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Pride comes before ... complacency? Why Mark Dantonio, MSU can't afford to lose to Michigan

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio stands on the field during the second half of a game against Western Michigan. (Reuters)

Thirteen seasons ago, just two days after Michigan delivered a painful, come-from-behind, 28-24 victory over Michigan State, first-year Spartan coach Mark Dantonio delivered a memorable and defining line. 

“Let’s just remember,” Dantonio said of the Wolverines, in full trademark scowl, “pride comes before the fall.”

Dantonio was upset that Michigan running back Mike Hart had labeled the Spartans as “little brother” following the victory, saying a 10-point second-half deficit was nothing.

“Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and you let him get the lead,” Hart said. “Then you come back and take it from him.”

Further, Wolverine players had staged a moment of silence on the Spartan Stadium field after the win. This was in response to Dantonio wondering if such a "moment" was needed earlier that season when Appalachian State had famously upset Michigan. 

The instigation hardly mattered. Dantonio was mad. 

“They need to check themselves sometimes,” he said. “They want to mock us. I’m telling them, it’s not over. … It’s just starting.”

Dantonio’s Spartans promptly won the next four meetings between the teams and eight of the next 10, completely flipping the rivalry on its ear. They won three Big Ten titles (to Michigan’s zero). They won one Rose Bowl (to Michigan’s zero). They reached one College Football Playoff (to Michigan’s zero). They beat Urban Meyer twice (to Michigan’s zero).

Pride had indeed come before Michigan’s fall and Spartan fans reveled in not just that their prophet of a coach predicted it, but that he delivered it. They couldn't have loved him more.

These days, those days seem long and far ago. As has been the case of late, MSU (4-5) is a shell of its former self. It’s Michigan week again, only it’s the Wolverines (7-2) who have won two of the last three and are big favorites.

And it’s Michigan State’s fall that appears preceded by too much pride.

Four years ago Dantonio had MSU in the playoffs. Alabama killed them, but that wasn’t unexpected. The last three northern teams to reach the playoff (MSU, Ohio State, Notre Dame) lost to southern teams (Alabama, Clemson) by a combined score of 99-3. 

This was essentially the maxing out of Michigan State’s program. Just getting there was the accomplishment. 

In the nearly four seasons since, MSU is 24-23 overall and just 15-18 in the Big Ten. It’s lost its last four, including blowing a 28-3 lead to Illinois. Against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State this season, it lost by a combined score of 100-17. 

It’s like the Spartans reached the mountaintop and then fell off a cliff. Upsetting Michigan as a 12-point underdog is about the only thing that can salvage anything positive from the season. It’s basically Quick Lane Bowl or bust.

It’s not good. 

What happened? Nothing really, and that’s the problem. Dantonio hasn’t been very introspective about the program’s troubles. He’s mostly still defiant and snippy with reporters who point out something is wrong.

“We’re going to work hard, we’re going to always stay positive, we’re going to rise above [job-security questions],” Dantonio said Tuesday. “That’s the only thing I can do.”

Somewhere along the way it sure seems like MSU got comfortable and lost its edge, its drive, its unwillingness to accept mediocrity. 

Dantonio and his staff were genius at finding top-line talent that wasn’t a recruiting priority of local powers Ohio State, Michigan or Notre Dame. Mix that in with some local stars that he could beat those schools for and State was a tough team to play.

Now there is a clear lack of talent.

The team was known for its discipline and drive, that’s mostly gone. Creative offensive calls and daring plays, such as the “Little Giants” fake field goal that beat Notre Dame in 2010? They don’t work very often, if MSU is even in a position to try them.

The offense is a mess. In Dantonio’s first nine seasons, the Spartans’ average Big Ten rank in total offense was 4.7 (out of 14), including three times finishing second.

In the last four years, it’s 11.8.

Yet at no point has Dantonio shaken up his staff. Assistants stayed. Philosophies stayed. His biggest move came last offseason when he essentially took the same staff and just gave them new jobs.

The running backs coach became the offensive coordinator and the offensive coordinator became the quarterbacks coach and the offensive line coach took over the tight ends and so on and so on. 

It was the rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. 

It was pride amidst the fall. Or something like it.

Dantonio is 63 and the winningest coach in program history. His on-field work is undeniable and he retains extensive goodwill in East Lansing.

There is a new president and no real athletic director within an administration that has been gutted by the Larry Nassar scandal and understandably has more important stewardship challenges than dealing with a once-again middling football program. 

Does he stay for another year? Would he finally get rid of his staff and find some new blood to embrace the old Spartans ethos? Can Dantonio even attract the best young assistants when his own future is questionable? Even if he returns in 2020, how much longer can this go on?

Mark Dantonio made Michigan State a model program for a long time, recruiting the perfect guys for the perfect system and whipping big brother into submission along the way. 

Now this, perhaps a final stand against Michigan. 

Pride, in all its meanings and forms, is once again on the line. 

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