Mark Dantonio stunned the Michigan State community when he announced his retirement via Twitter Feb. 4. In 13 years as coach, Dantonio became the all-time winningest coach in MSU history and notched quite a list of accomplishments at MSU including a Rose Bowl, a College Football Playoff appearance and three Big Ten championships.
But what's next?
Michigan State Athletic Director Bill Beekman said he still sees Dantonio playing a big role for the MSU athletic department in an ambassador-like role.
“He'll help us with alumni and donor engagement,” Beekman said in a Feb. 4 press conference. "We've got a number of building projects that we'll be considering over the next while and he can help us prepare for those and fundraise for those. We've talked a little bit about maybe teaching a class, taking some of his lessons of leadership and expanding those beyond are our student athletes to perhaps a class that involves undergraduates at the university outside of athletics.”
With the recent struggles on and off the field that plague the program, many have wondered what the legacy of Dantonio would be. Dantonio said he believes he left MSU a better place than when he found it, but he hopes the legacy he leaves goes beyond the white lines.
“I hope that it’s not about the wins and losses,” Dantonio said. “I hope it is about people and how I treated people, and the relationships I built with my players that I believe will last a lifetime.”
With Dantonio stepping down, the question is where MSU football goes from here. First, it starts with the head coaching search, and Dantonio had some characteristics for the next coach in mind.
“Someone who has an opportunity to come here and have a fresh start and a vision for three to five years,” Dantonio said. “My goal ... is that they hire somebody who will be here 13 or 14 years and win 114-plus games.”
However, the person who will be making the final decision will be Beekman. The second-year athletic director will be making only his second head coaching hire, the last one being Kim Chavers, the women’s rowing coach. Needless to say, this hire is monumental.
“I think Michigan State has been most successful when it’s looked at somebody that knows the territory,” Beekman said. “Someone with character and integrity, optimally someone that knows the Big Ten. Somebody that knows and understands Michigan State and our culture, I think that is very important.”
A person rumored to be a possible replacement and fills the criteria of someone who “knows the territory” and “knows the Big Ten” is Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell. According to the Detroit Free Press, Fickell is the front-runner to replace Dantonio, and the similarities are eerie as they both were head coaches at Cincinnati and assistants at Ohio State.
Other questions loom. Ex-staffer Curtis Blackwell, who is currently suing MSU and university officials for wrongful termination, alleges that Dantonio committed multiple NCAA violations during his tenure. Blackwell also alleges that Dantonio brought him along on an in-house recruiting trip and that Dantonio was orchestrating the hiring of parents of players, all of which Dantonio and the athletic department deny.
In addition, Blackwell's suit led to a five-hour deposition of Dantonio last month, as he alleged Dantonio ignored warnings from staffers in the 2016 recruitment of troubled defensive tackle Auston Robertson, who was kicked off the team in April 2017 and eventually convicted of third-degree assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration on a woman.
“To the best of our knowledge, as I understand the allegations, they are patently false," Beekman said. “We’ll be happy to defend that in a court of law.”
With all of these variables, the future of the Michigan State football program is in perhaps the most crucial moment in its history.