A common grimace is not the only similarity Mark Dantonio and Tom Anastos share.
Year five of the Anastos regime will officially start on Sunday, October 4.
That is when Michigan State welcomes Western Ontario for an exhibition game at Munn Ice Arena.
After going 17-16-2 last year, Anastos and the Spartans have high expectations heading into the 2015-16 season. The fanbase is hungry for success and the program is yearning to be nationally relevant once again. Some people question whether Anastos can pull it off and deliver on his promises. That question still remains to be answered.
Still, his path is not that different than that of MSU’s beloved head football coach.
Anastos was hired back in 2011, inheriting a hockey program that was only four years removed from a National Championship. However, the Championship did not translate into further longterm success as the Spartans went a combined 69-67-20 in the four year span.
Anastos’ hiring was supposed to a breath of life into a once proud program and bring it back to a more stable footing. He promised to take his time and rebuild the right way without taking any shortcuts.
Things started well for Anastos in his first season.
With the help of nine seniors, along with an All-American defenseman Torey Krug, the Spartans earned a winning season and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. While Michigan State was eliminated in the first round by Union College, optimism was abound at the thought that maybe the imminent “growing pains” would not be as bad as some feared.
The following two seasons put paid to those thoughts. MSU endured a dismal season in 2012, limping to a 14-25-3 record and a last place finish in the CCHA. Losing half of your roster and 75 percent of your defense will do that to you, just ask Wisconsin.
Year three was simply painful. While the roster was starting to solidify, the Spartans were still inexperienced and unable to match the skill of their new Big Ten competition.
Finally in Anastos’ fourth season, a critical one by his own admission, Michigan State finally turned the corner. They earned marquee wins against Minnesota and Michigan on the road and came a game away from winning the Big Ten regular season championship. More importantly, the Spartans earned their first winning record since 2011-12.
As for football, Dantonio was announced as Michigan State’s head football coach in 2006. One of his first comments when being hired was his intention to build Spartan football the right way and to take his time while doing it.
In his first season on the sideline, MSU went 7-5, becoming bowl eligible for the first time in four years. Although MSU lost in the Champs Sports Bowl, the postseason precedent had been set.
The next two years were tough sledding for Dantonio. The Spartans had winning records every season but still fell short of their main goals, a Big Ten championship and a bowl win. All the while Dantonio fought to establish a new mentality and identity into one befitting of an elite college program.
Dantonio’s fourth season (2010) finally saw the Spartans turn the corner, much like hockey in 2014. Led by veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins and freshman running back Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State garnered an astonishing 11-1 record with several marquee wins. None more impressive than Little Giants. More importantly, the Spartans earned a share of the Big Ten Championship for 2010. It was a sure sign of things to come.
When looking at the first four years of Anastos and Dantonio, the similarities are there. Both inherited programs looking for stability. Both had success in their first season as head coach. Both had significant growing pains in their second and third years, although Anastos significantly more so. Finally, both had tangible results in year four, marked by program-defining victories and success within conference play.
Now to this year, year five of the Anastos regime. Of course, any Spartan fan worth his or her salt knows about Dantonio’s fifth year.
They remember the last second Hail Mary win against Wisconsin. They remember the 10-2 season and the Big Ten Championship Game. But most of all, they remember MSU’s first bowl victory since 2001 against No. 16 Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl.
So looking ahead, is not too far fetched to think that Anastos’ fifth season might be like Dantonio’s?
But what would that look like? What does being “nationally relevant” mean?
A berth in the NCAA Tournament would be a good start, a Big Ten championship would be even better. But most of all, it would mean having tangible evidence that Michigan State hockey has its best years ahead of it.
Rebuilds take time, and hockey is a tricky sport often decided by inches.
It took Dantonio five-seven years (depending on who you ask) to bring Spartan football back into the national spotlight.
Anastos appears to be on the same path with Spartan hockey.