For Mark Dantonio and Jim Tressel they share a lot in common. They are both head coaches in the Big Ten. They both understand the nuances of the games. They both are leaders of men. They share a lot more in common than the game they love.
They not only share the title of Big Ten head coaches, but they also share a coaching style that is rooted in their faith and the character. Integrity has made both of them winners.
Coach Dantonio tried to explain what Coach Tressel means to his family. He had this to say about his good friend, “He is very special to me and our children. He is special person in our life. Going all the way back to when I was a grad assistant at Ohio State in 1983-84. We also had the time we spent to together at Youngstown State and again at Ohio State. He is a difference maker. He has been for his players and he continues to be that for the coaches who have coached for him.
There is so much more to football than just actually playing in it. It is the national pastime, but in the end it is a game. What we are trying to do is build people for life and to do that you have to have your integrity in tact. Not that we don’t fall down, we understand that, but we also have to understand that there is a bigger picture involved. There are more things at stake than just winning or losing games and he does a great job of doing that.”
Tressel shares the same genuine love for Dantonio. He told Spartan Nation, “Deano and I grew up together…kind of like growing up with a brother…who has very similar experiences, very similar beliefs, similar mentors, so many things we grew up to learn and believe in and then saw it tested in our own lives to see if those beliefs were upheld. We have been through a lot together and have learned a lot from one another.”
When talking about either man you can’t get very far without mentioning the cornerstone of their lives. The both are deep men of faith and don’t pay lip service to religion, they both have a genuine relationship with God. Tressel described how he came to that faith when he attended an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) dinner hosted by Bobby Richardson, the 2nd baseman for the New York Yankees. “I, like most athletes did whatever my coach said. I went to there to be around football and learn about football. Little did I know he was sending me there to learn a lot more. It was that evening that I could understand what Bobby Richardson was talking about. He asked if the game of life ended tonight would you be a winner? That is tough question. I didn’t know the answer. I am driven. I wanted to be a winner. He said that if you would like to answer yes then simply ask Jesus into your heart and begin to follow him in all you do. From that point you are a winner. That made sense from a life point and inside me. He said that it is at that point when you make that choice you have to live that way. He said that life doesn’t end there. That is just the beginning. Form that point you have to research learn and dig and truly seek out a relationship with Christ. It wasn’t just a prayer. It was a lifetime decision. So I walked out of that room. There was a softball field and along the third baseline I asked Jesus into my heart.”
Dantonio shares the same faith as Tressel. He told Spartan Nation that, “For me it was simply understanding that Mark Dantonio couldn’t do things on his own. I needed that relationship and it is real and it is deeply personal.”
For both of them the faith they share isn’t just a small compartment in their life. It is a defining part of who they are. It transcends their private time and is part of their character and who they are as coaches. Tressel explained it this way to Spartan Nation, “You can’t have a good team (only measuring) wins and losses if they don’t care for one another…truly genuine love. The amazing thing I have learned as a coach is that the more we work on caring for people the more games we win. Sure you have to know the Xs and Os, but you also have to love the people on your team and around you. Caring for people, loving people, that is what love is about. At the end of the day it is about relationships more than football… family, friends, teammates and a small group of people. We want to nurture that. I feel like as a coach I have so much more responsibility to these young men than just winning. I understand we have to win, I just think we can do that and a lot more.”
Think these two men don’t share more than just football? Mark Dantonio describes it this way to Spartan Nation, “I am from the Jim Tressel school of thought. This position has to be about winning more than football games. I am not naive we will be judged by that, but we have to serve people and this state. We have to try and make it better. Whether it is the youth camps before the spring games, summer camps, or whether (we’re) going and seeing coaches or visiting high schools to speak at a national honor society event. I am in this place and I need to do more with it than just win games. I have young men who will watch me as a role model. I need to lead them. I have the Spartan Nation that I represent. If we are only about winning and nothing else, then we aren’t winners. This position and this responsibility is about a lot more.”
Both of these men take a similar approach to recruiting. They build relationships. They build and understand the young men they recruit. They make sure that they are known in the communities that recruit. Neither negatively recruits. Neither pushes kids to commit. When they accept a commitment from a player they don’t waver. Why? Because they handle it right. Young men are drawn to play for these coaches because they represent more than football they are about people.
Many people do not know that Jim Tressel applied for the job of MSU head coach prior to going Ohio State. The brain trust at MSU at the time didn’t think he could coach at this level. When Dantonio was called years later by MSU and Mark Hollis, many didn’t know that MSU contacted Dantonio. He never called MSU. When Dantonio called his friend Tressel he was told, “You better take the job. You have to.” Tressel could have been bitter. He wasn’t. Life had worked out well for him. MSU said no thanks and Ohio State said welcome. Little did they know that he would be looked over, but the Spartan Nation got Dantonio in part because of Tressel’s nudging as the Dantonio family prayed for God’s direction on what to do.
When Tressel was hired at Ohio State he told me that, “Mark was the first call I made. Never have I known a better defensive coach. I had to have him as my coordinator. I trust him and I know him.”
I was with Dantonio and Tressel in late July of 2007. Dantonio had yet to coach his first game as the head coach of the Spartans. Tressel mentioned how God had really worked his plan. He was passed over for MSU and Dantonio had stepped in. Tressel told me that day, “That is how God works things. His plans may not be our plans, but I have learned to always trust his.” Tressel was referencing Isaiah 55:8.
Dantonio then spoke about how he and his wife Becky along with his two daughters had just watched a video on the life of Esther from the Bible. Dantonio told Tressel and I, watching that video really cemented in my heart that just like Esther, God brought me to Michigan State for such a time as this.” Dantonio was referencing Esther 4:14.
He and Tressel both have learned to balance their lives. “I don’t coach to be miserable. If my family was miserable with me coaching I wouldn’t do it. If my family wasn’t happy I wouldn’t be doing this,” was how Dantonio described his life.
Here is some insight into how Dantonio has learned from Tressel and how he recruits using more than football. When Larry Caper committed to MSU, he referenced the faith of Coach Dantonio. He told me at the time, “He didn’t put pressure on me. He asked me to pray about it. That cemented it for me. I wanted to play here. I am a man of faith and I respected that he did it the right way.”
Dantonio’s response to what Caper said? “I am a man of faith. I try and pray before I make decisions, I think it is important for guys to have both feet in and be a part. If they are people of faith they need to know if they belong here. I can’t push that. I can’t and won’t force that. That (praying) is how I do it and that is what I recommend to them.”
Dantonio and Tressel share the pressure of being Big Ten coaches. For both of them, they share a lot more than that pressure. They share the fact that neither draws their comfort from the highs and lows of their profession. They share much more. They share their commitment to integrity, character and a genuine love of people. They are friends, brothers and most of all they are anchored in their faith.