The best coach in the country this season will be best remembered for his heart attack. Mark Dantonio -- the Michigan State coach known to be as serious as one -- has to know that. He sat down after a riveting win over Notre Dame on Sept. 18 and had the sense something was wrong.
You don't beat the Irish with a trick play in overtime and expect your body tell you it's time to go to the hospital. You also don't return to the sidelines 35 days and one stent later. Where is the playbook for something like that? Men in their 50s have heart attacks and recover to have full lives. Not many are leading 100 players, a passel of coaches, and the hopes and dreams of a major university at the time.
The lesson that sunk in was more than the importance of monitoring your heart health. Dantonio, 54, found out he could slow down and still do his job. He found out the Spartans didn't have to revolve around him 24/7. Working longer didn't mean working better. He delegated. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell stepped in for four games.
|Dantonio (right) congratulates his former boss, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. (Getty Images)|
The point of the honor, then, is not so much that the Spartans won a share of the Big Ten title and were within hundredths of a point of a Rose Bowl berth. The lesson was that Coach D came out of the episode a better man. He taught us all something about dignity and perseverance -- and fun.
Before this season we didn't know Dantonio loves trick plays -- and names them after movies. "Little Giants," that fake punt against the Irish, is named after a 1994 Disney movie starring Rick Moranis and Ed O'Neill. "Mouse Trap," another fake punt, helped beat Northwestern. Who knew behind the cold, hard visage was an inner Bowden?
There were coaches with better records, with better teams, but none with more resolve. A year ago Michigan State was a mess, remember?
"Absolutely, I do," Dantonio said. "We were mired in all kinds of problems."
Fifteen players were suspended for the Alamo Bowl against Texas because of an on-campus altercation. Given the depleted roster, the 41-31 loss was almost encouraging.
"Minus 15 players, but we competed," the coach said. "Walking away from that, we gained strength ... That's when I really believed, after all that adversity, there was a silver lining. That's when our football team grew up. That's when our leaders started stepping to the front."
Shortly thereafter, star linebacker Greg Jones committed to his senior year. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had been voted captain even though he wasn't a starter. Even more unlikely, punter Aaron Bates was elected a captain this season. It was about character. Dantonio established a unity council, not unlike a lot of coaches. This was different. Dantonio made sure the council met in the staff room, sitting in the chairs of the coaches who made the decisions that shaped the team.
What followed was a team that stared down that adversity, improved by five wins to 11-1 and was the only team to beat Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin. The Spartans lost a three-way tiebreaker for the Rose, determined by the BCS standings. Ohio State got the Big Ten's other BCS bid (Sugar Bowl).
"I think we were deserving of a BCS bid by how we played throughout the season," Dantonio said. "It's too bad there is not a format that would allow three teams from a conference to go."
A .647 winning percentage with four bowls in four seasons is not easy to achieve at Michigan State. The last coach to win more often was Biggie Munn (1947-53). Dantonio came well recommended four years ago because he had been at Michigan State under Nick Saban as well as an assistant with Jim Tressel assistant at both Ohio State and Youngstown State. Dantonio will be coaching against his former boss (Saban), who is coaching against his former employer in the Capital One Bowl. Fitting. Michigan State had its best season since Saban was there in 1999.
The Spartans wouldn't have been there without the meeting of two young assistants 24 years ago at Youngstown.
"It was the starting point for both of us," Treadwell said. "We were both really into exercising. It was pretty easy on some of those first lunch breaks. We went out running through campus. That would become another way to take time to communicate."
When Dantonio was stricken and it came time to pick an interim coach -- Michigan State called it "acting head coach" -- Treadwell, the offensive coordinator, was the obvious choice.
"Early on, we just wanted to settle in and give the players reassurance," Treadwell said. "Tell them, 'The guy you love and care about is going to be fine.' We even put him on a speaker-phone with the team early on. You could just see in their eyes, 'OK, he's going to be fine.' It's like hearing your dad's voice."
All that makes it difficult to skip over the major story line. Other coaches coached. This one underwent a heart procedure, endured complications from blood clots and returned to coach from the press box within a couple of weeks. That's the same time frame missed by the reigning Heisman Trophy winner when Alabama's Mark Ingram tweaked his knee.
"He's a little different [now]," Jones said his coach. "He's a little more laid-back. In the pregame, I see him smile a lot more. I feel like that helps the team. We don't feel stressed. When the game starts he's ready to go, fully engaged."
Michigan State was an experience as much as a team. They were this year's Iowa, a sum of their parts, winning five games by 10 points or less. Bates was arguably the Spartans best player because of his arm. It was Bates who completed both of those trick-play passes, earning further respect from his teammates. Cousins grabbed the starting job and threw 20 touchdown passes. Jones made the right decision coming back for his senior year.
"These aren't things that happened this year," Dantonio said. "This is the result of hard work for four years."
That's another way of Dantonio has of turning the interview. He doesn't like talking about how he and the program got to this place.
"Without going into all the medical stuff," he said, "my heart is strong."
The same could be said for the heart of Michigan State football.