Cole: Dantonio’s MSU Career Leads to Lifelong Memories

Then: a prepubescent kid.

Now: a professional, working adult.

I’ve seen myself grow just as Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State football program did the same. And one look at his career at MSU brings back so many memories of the most important developmental time of my personal life.

Mark Dantonio announced his retirement Tuesday after spending 13 seasons as Michigan State’s head football coach. His career accolades are endless: 3 Big Ten championships, 6 bowl victories, 8 wins over rival Michigan, hundreds of graduates and dozens of NFL draft picks. But his career’s impact is so much more than numbers

Dantonio took over the MSU football program after the 2006 season. At that time, the Spartans were known for lacking toughness, blowing leads, and never winning the big one.

It’s safe to say Dantonio turned the program around on the field. But maybe more importantly, he made the Spartan fan base proud–and brought them lifetime memories. Including myself.

I grew up the son of a Spartan, my mom. I donned the green-and-white on elementary school spirit days. But I really grew into my MSU and sports fandom as Dantonio was building his program.

I entered sixth grade as Dantonio kicked off his first season as MSU’s head coach. I followed Michigan State football, but was hardly a diehard fan at such a young age. Dantonio’s work to bring a proud Michigan State program out from the ashes at that time cemented my Spartan fandom for a lifetime.

I have so many memories thanks to Mark Dantonio and Michigan State football. I watched just about all of his 114 wins–and, of course, the 57 losses.

One article won’t do justice to honor what Dantonio’s program has meant to me, but I’ll try to put those memories into words.

One of the more underrated wins in Dantonio’s tenure came in the regular season finale against Penn State in 2007. MSU was 6-5, but needed a seventh win to cement their first bowl game appearance since 2003. They defeated a Penn State program that typically owned the Land Grant Trophy at that point. One of my earliest MSU football memories is an 11-year-old Ryan jumping for joy in his family room at just a bowl berth. Now, bowl games are the absolute minimum at MSU, after Dantonio delivered 12 bowl appearances in 13 seasons.

From there, the big plays and wins started to accelerate. So did the wins against arch-rival Michigan–giving me some ammo for smack talk at school that was often dominated by Wolverine fans at that point. Dantonio’s success in that rivalry came because he understood how it had an effect on everyone in the state–from the schools’ passionate alumni all the way down to kids like me. He also felt the rivalry in his heart, and coached against Michigan with the vigor and confidence that hadn’t been felt in East Lansing for decades–and all Spartan fans resonated with him.

Then came the school’s first Big Ten championship since 2010. And another 11-win season in 2011–with Dantonio’s first bowl victory and a top-10 win in dramatic fashion against Wisconsin. He then escalated the program’s standards in 2013 with the most magical season in modern MSU football history, culminating in a Rose Bowl victory. Those successes all came while I was in high school, and I’d be lying if I said those seasons didn’t play a role in my decision to attend Michigan State in the fall of 2014. The chance to be a part of such a tremendous time in MSU’s athletic history–combined with Tom Izzo’s consistently great basketball program–was too good to pass up. Dantonio made the school as a whole more attractive to prospective students like me.

My first two years at Michigan State brought some of the best sports memories of my lifetime. I watched Dantonio’s hard work and tenacity manifested in hungry, talented squads that were always expected to win. It all led to one night in Michigan Stadium, where I witnessed the fabled “Trouble With The Snap” win against Michigan in 2015. It was undoubtedly one of the greatest moments I’ve ever lived, and I have countless stories that I share frequently. Seven out of 8 victories against Michigan was unfathomable before Dantonio arrived in East Lansing, but he made it a reality.

That 2015 season ended with another Big Ten Championship and a trip to the College Football Playoff. But it was personally bittersweet for me, because it was the first MSU football season that I went through after my grandpa’s passing. Papa was a Spartan fan that long suffered with mediocrity, but I knew he found so much joy with what Dantonio built. I saw that pride in his final days as he battled Alzheimer’s. While he didn’t remember much at that point, I heard the pride in his voice just as he’d say Dantonio’s name when recounting the successful 2014 season. The following season, my grandma allowed me the opportunity to travel to Dallas to root the Spartans on in Papa’s honor in the College Football Playoff at the Cotton Bowl. Dantonio gave our family pride and memories–and he did the same for Spartan fans across the country.

My time as a fan transitioned to student media member by the 2017 season. As an intern with the Spartan Sports Network, I worked with Dantonio at his weekly radio shows at an East Lansing bar. Working up close and personal with a once-idol and local hero brought pressure, but Dantonio never let his position affect the way he treated people. He always saw me for who I was, not just an intern organizing his autographs–although he’ll be the first to admit he never loved that part of the job. He even gave me an assist with a happy birthday video wish to my girlfriend–infusing his little-known sense of humor into the video, too. I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity to work with him and get to know him on a more personal level, all while he showed an interest in mine.

Above all else, Mark Dantonio’s work to rebuild Michigan State’s football program made Spartan fans like me feel. He gave us joyful memories. He helped foster lasting friendships. And all of that was auxiliary to his primary mission: to mold high school boys into better football players and men, which he did with success for 13 legendary seasons.

Mark Dantonio’s successor has some major shoes to fill. Dantonio wasn’t just a winner; he was the perfect culture fit for Michigan State University when the school desperately needed it. He was the right hire that brought unprecedented success to the program. He gave Spartan fans memories that will last a lifetime.

For that, and for so much else, his legacy will live on forever in East Lansing.