Who will replace Mark Dantonio?

February 12, 2020

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio retired after 13 seasons with the Spartans, capping off his 16 year head coaching career. His run at Michigan State was among the best in program history, especially between 2010 and 2015. During this period, they won at least 11 games five times, won three Big Ten titles, finished the year ranked in the top 10 three seasons in a row, and reached the College Football Playoff. He ends his tenure with 115 wins at Michigan State, the most in program history. He finished 8-5 against Michigan and at its height, his program was one of the most competitive in the Big Ten outside of Ohio State. 


When he left, Dantonio said that he believed coaches would “crawl” to East Lansing to replace him. The search hasn’t been that easy, however, as many of Michigan State’s top choices have turned down the opportunity to coach the Spartans. Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, long believed to be their top target, reportedly turned down an offer and will stay in Cincinnati. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, Colorado head coach Mel Tucker, and Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell were also not interested in heading to East Lansing, leaving Michigan State with limited options. Michigan State won’t have many choices left to replace Dantonio in 2020 and may have to wait until 2021 to find a better fit. Here are some of the candidates I think are most likely to become the next head coach at Michigan State. 


Mike Tressel, Michigan State Defensive Coordinator

Tressel is currently serving as the interim head coach as Michigan State looks for a new head coach. He served on Dantonio’s staff every year he was a head coach, starting at Michigan State as a linebacker’s coach. In 2014, he was promoted to co-defensive coordinator and was named the sole defensive coordinator in 2018. If Michigan State feels it has exhausted all quality options in their coaching search, Tressel may remain the interim coach for the 2020 season. His familiarity with the players, program, and university would provide an easy transition while a more extensive search is conducted. At this point, I believe Tressel is the most likely candidate to be the Michigan State head coach in 2020. 


Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan Head Coach

Creighton has done an excellent job turning around Eastern Michigan during his six years with the program. His 28-47 record is far from impressive, but is heavily weighed down from his 3-21 start. In the four years that followed, he has made three bowl games and made Eastern Michigan a more competitive team in the MAC. He has experience recruiting in the Midwest, particularly Michigan and Ohio, and has proven that he is a good enough coach to take on the challenging situation in East Lansing. One major concern is his lack of experience coaching high level football. He began his head coaching career in 1997 at NAIA Ottawa (Kansas) before taking jobs at Division III Wabash and FCS Drake. Eastern Michigan is the only FBS school he's ever worked at and is the highest level of football he's ever coached. 


Jim McElwain, Central Michigan Head Coach

McElwain’s career is nowhere near the heights it reached five years ago, but he could still be a solid candidate for the Michigan State job. He was a national championship winning offensive coordinator at Alabama before becoming the head coach at Colorado State. He turned them into a contender before leaving for Florida after three years. He started strong, winning division titles in his first two years and was named SEC Coach of the Year in 2015. He was fired halfway through his third season at Florida. He’s spent the past two years coaching in Michigan. He was Michigan’s wide receivers coach in 2018 before taking the Central Michigan job in 2019, quickly turning the program from a 1-11 2018 season to 8-6 and a division title. His experience both in the Power Five and in the state of Michigan would make him a solid backup for the job if other options don’t work out. 


Bret Bielema, New York Giants Outside Linebackers Coach

Bielema was a highly regarded coach in the Big Ten during his time at Wisconsin, before he left for Arkansas. He ran one of the best programs in the Big Ten while at Wisconsin, ending his seven seasons with a 68-24 record and a Big Ten title in each of his final three seasons. He was unable to replicate that success at Arkansas, as he went 29-34 in five seasons, had a winning conference record only once, and finished last in the division three times. He was fired after the 2017 season and was an assistant coach with the New England Patriots for two seasons before being hired by the New York Giants in January. His experience coaching and recruiting in the Big Ten would make him a good candidate for the Michigan State job. He will need to prove that he is not the same coach that struggled at Arkansas, however, because the Big Ten East is one of the toughest divisions in college football and he could easily repeat some of those struggles in East Lansing. 


Pat Shurmur, Denver Broncos Offensive Coordinator

Shurmur hasn’t been a college coach in over 20 years, but may be interested in coming home to Michigan State. The Dearborn, Michigan native played football at Michigan State and was a captain and all-American in his senior year. He then coached at Michigan State for ten years before becoming Stanford’s offensive line coach in 1998 and moved to the NFL a year later. He rose through the NFL coaching ranks, spent two seasons as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach and was fired from his position as head coach of the New York Giants in December after two years. In January, he was fired by the Denver Broncos to be their offensive coordinator. His 19-46 career record is certainly not impressive, but Michigan State may be interested in someone with both head coaching experience and ties to the university. Shurmur may want to stay in the NFL, and there might not be any interest from either side, but if there is, he would likely be high on Michigan State’s list.


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