Wednesday, October 20, 2010

MSU's Dantonio Returning Greatness to Spartan Football

It's amazing how often the saviors of college football programs arrive, and you didn't know it at the time.

When the University of Michigan tabbed him in 1969, Glenn E. "Bo" Schembechler was the head coach at Miami of Ohio, a school so unheralded they need to remind you what state they're from all the time.

Bo coached at Miami in the Mid-American Conference for six seasons, compiling a 40-17-3 record, yet one of the Detroit newspapers welcomed Schembechler to town with a derisive, two-word headline.

"Bo WHO?"

That November, on a gray day in Ann Arbor, his Wolverines having just upset the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes, no one asked who Schembechler was. Instead, they wondered where he'd been.

Bo took over a Michigan program that was a shell of what it used to be (sound familiar?). The year prior to Bo's hiring, Woody Hayes's Buckeyes beat Michigan, 50-14. Late in the game, Hayes elected to go for a two-point conversion, despite the lopsided score. After the game, reporters asked him why.

"Why did I go for two?" Hayes growled. "Because I couldn't go for three!"

In 1969, behind the running of Billy Taylor, Michigan stunned previously unbeaten OSU, 24-12.

Schembechler, the coach from Miami (of Ohio), turned into one of the most successful coaches in college football history. Some would tell you he was the best ever at Michigan---even better than Fielding Yost.

Bo saved Michigan, even though no one could see it coming.

Mark Dantonio didn't drop out of the sky onto the campus of Michigan State University, but he may as well have.

Dantonio was an assistant at MSU and OSU before becoming head coach at Cincinnati, a nice little program but not exactly the career path to elite status. Just ask Brian Kelly. In Dantonio's three seasons coaching the Bearcats, his overall record was 18-17.

Mark WHO?

The Spartans, following the retirement of George Perles in 1995, have used the revolving door method with their football coaches. No one man ever stuck around long enough to get a good foothold on what they were going to do with the program.

MSU had Nick Saban for five years, then Bobby Williams for three, then John L. Smith for four. The Spartans' cumulative record during that time was 73-69-1. The wheels, they were a spinnin'.

Then came Mark Dantonio from Cincinnati, with his 18-17 record and a resume that most athletic directors may have tossed back into the pile.

It's looking like the hiring of Dantonio might be the best one MSU has made with the football program since plucking Perles from the pros in 1983.

It isn't just that Dantonio is an MSU guy; after all, so were Saban and Williams. It's that Dantonio has something that's hard to describe---a certain je ne sais quoi. He just feels like the right guy to make the Spartans relevant again in college football.

This isn't just the drumbeat for a guy who's enjoying a 7-0 start this season. Dantonio, since taking over in 2007, has been building something in East Lansing, though it hasn't always shown in the won-lost record.

There's some continuity forming in the football coaching at MSU, a program that needs such continuity in the worst way.

Winning football programs have that continuity. Few are the schools who change coaches with the frequency of leap years, who find success on the gridiron.

The University of Michigan, I fear, may be heading in that direction. The anti-Rich Rodriguez folks can certainly make their case for a change, but every time you change coaches, you potentially set the program back a couple of years, at least.

I hit Lloyd Carr with the situation going on at my alma mater, Eastern Michigan University, before we at the Wayne County Commission honored Carr and Perles with Lifetime Achievement Awards on October 7. EMU is being coached by Ron English, former defensive coordinator at U-M under Carr. The Eagles just snapped an 18-game losing streak.

Has Carr spoken with coach English, I wondered. He had.

"When you're a new coach at a school, it takes you a year, maybe two, just to figure out what you have and who can play," Carr told me about English, who's in his second year at Eastern.

And it was, ironically, John L. Smith, who said these words to me when I interviewed him in the summer of 2006 about what he was trying to do at MSU.

"We need to get some continuity here," Smith told me, "So we're not changing coaches every dadgum couple of years."

2006 would be Smith's last year at MSU.

Mark Dantonio is building something in East Lansing---something that campus hasn't seen the likes of in decades. It can be a powerhouse program again, maybe as soon as this season. No joke.

One thing's for certain. No one dares ask, "Mark WHO?"

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