Mark Dantonio is the greatest coach in Michigan State history. His 111 wins are the most in program history. He’s taken Michigan State to new heights, winning three Big Ten championships and making the College Football Playoff. He’s also taken the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl since 1987, dominated the rivalry against Michigan, and has been more competitive against Ohio State than most teams in the past decade.
He’s also the reason his program appears to be headed back to mediocrity.
He spent most of his time at Michigan State building the program into a Big Ten and national contender. The height of the Mark Dantonio era was in 2015 when he won the Big Ten and made the College Football Playoff. The 12-2 season was the fifth time in six years that Michigan State won at least 11 games and was the third straight year that they finished ranked in the top 6. They lost 38-0 to Alabama and followed it up with a sharp drop in performance and some of the worst seasons of Dantonio’s tenure.
Over the past four seasons, the Michigan State offense has fallen from mediocre to awful at times, and they continue to lose games they used to win as a result. They went 3-9 in 2016, and despite a ten win season in 2017, they fell back to 7-6 in 2018. 2019 seems to be more of the same, as they currently sit at 4-5. They haven’t won a game since September 28, when they beat Indiana. Most recently, they gave up a 25 point lead to Illinois, who upset the Spartans 37-34. They probably have at least one more loss this season when they play Michigan, and Maryland will be a tough game at the end of the season.
One reason for Michigan State’s decline has been recruiting. Dantonio built his program with weaker recruiting classes than many of the other Big Ten contenders, but was able to close the talent gap with strong player development. From 2011-2015, Penn State and Michigan were bringing in better recruiting classes but finishing well behind the Spartans in the Big Ten standings. Many of Dantonio’s best players, such as Le’Veon Bell and Kirk Cousins, have been unheralded recruits, most of whose only major offer was from Michigan State. Michigan State was able to turn these players into some of the Big Ten’s best and into NFL prospects. The most extreme example of this development is currently on Michigan State’s roster. Kenny Willekes was an unranked defensive end coming out of high school who only had a Division 2 offer. He walked on at Michigan State and has become one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and will likely be drafted in April.
Even though Michigan State has never recruited at an elite level, their recruiting has declined over the past few years. At their height, Michigan State was bringing in classes that ranked in the top 30, in the top 5 in the Big Ten, and had a few blue chip (4 or 5 star) prospects. Their classes have gotten progressively worse, and the 2019 class ranked 7th in the Big Ten and only featured two four star players, both are the worst since 2011. The 2020 class appears to be even worse. They will likely add a few more players, but they currently have the 10th best class in the conference and only have one four star committed.
Michigan State’s issues on the field have been even more alarming than their struggles on the recruiting trail. 2016’s 3-9 season was a huge step back, but the Spartans were close in most of their losses, including single digit games against Michigan and Ohio State. 2017 seemed to be a return to the success that Michigan State had become used to under Dantonio, as they ended the season 10-3.
That success proved to be short lived, as the 2018 season ended with a 7-6 record. The defense was strong for most of the season, allowing Michigan State to suffer only one loss of 20 points or more. The offense was the root of most of their problems, as they scored fewer than 10 points in 4 of their 6 losses. The offense is again a problem, but the defense has struggled as well. They’ve played well in games against weaker opponents, beating Tulsa, Western Michigan, and Northwestern by more than 20 points. They have fallen apart against every good team on their schedule, losing all three games in October by a combined score of 100-17. Though they played Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State in those 3 games, Michigan State didn’t show up in the same way they had in previous years.
After the 2018 season, many thought that Dantonio would fire Dave Warner, his offensive coordinator. They were in the bottom half of the Big Ten in every offensive category, and their total offense, rushing offense, and scoring offense ranked 13th among the Big Ten’s 14 teams. Instead of firing anyone from his staff, Dantonio simply changed their jobs. Warner became the quarterbacks coach, replacing Brad Salem. Salem took Warner’s job as offensive coordinator and running backs coach. Jim Bollman became the offensive line coach after spending six seasons as co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach. Mark Staten, the former offensive line and special teams coach, took over as the tight ends coach. Finally, assistant defensive backs coach Don Treadwell became the wide receivers coach.
For the most part, the 2019 offense looks very similar to the 2018 version. There have been improvements shown in some games, despite the similarities. Michigan State failed to reach 40 points in any game last season, but have reached that mark twice already, when they scored 51 against Western Michigan and 40 against Indiana. Brian Lewerke is 28 yards away from passing his 2018 total, and his 12 touchdowns through the air are already better than his 8 from last season. Last season, Michigan State’s leading rusher had only 529 yards, but Elijah Collins already has 715. They’ve made improvements in the receiving game as well, as Darrell Stewart has 694 yards, better than 2018’s leader, who only had 555. The improvements have been minor and mostly against weak opponents, but they show some promise if Dantonio ever becomes willing to embrace change with his offense. He likely won’t, and his teams will continue to struggle against good teams as a result.
In 2007, Dantonio’s first season at Michigan State, the Spartans lost to Michigan 28-24 after giving up a 10 point 4th quarter lead. After the game, Michigan RB Mike Hart referred to Michigan State as the Wolverines’ “little brother.” Dantonio fired back a few days later, warning that “pride comes before the fall.” And he was right. The years that followed, particularly the next 7, were some of the worst in Michigan football history. Rich Rodriguez went 15-22 in three seasons, going 3-9 in 2008 and 5-7 in 2009. He is the only coach in Michigan history to coach for multiple seasons and have a losing record. Brady Hoke had a winning record, but still had a 5-7 season in 2014. Before 2008, Michigan’s last losing season was in 1967. In those seven years, Michigan only beat Ohio State once, in 2011, and Michigan State once, in 2012. In 2013, Michigan lost 29-6 to the Spartans and ended the game with -48 rushing yards. For the most part, Michigan has turned things around with Jim Harbaugh, though they haven’t beaten Ohio State. When the Wolverines face the Spartans on Saturday, they will look to beat Dantonio in consecutive years for the first time.
Dantonio may have been right about Michigan’s fall, but his words now appear to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. He took his program to incredible heights, but refused to make the necessary changes to adapt with college football. He has seen his program get passed by division rivals Michigan and Penn State, and now Michigan State seems destined to be at the level of Indiana and Maryland. He’s undoubtedly responsible for the greatest five year stretch in program history, but Michigan State needs to move forward without Mark Dantonio if it wants to compete at that level again.