Core Values – Mark Dantonio, Michigan State Football

Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated (

On Nov. 2, 2006, Michigan State fired football coach John L. Smith. There were three games left in the season, but administrators didn’t want to wait. They hoped to begin searching for a new coach immediately.

There was one problem. One of the top names on their list, Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio, wouldn’t talk to Michigan State. Dantonio’s team had three regular-season games remaining. He refused to talk to one school while coaching another. Within the Michigan State athletic department, that story is about a single, simple act of integrity. Coach D, they say, has his priorities in order.

The story of Michigan State’s rise often starts with this fact: Dantonio has consistently produced top-10 teams without top-10 recruiting classes. The perception is that he and his staff are masters at finding underrated recruits—three-star prospects who play like five-stars. To a degree, that’s true. But it isn’t because Dantonio is some kind of scouting genius. We often ascribe success to talent when we should look at personality traits instead. His success is a product of steadiness and self-assurance.

For the most part, Dantonio does not operate that way. He tells his coaches to delay offers as long as they can, until they are sure they want a player. If at all possible, they should watch a kid play as a senior before making an offer. Michigan State resists the urge to offer a highly ranked recruit just to be in the mix. Co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel says, “We really have to try to force ourselves to slow down. People do want to commit. They want offers when they’re sophomores or juniors, and that’s not really our style.”

And as for those three-star recruits … well, you’re only going to find diamonds in the rough if you are willing to look in the rough. Dantonio tells his staff: Ignore the rankings. More importantly, he says, don’t just look at a player’s highlights. Watch how a guy plays the whole game. If you see a coach’s jaw drop when a player makes a freakishly athletic play, that coach is probably not wearing a Michigan State shirt.

“If you’re always swinging for the fences, you end up with a bunch of strikeouts,” Tressel says. “We probably recruit on purely upside less than a lot of people. There’s been highly ranked guys that certainly wanted offers from Michigan State that we just decided weren’t the right fit. We’re not in the business of offering people so they can collect offers.
“We try to recruit guys that have a passion and love the game. Regardless of your upside and ceiling, if you don’t love the violence of this sport, it’s not going to work out.”

Dantonio doesn’t do shortcuts. He often speaks in cliches—you have to battle adversity, you have to control the line of scrimmage, you have to compete, your football team has to take care of the football to win the football game, etc. But people who know him well say he never seems to waver.

He has four simple guidelines for his program:

1. Build lifelong relationships with players.
2. Push them to graduate.
3. Win championships.
4. Be givers, not takers: To the community, to each other.

That is where Dantonio excels. In practice, he emphasizes details, sometimes teaching techniques himself. In games, he is far more likely to chew out a player for blowing an assignment with a four-touchdown lead than he is when the score is tied. He wants everybody to know: Making the right play is always important, not just when the game is on the line. And since pretty much every player in the program can play now, the most talented guys know they have to listen, or they will be benched.

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