Dantonio Made Right Call, to Step Down at Michigan St. But the Timing? Not Great

Just another day: After announcing his retirement, Mark Dantonio said hello to Tom Izzo, then watched a basketbal game.

Herb Gould

In mid-Novemer, I wrote that Mark Dantonio had earned the right to decide when to stop coaching—and he should exercise that right at the end of the season.

He had done everything he was going to do: A College Football Playoff appearance, three Big Ten championships, a school-record 114 wins. This is great stuff at a school with a proud football tradition—every bit as worthy as the man he passed, legendary Duffy Daugherty, who won 109 games.

I felt the time had come. I had a hunch that Dantonio would reach the same conclusion, and not be back for the 2020 season.

Since the 38-0 loss to Alabama in a 2015 national semi-final, Michigan State has gone 27-24, including a 17-19 Big Ten record. That’s not fun for a coach who’s used to being in the thick of things.

In a division with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, the prospects for getting back on top were not good. Dantonio had a great run, including an 8-5 record against Michigan, highlighted by a stretch in which the Spartans won six of seven.

But Dantonio is 64. That’s a tough age to engineer a turnaround against three perennial juggernauts.

That said, when he announced on Tuesday that he will step down, the timing could not have been more curious.

The day before Signing Day? Why not the day after?

Or better yet, why not the day after the Spartans’ Dec. 27 Pinstripe Bowl win over Wake Forest?

Yes, there was the matter of a $4.3 million bonus that was payable on Jan. 13. I would like to believe Michigan State officials could have paid Dantonio his bonus if he resigned early. Why not get the next coach in place? But if not, then resign on Jan. 14.

There is speculation that a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by former recruiting staffer Curtis Blackwell triggered the timing of Dantonio’s resignation. The suit was filed 14 months ago, but Blackwell’s attorneys filed a detailed list of recruiting allegations against Dantonio late Monday.

``Zero. No relevance whatsover,’’ Dantonio said at his press conference Tuesday when asked if Blackwell’s Monday allegations had prompted his decision.

If so, he didn’t do the program any favors by waiting till now.

That said, Dantonio said he still enjoyed coaching but found the other demands on a head coach began to weigh more heavily.

``I was 50-50 on what to do,’’ he said. "If you're 50-50 on something, you need to be over here. This job demands 100 percent. It just does.’’

Although the timing is curious, two strong candidates seem likely to top the MSU list: Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell and Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi. Whoever takes the job will deal with the complications of coming in late. And so will the school he leaves behind. But that's all part of the deal at this level.

Fickell, 46, who has done a terrific job at Cincinnati, has followed a similar career path at Dantonio. Both were Ohio State assistants before making the Bearcats winners. Dantonio, though, also had a six-year run as a Michigan State assistant, while Fickell has no Spartans connections.

There is also the question of whether Fickell, a hot commodity, would prefer to avoid being in a division where three perennail powers could make things difficult.

Narduzzi, 53, a longtime Dantonio assistant, is beloved by Spartans Nation for his success as MSU’s defensive coordinator from 2007 to 2014. He is 36-29 in five years at Pitt, where he has never won more than eight games.

But the Paul Chryst precedent certainly is something to think about. The longtime (2005-2011) offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, Chryst went 19-19 in three years (2012-2014) as head coach at Pitt.

Since returning to Wisconsin as head coach, Chryst has kept the Badgers at the top of their game.

I don’t know enough to have a preference. Either Fickell or Narduzzi look like they would be good choices.

For the sake of my friends who bleed Green and White, I hope MSU officials make the right choice. Whoever takes that job faces a big challenge.


Herb Gould