Mark Dantonio approached his retirement press conference Tuesday with the same defiance he has attacked every challenge he has faced during his 13 years at Michigan State.
This is the same guy who said in October 2007 that “pride comes before the fall” when Michigan’s Mike Hart called MSU the Wolverines’ little brother, then went out and won eight of the next 11 games against the in-state rivals.
This is the same guy who had a literal heart attack in September 2010 after the “Little Giants” win over Notre Dame, and was back on the sidelines less than a month later, leading MSU to a share of the Big Ten championship.
So, it wasn’t surprising that in his final act as Michigan State's football coach, after winning a school-record 114 games, he was more than a little resistant.
He defied his own inclination to get emotional, keeping his voice as steady as possible considering the circumstances. He disregarded a question about what role the active lawsuit by ex-staffer Curtis Blackwell had in his decision to step down.
“Zero,” he said. “No relevance whatsoever.”
Moments later, he shrugged off a question about whether the timing of his retirement, hours after Blackwell’s lawyers alleged Dantonio committed NCAA violations and hours before football’s national signing day, would make it harder for the school to hire a worthy successor.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “People will run here, they’ll crawl here. Michigan State will get an outstanding football coach that will care about young people.”
The Detroit Free Press reported earlier Tuesday that the front-runner for the job is Cincinnati's Luke Fickell. It worked out well for MSU the last time they hired a former Ohio State defensive coordinator coaching in the Queen City.
The tensest exchange of the presser came between the erstwhile head man and ESPN’s Dan Murphy, who was seated two places to the left of Dantonio’s wife, Becky.
Dantonio had said earlier that his goal was to always tell the truth, and Murphy pressed him on that truthfulness in light of the Blackwell allegations.
“I try very hard never to say anything negative about anybody,” Dantonio said. When Murphy tried to continue and ask specifics about the recruitment of Robertson, Dantonio interrupted him.
“That’s one question. We’re not talking about this here,” he said. “This is a celebration.”
As one reporter put it later, typically, you don’t have to tell people that it’s a celebration if it really is.
We may never know the full extent to which the Blackwell lawsuit played a role in Dantonio’s decision.
It had been a difficult four seasons on the field since the highs of the 2015 College Football Playoff appearance, as MSU went just 27-24 after a 36-5 stretch between 2013-15. Dantonio mentioned his age multiple times during the presser as he turns 64 on March 9, and a desire to spend more time with his family.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Hey coach, what do you like to do in your off-time?’ I can’t even give them an answer,” he said. “I look at myself and say, 'what hobbies do I have?' I’m a bad golfer.”
He sounded tired. It reminded me a little bit of the words from Washington coach Chris Petersen who retired in December and said he just wanted to spend some time away from the grind of coaching.
With new NCAA rules, there isn’t much dead time in recruiting. In order to compete at the Big Ten level, a coach’s time is almost completely filled up, and that’s before the season even begins.
Dantonio said he had contemplated the decision for a while and reached it within recent weeks, realizing for the first time he didn’t feel he could commit to the entire college career of recruits. But still, it’s troubling timing. In November 2019, he said he planned to be on the sidelines this coming season. Somewhere between that day and today, something changed.
Was he forced out?
Probably not. It seems odd to tell a coach to leave and then hold a presser ostensibly honoring his time. Dantonio spoke briefly at halftime of the MSU basketball game and was received with raucous applause. Athletic Director Bill Beekman spoke over and over of Dantonio's “integrity” and called today’s court allegations “patently false.”
But this isn’t a situation of Alexander weeping because there were no worlds left to conquer. Dantonio, a man who defined himself by what he did against Michigan and Ohio State, lost seven of his last eight against his two chief rivals.
In November he spoke of the importance of “completing circles,” saying it was his goal to return MSU to the halcyon days of three straight New Year’s Six bowl appearances.
He did leave the program in a better place than he found it.
“I think that’s pretty safe to say,” he said on Tuesday.
But ironically, in terms of results, it’s being left in a completed circle. In his first season, 2007, MSU finished 7-6. In his final two seasons, 2018 and 2019, MSU finished …
“At this point in time, I want to un-complicate my life,” Dantonio said.
He was afforded that luxury.
It’s left to Beekman, and whoever Dantonio's successor is, to pick up the pieces and live a very complicated life.