Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Column: Why Mark Dantonio's legacy will always be complicated for those who grew up in it

February 7, 2020
<p>Head Coach Mark Dantonio smiles during a timeout during the game against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 20, 2014, at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Eagles, 73-14. Julia Nagy/The State News</p>

Head Coach Mark Dantonio smiles during a timeout during the game against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 20, 2014, at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Eagles, 73-14. Julia Nagy/The State News

Photo by Julia Nagy | The State News

“Holy s**t!” 

That was the first thing I yelled while in our newsroom on Grand River Avenue. The entire Michigan State community was stunned when Mark Dantonio announced his retirement. It had literally only been four days since my column on what Dantonio needed to do to get things back on track and now, after a twenty-minute press conference, he is gone. 

However, that’s not the reason I was so shocked.  

I gave a call to my brother the morning after all the chaos ensued Tuesday afternoon to talk about Dantonio’s departure. My brother is a Michigan State alumnus — he was an undergraduate when Dantonio brought the program to elite status by winning a Rose Bowl. He also is someone who remembers what it was like in the John L. Smith days, leading up to the Dantonio era. He asked me what I thought about his departure and honestly, I didn’t have an answer for him. 

I realized at that moment that I didn't know how to truly put into context Dantonio’s legacy because frankly, I had nothing to compare it to. 

When Dantonio was hired in 2006, I was six years old. His introductory press conference is one of my first vivid memories of watching MSU football. So for me, and the entire campus, Dantonio is all we have ever known. 

That’s what makes his departure so conflicting and complicated for students and fans of the Michigan State program who are just starting to become adults. As we all came of age, we watched Michigan State football do the same under Dantonio. We watched it grow into a perennial contender for Big Ten titles. We watched the Spartans win historic games like the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl, and even make a College Football Playoff. Dantonio was developing a Tom Izzo-like following among fans and students.

Despite the poor showing in recent seasons, students and fans that are just becoming independent want to celebrate his accomplishments because he was a role model to many. He gave fans years of perennial success and bragging rights over their friends. He brought the program into the spotlight with all of his accomplishments throughout their entire life. 

But as I look back on those days, I have found it harder and harder to relish those moments as well. Dantonio himself even admitted that the last few years were not as enjoyable as when he first began. 

I just felt like at points in time throughout the season it was ‘What else? What else?’” Dantonio said. “I feel like I just found myself never having the opportunity to come up for air, and that can wear on you.” 

When I finally got time to reflect on what Dantonio did, I could draw the conclusion he did leave the program in a better place than what it was when he arrived in East Lansing, I think that is quite obvious. However, I still felt conflicted. 

I realized that I could not look past the controversy that has swallowed the program. 

I remember being in AP Government in my junior year of high school, when the reports came out in early 2018 that questioned Dantonio’s decision-making about dealing with sexual assault cases on his team. When approached about the problem, I defended Dantonio, and I was a part of the problem that plagued MSU for the last couple of years. 

It took me a while to express distaste in the way Dantonio was handling internal problems with his team, because Dantonio was someone I had held in such a high regard for my entire life. I did not want to entertain the idea that he could have failed in something so significant, and I think all people who had high regards for Dantonio had the same feeling. Because for us, Dantonio was perfect. He had been here for as long as we could remember, and he could do no wrong. 

It took me until my senior year of high school to be critical of the way Dantonio handled problems within his locker room, and that was when I began to express doubt in the way he was coaching. Couple that with the Curtis Blackwell lawsuit and the handling of the recruitment of Auston Robertson, and I began to realize he was not the figure that I had always regarded him to be. 

When I do look back on my childhood memories of the Dantonio era, I will be able to hold it in high regard, because frankly, he was an amazing coach and he accomplished great things here in East Lansing. But there will always be that cloud that hangs over it, like an asterisk next to a national title that has been revoked.  

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