Blame it on our cynical society, but when a deeply rooted college football coach suddenly steps down, without anyone of importance publicly advocating for his dismissal, it makes you wonder what’s going on beneath the surface.
So it was on Tuesday when Mark Dantonio announced he was resigning as Michigan State’s football coach after 13 seasons.
Consider what Michigan State was before Dantonio arrived and where the program is now. The Spartans won or shared three Big Ten titles and won the 2013 Rose Bowl. He beat Michigan eight times from 2008-2017 and was Big Ten coach of the year twice. He took the Spartans to the College Football Playoff in 2015. And on September 21, 2019, he won his 110th game to become the winningest head coach in MSU history surpassing Duffy Daugherty.
You could argue without much blowback that his program was second to only Ohio State in the Big Ten while it was on watch. And now he is leaving?
If you’ve been following the Spartans recently, the reason he stepped down might seem a little clearer. On Monday, former Michigan State recruiting director Curtis Blackwell reasserted his case against Dantonio which claims the coach was guilty of multiple recruiting violations.
The suit alleges Dantonio was complicit in getting jobs for parents of a top recruit through the donor whose name adorns the school’s football building. Blackwell also claims the head coach took him along on recruiting trips, something the NCAA explicitly prohibits in case of those who are not on-field coaches.
According to ESPN, Blackwell worked for Dantonio from 2013 through 2017 after which time his contract was not extended. Blackwell originally filed suit last year saying he was being made a scapegoat for a string of sexual assault issues dogging the program and university.
In addition, Blackwell claimed Dantonio ignored the advice of assistants while recruiting star defensive end Auston Robertson from Ft. Wayne, Ind., in 2016. Apparently, Robertson had been in trouble in high school – repeated sexual violence – that led to his expulsion during his senior year.
Of course, that blew up in Dantonio’s face within a year of Robertson’s arrival at Michigan State when he was kicked out of school after being accused of sexually assaulting a teammate’s girlfriend. Robertson is now in jail.
“No relevance whatsoever,” Dantonio said on Tuesday.
Perhaps, but the timing certainly seems strange. Wednesday was the second college football signing day. If Dantonio was thinking about leaving, one would think it was on his mind as the 2019 season was ending, the time every other major Division I program looking for a new head coach was searching or hiring one.
In his conversation with the media, Dantonio offered the stock excuse for leaving – he wanted to spend more time with his family, his wife Becky and their two daughters, Lauren and Kristen.
Taken at face value, understanding what’s potentially at risk for the football program and university, you’d think the athletic department might have wanted Dantonio out, just to save face. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said the school was ready to defend its coach.
“To the best of our knowledge, as I understand it, the allegations are patently false,” Beekman said.
Given a chance on Tuesday to address the Robertson case, Dantonio again took a pass, just like he’s done since it originally became an issue four years ago.
“We’re not talking about that,” Dantonio said. “This is a celebration.”
The last two seasons have not been particularly productive. The Spartans finished 7-6 in 2018 and 2019. Michigan pounded Michigan State by the combined score of 65-17 during that time.
Those close to him say he wasn’t having as much fun and he once had, that the rigors and pressures of his work were getting to him.
“I felt like the time to step away was at the reset time — when you reset your football team, when you get ready for spring ball,” Dantonio said.
“My joy is with our players. My joy is coaching football. My joy is sitting in a film room watching film and talking about football. I still have a passion for that.”
It was all the other stuff that got to him. He called the distractions a wave.
“And you’re always surfing the wave,” Dantonio said. “At points in time throughout the season, you’re just like ‘What else? What else? What else is there?’
“I felt myself never having the opportunity to come up for air. That can wear on you. It just becomes complicated. At this point in time, I wanted to uncomplicate my life, to be quite honest with you.”
Beekman, who has been Michigan State’s AD for just two years, is now looking for Dantonio’s replacement while assistant head coach Mike Tressel takes over the program on an interim basis.
Michigan State will be fine. Perhaps it will hire either Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi or Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and get itself back in the Big Ten mix next season.
According to the school, Dantonio, who just received a $4.3 million retention bonus, will stick around to serve as a goodwill ambassador, helping out with fundraising, perhaps even teaching a class or two on campus.
Coaches come and go every season. That is to be expected. But Dantonio’s departure – so late on the calendar, so muddled by circumstances – raises more questions than it answers.