In a sizzle division, all Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio does is produce steak after steak
There’s a version of the story that says Michigan State got fat on circumstance, because Big Blue couldn’t get out of its own damn way, because of RichRod and Hoke, because a sleeping giant was passed out in the wilderness, drunk on hubris.
Well, OK, except for the hubris part.
Consider this: Even without a 7-2 record against Big Brother Michigan, Mark Dantonio would still have a mark of 80 up and 31 down over his first nine seasons at Michigan State — a .721 clip. Now if that sounds like a killer Tetris score, that’s because it is. In fact, it’s the best winning percentage of any coach in Spartans history with more than six seasons under their respective belts since Biggie Munn’s monster .846 from 1947-’53.
When history scrolls past names such as Duffy Daugherty (.609), George Perles (.504) and Nick Saban (.592) in order to compare and contextualize superlatives, and leaves those names in the dust, you’ve built one hell of a ride.
Alas, a ride, for all its power, cannot tweet from movie theaters and restaurants. It cannot put on a Cristiano Ronaldo jersey and throw a wicked satellite camp in Madrid. It cannot bend the ear of a 4.3-cornerback one minute and the ears of power brokers at ESPN the next.
A ride won’t take off its shirt. Or climb a tree. Or roll with Michael Jordan. Or play social media the way Hendrix played a Strat.
And that’s what’s strange. Dantonio has led a program to 11 or more wins in five out of the last six years, a Sabanesque run without the Finebaum death glare. And yet he risks being cast as the right man in the right place at the wrong time, a steak coach in a sizzle division.
It says something about the state of Spartan football — and about us, and not in a good way — that one of the few major grenades most objective outsiders could lob at Dantonio these days is that he isn’t Jim Harbaugh or Urban Meyer.
Which, when you really think about it, is just silly. Monty Python, slap-a-man-in-the-face-with-a-fish kind of silly.
Yes, the Lincoln Memorial smiles more times a year than Dantonio, a stone-faced family man so outwardly stoic on the dais that reporters have tried to goad him into eliciting even the slightest hint of emotion. Yes, his public calm and normalcy seem almost rebelliously at odds with the cult-of-personality, Harbaugh-era Big Ten, where the hearts and minds are won in 140 characters and a cloud of dust.
Division titles, of course, are won on the backs of stronger stuff, and the Spartans have snatched three of them since 2011. As Year 10 of Anno Dantonio (A.D.) beckons, Gang Green are a masterpiece in destruction and deconstruction, a physical monolith, silently reloading while the circus plays on to the south and the east.
Also, they’re the reigning East champions — in an East where Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State can throw money and history out of giant buckets upon the poor heads of any usurper who shows up at the front gates. From 2011 through 2014, according to 247Sports.com, the average Sparty recruiting class ranked fifth in the Big Ten, which tells you something about scouting, player development, or both.
The Spartans are a Swiss Army knife of power and guile, where the tailbacks get the big letters on the marquee but the quarterbacks (Drew Stanton, Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins, Connor Cook) invariably chuck their way into NFL snaps. The Michigan State of now is a weapon capable of killing by a thousand paper cuts or by bonking the opposition over the head repeatedly with a giant cartoon mallet.
Passing. Defense. Special teams. If Bugs Bunny were a football coach and had his personality surgically removed, he might very well be Dantonio — always clever, always prepared, almost always a step ahead at the start of the argument and four steps ahead by the denouement.
It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t get the love it should outside local circles, a classic album doomed to cult status by its release date, a flower dwarfed by Ann Arbor bombast.
Of the best 20 teams in Spartans history, according to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), Dantonio has been at the controls for three of them. Consecutive top-5 finishes in the polls during 2013-‘14 were a first along Shaw Lane since Daugherty and Bubba Smith raised Cain in 1965-’66. Michigan State has played in nine straight bowls, another high-water mark, all while keeping its Academic Progress Rate (APR) score —the four-year period ending in 2013-‘14 registered a 973 — well within the median of a very strong league pack.
More context: In the nine seasons pre-Dantonio, 1998 through 2006, Sparty went 54-53 and reached the postseason just three times. In other words, without that rigid, boring stoicism at the podium, Michigan State is Illinois with crueler winters, a vessel resting on the laurels of dusty trophies past, hopeful and rudderless in the same breath, teetering perilously over a pit of irrelevance.
And yet Sparty dances like nobody’s watching, an inner rage and disrespect woven into the DNA, two-star prospects grinding and pounding their way to five-star destinations.
The players’ summer workout shirt last fall featured a poker chip printed on the shoulder with a Spartan logo on it, just case the message wasn’t clear enough, a wordless statement that said everything. Let ’em have MJ. Let ’em tweet. In East Lansing, stony silence never spoke louder than it does right now.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler