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Exeunt Dantonio

There are a lot of ways to look at the Spartan head coach’s abrupt exit, and none of them reflect well on a now-troubled legacy

Mark Dantonio Retires Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Barely a month ago, Mark Dantonio addressed (or so we thought) lingering questions about the future of his tenure in East Lansing by affirming that he would return in 2020. After a second consecutive disappointing season, and MSU’s third underwhelming-to-be-generous season out of the last four, it was expected he would at some point elaborate on his plans to resuscitate the program he had elevated from stupor into a national power, only to see it quickly backslide into mediocrity, swamped by scandal. The hope among the fanbase was that if Dantonio was going to stay, something would have to change.

As we learned yesterday, the change to the program was the biggest that could have been made, as Dantonio himself announced his resignation via tweeted letter, followed by a press conference a few hours later. In a vacuum, Dantonio opting to hang it up is not entirely surprising - he’s 63 years old and the last several years have been a grind, and his comments today were those of a man who just does not want to do this anymore. That said, he will retain a secondary position with the athletic department.

But the timing of this announcement, and Dantonio’s typically taciturn press conference, raises so many more questions than it answers. Earlier yesterday, the latest news from the ongoing Curtis Blackwell lawsuit was an allegation from Blackwell’s camp that Dantonio’s program had committed serious NCAA violations; Dantonio’s resignation hit the Twitterwaves within an hour of that latest development. As might be expected, Dantonio was not willing to address that issue in the press conference.

There’s also the fact that the large majority of the 2020 recruiting class has already signed up, and for the handful who haven’t, National Signing Day, the day after their erstwhile head coach hangs it up. Typically, a school whose head coach leaves after signing day will not fight players who want to leave, but it still leaves those guys in a difficult position, as well as Dantonio’s assistants, who may have appreciated a chance to look for new work before pretty much every job in the country was already filled.

It’s really doubtful that Dantonio’s true motivation for leaving, and leaving now, will ever really be known, but after mulling it for a bit, this feels, to me, like a combination of all the issues listed above.

First, the on-field situation. After 2018’s disappointing 7-6 finish (both in the record column and against Oregon), pressure from the fanbase to make big changes to the coaching staff, especially on offense, was intense. Instead, Dantonio shuffled his assistants’ responsibilities, banking on stability and a veteran-laden team.

That did not work. MSU again stumbled offensively, with the added element of a defense that now gave way late in games as well. MSU had to win its last 2 games to get bowl eligible and won an afterthought of a Pinstripe Bowl to repeat its 7-6 record. Now, MSU must replace its QB, top two receivers, and EIGHT defensive starters, and the recruiting results the last few years do not suggest that the next generation of players will be better than what’s walking out the door.

But Dantonio understands all this better than anyone, and that knowledge would have been even sharper closer to the end of the season. Ergo, if the on-field results factor into this, it’s probably only slightly.

No, the off-field goings on around Michigan State football probably have substantially more to do with this. That’s not to say, however, that the latest accusations leveled by Curtis Blackwell shoved Dantonio out the door. Even if there’s something to Blackwell’s claims and the NCAA is about to come calling, Dantonio isn’t quitting his job to jet off to some non-extradition country; he’s still going to be working for the MSU athletic department.

Instead, it feels more like the Blackwell suit, itself the result of the sex assault cases that rocked Dantonio’s program in 2017 just as the full scope of Larry Nassar’s atrocities became clear, added up into a burden that eventually became too heavy for Dantonio to continue carrying while also adapting to an ever-evolving recruiting landscape (if that seems like a trivial thing by comparison, just listen to how much of his press conference is spent grousing about modern recruiting).

Whatever Dantonio’s reasoning, he leaves the program in a really difficult position. Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel has been named the interim, and there was some speculation that Dantonio was pulling a Bo Ryan - quitting at a time when the school would have no choice but to give his chosen successor the job. Whether that’s true or not, it’s going to be nigh impossible for MSU to hire anyone else worth having, which likely means Tressel gets the reigns for next year. That, in turn, probably means a lost recruiting class at a point when the team’s talent level is already waning.

His refusal to answer questions about the lawsuit, although completely understandable and legally advisable, also all but ensures that whatever his side of the story is, we’re never going to hear it.

In Dantonio’s 13 seasons, MSU went 114-57, won 3 conference titles, a Rose Bowl, a Cotton Bowl, and made the College Football Playoff. He won more big games than can be easily recounted, and for years, had a penchant for the gutsy call at the big moment.

But it’s not honest, even as one of his biggest fans, to recount those facts and say ‘thanks for the memories.’ If the on-field swoon of the last four years wasn’t bad enough, his approach to player discipline has always left room for questions. In one final parallel to Jim Tressel, Dantonio’s biggest shortcoming turned out to be his boundless, stubborn, infuriating faith in the people around him: his assistants to actually do their jobs, and his players and recruits to stay out of trouble.

MSU football won’t be the same without him, but the optimist in me does take note of the fact that there are ways in which that might not be the worst thing.