Mark Dantonio is old school football: control the line of scrimmage, run the ball, stop the run and force your opponent to wear down into submission. He came up through the coaching ranks on the defensive side of the ball and his approach has earned 106 wins in 156 games, including an 88-33 record at Michigan State.
Brian Kelly’s philosophy on the field was honed on offense. He wants to wear you down but by running you to death, never allowing a moment to catch your breath. He’s willing to sprint all day long on the football field. His teams at four different schools have won 227 games, including a 56-24 record at Notre Dame.
Tony Pike and Connor Barwin, like millions of others, will be watching Saturday night when Michigan State plays at Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). They’ll be watching with a different perspective than most. What they see will be a reflection of their own college careers at the University of Cincinnati, where Pike threw 49 touchdown passes and for more than 5,000 yards as a quarterback, and Barwin went from being a good starting tight end to a dominant defensive end. They were recruited to UC by Dantonio and flourished as upperclassmen under Kelly.
Dantonio and Kelly are opposites in many ways as football coaches but they share a common history at UC along their paths to leading two of the nation’s top 20 programs. Neither has strayed from their roots.
“Their personalities are different but I think they both are extremely passionate, competitive guys,” said Barwin, now playing with the Philadelphia Eagles in his eighth NFL season. “They’re good teams, just like we were at Cincinnati … At the end of the day with Dantonio and with Brian we were always competitive teams and we were always pretty physical. We were a bunch of good-looking, athletic guys. You see that on Notre Dame. You see that on Michigan State. It’s a bunch of very well-conditioned, physical, competitive teams every year.”
The Bearcats are now on the short list of legitimate contenders to be a part of expansion for the Big 12 conference.
That would have been hard to imagine when Dantonio arrived in 2004. He raised the level of football expectations in three seasons at Cincinnati, where the teams went 18-17 from 2004-06. It was his first head coaching job, and the job he did got him noticed by Michigan State, where he had been an assistant coach under Nick Saban and Bobby Williams from 1995-2000.
“That was a beginning for me and how it shaped us as a program,” said Dantonio. “I think we brought a lot of what we started to do at Cincinnati here with us, and I think we brought a program with us and a foundation with us when we came here of who we were. We knew who we were. We knew each other, and we all came together. I think that proved to be a faster acceleration for this program.”
Kelly built upon Dantonio’s foundation, beginning by taking over immediately after Dantonio accepted the job in East Lansing and leading the Bearcats to a 27-24 win over Western Michigan in the International Bowl. Two years later, UC won the Big East title and a berth in the Orange Bowl. In 2009, UC went undefeated in the regular season and reached a high of No. 3 in the national rankings and a second consecutive BCS bowl appearance, this time going to the Sugar Bowl.
“Mark has a style of player that he loves and it’s a tough-minded kid that loves to play football,” said Kelly. “I had a lot of those guys that he recruited at Cincinnati that we got our hands on and we pointed them in the right direction and had a lot of success with them.”
Just as Dantonio didn’t coach his final UC team’s bowl game, Kelly and many of his staff left Cincinnati before the Bearcats took on Florida. They lost 51-24. The manner in which Kelly departed UC, without much advance warning, still resonates in the Queen City but there is no disputing the overall positive impact he had.
The concepts and philosophies Dantonio and Kelly used at UC are still the ones they use at Michigan State and Notre Dame.
“I will say, coaching-wise with Dantonio, you do see that he’s kind of changed with the times. He will like to pass the ball more,” said Pike, who now works as a radio sideline analyst for UC games. “You can tell that the staff he has – (current MSU co-offensive coordinator) Dave Warner was the quarterback coach at UC when I was there as well. There are guys that I’ve been with, and he’s kind of refined the offensive game. All of the time you’re going to have a hard-hitting defense.
“You’re going to have a tough defense, but the thing about coach Dantonio a lot of people don’t really get to see is the human being he is and how he really takes care of his players. He not just understands who the player is but he knows your family, he knows your siblings. I saw him probably four months ago at an offseason camp and he comes up and asks by name how my mom and dad and my siblings are doing. He’s just a guy that really cares about the players.”
Pike said he and former teammates and coaches will text during Notre Dame games, calling out plays to one another.
“I’m sure the play’s not named the same but you see the same concept up there,” said Pike. “There are a lot of similarities. For me, it makes watching a game so much more fun to be able to relate to it.”
Besides Warner, co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel and offensive line coach Mark Staten also came to MSU with Dantonio from UC and are still on the staff.
“I think the biggest thing is knowing there are two types of things: things that need a rebuild, and things that need a maintain,” said Staten. “Going through that at Cincinnati with Coach D and then being able to go through that here with him, we understand. There is the core group of us that is still with him that would jump on that grenade for him, for this program, and that’s part of it.”
Barwin came to UC from University of Detroit Jesuit High School as a tight end. He was one of two freshmen to play on offense his first season. He had 31 receptions for 399 yards and two touchdowns as a junior in 2007, Kelly’s first full season at UC. That offseason, Kelly brought Barwin in for a talk. Kelly told Barwin he’d be switching to defensive end. Barwin loved the idea and responded by finishing with 53 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, 8 pass breakups as well as 3 blocked kicks.
And he caught one pass on offense. It was good for a 1-yard touchdown.
“Those are two of the best coaches I’ve ever played for,” said Barwin. “I always tell people I was lucky. I was the luckiest guy ever to go to Cincinnati and play for Dantonio and Brian Kelly because they were just two great coaches that I knew would go on and have success. They’re both a little different in how they do things but that just shows you that there’s different ways to do things.”