Mark Dantonio Opens Up About Becoming the Coach he is Today!
The seventh-year Spartan head coach talked freely about his time at Ohio State, his approach to handling his assistants, and even a little bit about Nick Saban.

Though Dantonio’s comments below don’t pertain immediately to how the Spartans will fare this season, his quotes are an insight into the football program as a whole, and Dantonio as a coach.

Before you can become a big-time head coach, you have to start at the bottom. Mark Dantonio did just that, beginning as a graduate assistant at Ohio University in 1980. Following stints at Purdue, Butler (Kan.) Junior College, Ohio State, Akron, Youngstown State, and Kansas, Dantonio became the defensive backs coach at Michigan State in 1995, under now famous Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

The former MSU and LSU coach is legendary for being tough on his assistant coaches. Dantonio gave great insight into what the experience was like.

“I have the utmost respect for Nick Saban. Nick Saban brought me from the University of Kansas to Michigan State, put me in the Big Ten,” Dantonio began. “Nick Saban had a definite impact on my life. I was one of his recruiters: I recruited a lot of players, so we drove around a lot…I spent a lot of time with Coach [Saban]. He’s a defensive back coach. He’s going to be in your meeting. He was in my meeting every day. Every day. I coached with him for five years, maybe longer at that time than any other coach made. But I gained a great deal of football knowledge. Early on, he was going to sit up in front and take charge of the meeting and that’s OK. But after a year of that, he basically sat there and watched, and if I said a sentence, he could finish it, and vice versa. I knew exactly what he knew, and there was power in that. There was also a lot of power in the fact that he knew what was being taught in that room so if the ball went over somebody’s head or a guy blew a coverage, that finger wasn’t pointed at the coach because he knew what was being taught there. There was a big silver lining in all that, in being able to be his secondary coach.

“My dad used to always say that: you have to take the good with the bad. It’s stressful,” Dantonio said of the experience. “I don’t put that kind of stress on Harlon [Barnett], but I do go in to meetings sometimes, but very infrequently because I choose not to do it that way because I want continuity on our staff.” Dantonio concluded: “That was a good thing for me because I needed that to grow: I needed to grow as a coach.”

Following Saban’s abrupt departure from East Lansing, Dantonio stayed on for one more year under Bobby Williams. Then, given the opportunity to work for an old friend at Ohio State in 2001, Dantonio became a Buckeye. Dantonio assumed the role of defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel, reshaping the defense into one of the best in the nation.

Dantonio’s defense dominated most of the foes it faced during OSU’s 14-0 National Championship run in 2002. With stars such as safety Mike Doss and cornerback Chris Gamble patrolling the field, the Buckeyes beat Miami in the big game, making Dantonio a hot coaching commodity.

Though sad to see Dantonio go to Cincinnati after the conclusion of the 2003 season, Tressel encouraged the Zanesville native to pursue his dreams. Tressel thoroughly enjoyed having Dantonio on the staff, as the two had a special trust. In fact, Tressel never once second guessed or overruled even one of Dantonio’s playcalls. The seventh-year MSU head coach gave this example of Tressel’s trust for him.

“It was the Miami game [the 2003 Fiesta Bowl] and I asked him what to do, and he said, ‘Hey, you gotta make the call.’” Recalling the memory, Dantonio flashed a miles-wide grin.

Tressel’s treatment of Dantonio has significantly impacted how the beloved MSU coach chooses to handle his assistants. Dantonio began by talking about one of his longest tenured and most trusted assistants. “I hired Pat [Narduzzi], we had a discussion about defense and such. I knew he was very successful at Miami: they were doing very good things there,” Dantonio said of his reasons for hiring Narduzzi. “I walk in there, and a couple weeks later, I don’t know the defense that I had been running. So we moved back, we sort of recentered a little bit, but over a period of time, people prove themselves and they begin to get autonomy.”

Dantonio continued: “I leave [the defense to] Pat. He’s asked me what I wanted to do sometimes and I said, ‘Hey, it’s your defense.’…I trust Pat. Pat’s a very loyal guy, too: he wants me in on that, too. There’s been occasions where I’ve said, ‘Run this.’ For example, I’ll tell you right now, in the Nebraska game, the last play of the game, I said, ‘Blitz them, max blitz them.’ I didn’t want Martinez holding the ball. I also didn’t want Pat to take the heat for that one: that was my call, and obviously it didn’t work. At some point and time, he doesn’t have to take that risk: I can take it.”

Dantonio’s hands-off approach has led to success for both his coaching staff and his team. The Spartans have enjoyed a wealth of success during Dantonio’s time in East Lansing. For these reasons, his approach is identical on offense.

“The same thing [goes] on the offensive side of the ball: I don’t want to be the guy who’s going to micromanage what we do. I’m going to have definite thoughts as to what we do and definite ideas I’d like to see implemented during the week and implemented during the game. But I’m not going to be the guy who says to the offensive coordinator as he’s calling the play, ‘No, don’t run that.’ I think a guy has to have a clear mind to be able to call a football game because it is chaotic.”

Many of Mark Dantonio’s comments during Big Ten Media Days dealt with typical issues discussed at the beginning of the season. But among the business quotes were some intriguing insights about how the veteran coach runs his program and why the Spartan Machine operates so smoothly. Now, the Spartan Nation can only hope that Dantonio can drive his machine to glory this season.

Mark Dantonio covered nearly every area of Michigan State football during his two hour roundtable on day two of Big Ten Media Days. Discussing topics from the quarterback competition to NCAA rule changes and everything in between, the Michigan State head football coach provided much insight for the quickly approaching season (to watch the full video, follow this link:’s_House/flash/MD072513.html.

Joe Ginley is the newest writer for the Spartan Nation website and magazine. He writes Spartans in the NFL and State of the Spartans among other articles. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Joe brings a great passion for sports and a great flexibility in writing skills.

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