Dantonio invites seniors as well as Eagle Council members on the team. Harris had a chance to go twice. That’s where he really witnessed the Dantonio that nobody else does.
The man — not just the football coach — that made Harris want to come to MSU.
“He was the reason that we all came to Michigan State,” he said. “When I think of my class, we all committed before that Big Ten title in 2010, just on the fact that Coach D came into our homes, sat down with our families and told us how it was. He told us that they were building something special there, and based on his words and his actions, we believed him and we trusted him and, obviously, he was able to deliver.”
‘Chase the moment’
Time and time again, things seem to line up during Dantonio’s MSU coaching tenure. Aaron Burbridge, a wide receiver from 2012-15, referenced moments during his college career that still have him perplexed today.
Burbridge said Dantonio had a special meaning for the number seven.
It signified completion.
For the Spartans, that meant winning the Big Ten and making a trip to Pasadena, California. When MSU shared the conference title in 2010, it played in the Capital One Bowl rather than in the Rose Bowl. But, three years later, the Spartans got their chance.
And sure enough, in Dantonio’s seventh season as MSU’s head coach, he led the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1988.
It doesn’t stop there.
In 2015, Burbridge and the Spartan buses rolled into the bowels of the Big House in Ann Arbor. But, before the team could walk into the stadium, Dantonio had them soak in the moment.
“We sat there in silence for 10 seconds and then we got off the bus and got ready for work,” Burbridge said.
Sure enough, hours later, only 10 seconds remained on the clock before Jalen Watts-Jackson returned a muffed punt for a game-winning touchdown.
“That was crazy,” Burbridge said.
It’s fitting Dantonio announced MSU’s mantra at Big Ten Media Days for this season as “Chase The Moment.”
He said it referred to the Spartans chasing their dreams.
Dantonio has inched closer to Daugherty’s record at MSU. And, of course, the same season he made the goal for his team to chase their moment, Dantonio has a chance to stand alone in Michigan State record books — securing a spot in Spartan lore.
So, Dantonio, in a way, is chasing his own moment. One that began 13 seasons ago.
He sits only one win away now.
“I go back to what I said before, I look at all the players that have come through here, made plays, had some outstanding moments in that time, that’s, again, why we are trying to chase the moment,” Dantonio said before the season opener against Tulsa.
“I think that’s what you get when you have continuity in the program and you have opportunities like this coming. We came here with an opportunity to make a mark and that’s what we’re trying to do.”