It only makes sense that Mark Dantonio and Bob Crable got to know each other through church.
Dantonio, the new head football coach at Cincinnati in 2004, has long been soft-spoken but unafraid to speak out about the importance of faith in his life. Crable, a College Football Hall of Fame honoree from his time at Notre Dame, had returned to Cincinnati four years earlier to coach Archbishop Moeller, a Catholic high school.
Crable had known of Dantonio beforehand, and the opposite was likely true as well because of Crable’s reputation. But with their families at the same parish, a bigger relationship blossomed.
“I didn’t really reach out until I did see him at church and got to say, ‘Why don’t we get together, and we can talk a little about football, a little about life?’” Crable said. “And that’s kind of how it started.”
Over the next several years, Dantonio or his assistants visited Moeller and other area schools often, looking to find the best players in Cincinnati. Crable’s program was a frequent target because of the consistent talent it produced.
Then Dantonio left for Michigan State in November 2006, following three seasons with the Bearcats. Crable, as he suspected of many prep coaches in Cincinnati, was happy for him but sad to see him go.
He gave the new Spartans head coach a call in the following days to congratulate him, and Dantonio had a message for him in return.
“I’m not going to forget about you guys down here,” Crable remembers him saying.
He couldn’t have foreseen just how true that statement would be. Dantonio made quick work, bringing linebacker Greg Jones from Moeller in the 2007 recruiting class, his first at Michigan State.
The move sent a message heard clearly, notably by John Rodenberg, who became Moeller’s head coach in 2008 following Crable’s departure.
“It was something that really (showed) Michigan State was going to continue to go after those Moeller players,” he said.
Rodenberg had his own story of meeting Dantonio after his hiring at Cincinnati. Many area Catholic schools hold annual “sports stags” to raise money for athletics, and Dantonio accepted a guest speaker role at Archbishop McNicholas, where Rodenberg coached at the time.
“I was sort of his host,” Rodenberg said. “I got a meeting that night, and it was strictly by accident, but I got to sit next to him. Really nice guy. Very quiet guy.”
Rodenberg headed to Moeller a few years later, and Dantonio would soon be back in his building with his staff, pursuing DE Marcus Rush. What stood out to Rodenberg, in that recruitment and many to come, is that the Michigan State coaches would always go through him first rather than directly contacting his players.
That approach built trust both ways. Rodenberg prides himself on being honest with college coaches about his players, and he feels that Michigan State returns the favor. He sees it in co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett’s style in particular.
“Harlon doesn’t mess around with me,” Rodenberg said. “If he doesn’t think a player can play for him, he’ll tell me.”
But so often, they have been able to play. Michigan State has signed six Moeller players under Dantonio: Jones (2007), Rush (2010), Monty Madaris (2012), Shane Jones (2013), Matt Coghlin (2016), and most recently Matt Dotson (2017).
There may be more to come. The Spartans have shown serious interest in 4-star sophomore tight end Brenden Bates as well as sophomore offensive lineman Zach Carpenter, and they recently offered 3-star defensive tackle Aeneas Hawkins after having evaluated him for quite some time.
“They wanted to make sure that he was a player that would fit into their system,” Rodenberg said of the offer. “Michigan State’s not going to sit there and just offer a guy because Alabama offers a guy. There’s a lot of schools like that. Michigan State makes sure he’s the right fit for them and then they quietly go after him their way.”
Their way means staying in contact with coaches and getting valuable face time. Dantonio visits Moeller every winter, and Barnett shows up even more often.
Rodenberg will have a list of players to consider ready for him in the spring. Barnett comes to see the “no-brainers,” as Rodenberg calls them, and ends up getting a good look at under-the-radar prospects while he’s at it. That’s how Coghlin, a sophomore-to-be kicker put on scholarship after the 2016 season, ended up with the Spartans.
“Coghlin was a guy that was not on their radar,” Rodenberg said. “I kept kind of pushing and pushing, and finally he went to a camp and really impressed him.”
Rosenberg can’t know for sure whether his players will be a good fit for whichever program they choose. He can say, though, that the transparency of his relationship with Michigan State makes things a little easier.
They may not always be thrilled with playing time or results, but Rodenberg does typically feel his players are satisfied with their decision.
“When the Michigan State players come back to Moeller to lift,” Rodenberg, “I get a great sense that they’re happy.”