McRae: Dantonio retires, future of MSU football in question

Alex McRae, Football Beat Reporter/Assistant Sports Director

EAST LANSING — On this day, Feb. 4, 2020, a legendary figure in Michigan State football history unceremoniously rode off into the sunset.

The day before one of the most important events in a college football program’s season, National Signing Day, Mark Dantonio walks away from a program he built and ultimately tore down.

In an initial reaction, this is likely the worst timing possible for this program. Following a relatively quiet fall from grace, Dantonio has left his beloved university and football program in the lurch.

The winds of change are roaring in East Lansing today and the questions that had been seemingly answered are now again punctuated with a massive question mark.

Mike Tressel, former assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach will now take over as the acting head coach for the Spartans.

This news is borderline unprecedented as it comes the day before National Signing Day, with one of the weakest recruiting classes under this administration, the best coach in program history walks away.

The real rationale as to why Dantonio made this decision may never be truly known, as the deposition in the Curtis Blackwell case looms heavy over the news this afternoon. The more cynical of us may attempt to relate these two events.

Another bad look here is the mere fact that Dantonio was just paid a 4.3 million-dollar bonus on Jan. 15. It’s important to understand that if Dantonio had decided to retire earlier in the process it is more than possible that a deal could have been worked out between the coach and the university.

Looking back on Dantonio’s tenure at Michigan State, there is no black and white way to describe it. From his hiring in 2007 until the College Football Playoff appearance in 2015, there weren’t many criticisms anyone could throw Dantonio’s way.

That all changed in 2016, as he followed up a 12-2 performance the year before with a 3-9 season that was capped off with a sexual assault scandal, which resulted in a handful of the top recruits of that year’s class getting kicked off the team and receiving jail time.

Since then, the program has sputtered with a 7-6 record in each of the last two years with 20-plus-point losses to each of the ranked opponents the Spartans played in 2019.

To be clear, this news is devastating for the future of the Michigan State Spartans football program. At this point in the season, so late into the recruiting process, Michigan State has almost no options to fill Dantonio’s shoes other than to hire from the inside.

Let’s be very honest about the reality of the attractiveness of this Michigan State head coaching position in its current state. It’s a mid-tier Big Ten job at best, and there aren’t going to be a lot of household names stammering to jump at this opportunity.

The Spartan faithful should prepare themselves for the ushering-in of a new era. The dark times of John L. Smith and Bobby Williams may very well return with a vengeance.

Dantonio is arguably the best head coach in Michigan State football history, and he built this program into a force in the Big Ten. Ultimately, his downfall comes as a result of his unwillingness to change or adapt to the times.

He ends his coaching career having never fired an assistant coach, continuing to believe in his system and his friends which ultimately led to his demise. In the end, Mark Dantonio prophesied his own exit back in 2007… “Pride comes before the fall.”

Contact Alex McRae at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @amac595.