Commentary

Baby steps before big breakthrough

MSU preaches patience as it puts pieces together to become Big Ten contender

Originally Published: August 28, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Tom Izzo knows a thing or two about team-building and program-building, two tasks that sound similar but should be handled separately in big-time college sports.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio guided Michigan State to consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since 1996-97.

Izzo isn't the only Michigan State coach who understands this critical difference. Spartans football boss Mark Dantonio is on the same wavelength as his hoops colleague.

"If you're looking at building a team, you do whatever you can do to get that team ready that year," Izzo said. "If you're looking to build a program, you make decisions that are 10-year decisions still within that one year. That's what Dantonio's done. He's setting the standards."

Dantonio has been Michigan State's head football coach for only two seasons, but it feels longer. Around here, that's a welcome change.

During Dantonio's tenure, the Spartans have increased their win total and seen a spike in recruits from within state lines. They've witnessed a drop in blown leads, penalties, off-field incidents and major injuries. They've lost games but haven't lost any coaches from Dantonio's staff, and they've ushered in a renovated and expanded football facility. Last fall, they ended a six-game slide against rival Michigan and reached consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1996-97.

Most important, perhaps, is they've given their fans a reason to pay attention after Oct. 1, which had served as the tipping point for these infamous underachievers. Michigan State is no longer sending out an S.O.S. -- Same Old Spartans -- but rather a signal to the Big Ten that the program might finally be back.

"We're trying to get it back to where it was in the great days," Dantonio said. "There are steps to get there. Certainly, we're not going to jump and get there overnight.

"We're building a strong foundation."

Every coach throws around the f-word, but there's a sense here that Dantonio means it. Michigan State needs him to follow through, given the recent instability with the football team and the athletic department.

"We had five ADs and five football coaches in my first 13 years [as head coach]," said Izzo, who has spent the past 25 years on the basketball staff, the last 14 as the head man. "I don't care what business you're in. You can't have that kind of turnover. … My thought and plan was to stay here as long as they'd keep me. Mark Dantonio's thoughts and plans are to stay here as long as they'll keep him. What was a little different, [George] Perles got a lot of pro offers. [Nick] Saban, everybody thought he wanted to be an NFL coach.

"Everybody thinks Mark Dantonio wants to be Michigan State's football coach for the next 10 years. People think [athletic director] Mark Hollis is going to be here for eternity. That, in itself, in football, if you look at the turnover, is a big change."

When Dantonio took over, he spoke bluntly about the need to regain the respect of Michigan State's fans. For senior cornerback Ross Weaver, the declaration meant three things: winning more games, finishing more games and acting better off the field.

Weaver remembers how he and former teammate Otis Wiley used to be received on campus when they mentioned they played football.

"People gave us a look," he said. "The attitude was that football players were arrogant, they always started fights, caused problems. I think that's what [Dantonio] meant, too, by gaining respect, not only on the field but off the field. It was needed."

Dantonio wanted to see changes between the lines, but also in the stands.

He knew the mood soured in 2006 after undefeated Michigan State blew a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead against Notre Dame. Later that season, he saw fans clear out at halftime of a 38-7 loss to Ohio State.

"I sensed that fans, Spartan Nation, always seemed to be quick to give up the ship," he said. "When I came here, I said that everybody's got to go in the same direction. If we're going to be successful here, it's got to be the coaches, the players, the administration, the fans. We can't lose hope so quickly.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIt was a down year for Michigan, but that didn't take any of the joy away from the Spartans' win over their in-state rivals in 2008.

"And our fans have responded."

These days, the easiest way to foster hope is through recruiting, and Michigan State has stepped up, locally and regionally.

The Spartans signed 12 in-state prospects in February -- several of whom (Dion Sims, Larry Caper, Edwin Baker) will play this fall -- and 21 of the 23 recruits came from the Big Ten footprint. They have pledges from eight in-state prospects for 2010, including Detroit's William Gholston, ranked as the nation's 33rd-best prospect and the top Big Ten commit by ESPN's Scouts Inc.

Spartans running backs coach Dan Enos, a former quarterback at the school, spearheads recruiting in the Detroit area. Each spring, he spends three weeks in and around the city, regardless of who's available.

"I go to schools that don't have players, but just go to say, 'Hi,'" Enos said. "That's not the norm anymore. Now it's national recruiting. But what you find out is [coaches] feel good about you and when you come in, they might say, 'Hey, I've got a 10th-grader. I've got a ninth-grader.'

"You need to be thorough in your local areas because there may be kids that aren't on the radar that are going to be good players. It's important to kick over every rock that we can."

The biggest rock in Michigan State's path remains its history of inconsistency: on the field, on the sidelines and in the athletic director's box. The Spartans have yet to beat the Big Ten's elite, and Dantonio often brings up Michigan State's troubling pattern when expectations are raised, like they are now.

A breakthrough could come this fall, or it could be several years away. But after years of shortsightedness, a long-term vision seems to be in place.

"When I was here and we were very good, it was very stable," said Enos, who went to four bowls and played on two Big Ten championship teams. "What happened after that I can't speak of because I wasn't here, but as an outsider looking in, a lot of people [were] changing seats.

"The stability now with the president, our athletic director and our football coach, the stars are in line for us to achieve great things."

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com