B1G Media Days: Mark Dantonio, Spartan

B1G Media Days: Mark Dantonio, Spartan

Columnists

B1G Media Days: Mark Dantonio, Spartan

As Big Ten Media Days came to a close in Chicago, Mark Dantonio spoke about leadership and chemistry while addressing specifics related to Jon Reschke, player personnel, and what he needs from his players for 2018 to be another successful season.

Contact @crowleysullivan

One year ago, at the start of one of the worst periods in memory for Michigan State University, there were whispers – perhaps somewhat noisy whispers – about how Mark Dantonio might have hit the wall, reached the end of the run, allowed the foundation he had built at Michigan State to fracture and decay, and that the likely scenario of a poor 2017 season might even lead to the end of his tenure as the Spartans head coach.

A year later, as Mark Dantonio addressed the media, at large, and then engaged in his individual media session at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, all of the voices that had been chirping about the solvency of his program a year ago had a different tone.

It’s not as if Dantonio’s day was without controversy.

His announcement that Jon Reschke was being reinstated as a member of the Michigan State roster – “It’s still a step-by-step process…” – has plenty of folks wringing their hands and vexing over whether or not the decision was compassionate or shrewd.

But, by and large, the tone of the entire day with the 12th year leader of the Michigan State football program was bright, forward-looking, and cautiously optimistic.

Dantonio brings back a truck load of starters from the team that turned things around after the 3-9 disaster of 2016 that was every bit as awful off the field as it was on it.

He has a quarterback who appears perfectly poised to continue what has become, perhaps, the most underrated tradition of the Dantonio Era – sending star quarterbacks to the NFL where they thrive.

He has a defense that finished the 2017 season 2nd in the nation against the run, has more depth at linebacker than ever before, and an entire secondary returns that seems ready to make “No Fly Zone” t-shirt sellers happy again.

Oh, and he also has defeated Michigan State’s rivals from Ann Arbor eight of the eleven years he’s been in East Lansing, including last season’s epic 14-10 beat-down that came after everyone had already given that game to UMAA since UMAA was in the supposed process of restoring order to the universe.

With all of that in his pocket, there was one word that Dantonio used over and over again in his various sessions with the media – leadership.

What does he think makes Brian Lewerke such as special quarterback?

“He’s calm and collected.  He doesn’t get rattled.  He’s learned how to make good decisions.  But, most of all, he’s a born leader.  His teammates really like him – but, most importantly, they really respect him.”

With LJ Scott coming back for his senior year after a couple of flirtations with 1,000 rushing yards the last two seasons, what is Dantonio looking for most from LJ?

“Leadership.”

After Khari Willis represented Michigan State as the Big Ten’s student athlete speaker at the 47th Annual Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon and earned a standing ovation following his inspirational address, Dantonio spoke not of how Willis is ready to help re-establish the No Fly Zone.

“Khari Willis is a leader.  And we need him to be a leader every day for us – he’s going to do that.”

So much of the 2016 breakdown was attributed to internal strife within the program after an unprecedented run of success from 2013-2015.

Chris Frey and Brian Allen deserve credit for grabbing the program by the lapels and forcefully re-injecting the discipline, accountability, and commitment that had faltered in 2016.

And since chemistry can’t be manufactured, it was the authenticity of Frey’s and Allen’s leadership that contributed substantially to the dramatic turnaround of 2017.

When asked about the three Spartans Dantonio brought along with him to Chicago, he said, “The leadership and chemistry on this team is probably stronger and more prevalent than at any time since I’ve been here and I could have probably brought five other guys here who would have shown that to all of you.”

Who are some of those other guys that are providing leadership for your program right now?

“Joe Bachie.  Kenny Willkes.  Andrew Dowell.  Felton Davis.  Raequan Williams….there are actually plenty of others….”

And when he mentioned Williams’s name, a giant smile came across his face.

Dantonio pointed to the gaggle of scribes in front of him as he said, “I’m telling you right now – Raequan Williams is going to be mayor of Chicago one day…….And I’m gonna campaign for him…..I’m not kidding – he says it’s his dream……You watch……”

Every one of the players Dantonio mentioned happens to be a star contributor.

The national and Midwestern “experts” may not know these guys are the star contributors, but Spartans know it.

Bachie is going to make a run at the Big Ten Defensive MVP Award.

Kenny Willekes – who, of course, started his Spartan career as a walk on – is about as tough and as focused as a kid can be and he’s going to end up on some sort of All Big Ten list at the end of the season.

Dowell is so versatile and experienced and he’s going to be yet another component of a defense that could end up the nation’s #1 overall defense.

Felton Davis could play his way into being a first-round draft choice next Spring.

And Raequan Williams will be an essential part of making sure that the run defense is a brick wall as well as making sure a stronger pass rush is created all game, every game.

And, Williams is going to be the mayor of Chicago at some point down the line.

The announcement about Jon Reschke has created a fair amount of eyebrow raising – mostly, if not completely, by people who aren’t members of the program itself.

LJ Scott and Khari Willis, both black, of course, gave Reschke full, enthusiastic support and emphasized that the African American players on the team are in unanimous support of giving Reschke the second chance.

“I’ve forgiven him long before he talked to me personally and multiple times and I tell him, ‘I got you.  I understand.  You’re my brother through thick and thin.  Whatever I can do to help.’”says Khari Lewis.

LJ Scott said, “He made a mistake in the heat of the moment and he was mad.  He apologized very much and would do anything to come back to this team and we would do anything to let him come back to this team.”

There are some critics who are snickering at Reschke’s reinstatement.

I’ll say this – it’s pretty impressive to sit and listen to two college-aged African American football players, particularly at a time when the American culture is as fractured as it could be, speak with such authentic compassion and care for a teammate that they know better than any of us.

If it’s okay for LJ and Willis and the entire African American contingent within the program, who are we to challenge it?

And, the fact that the head coach has his finger on the pulse of the team and is handling what could be a third-rail type of situation suggests that it’s a good example of how and why the program has become one of the nation’s elite programs.

Throughout Dantonio’s day, there was actually a minimal amount of talk about the Xs and Os of the season ahead.

Folks were curious about his thoughts about the state of the College Football Playoff, the idea of making injury status for players known prior to games, the state of the Big Ten’s divisional structure and other broad issues.

When it came to just about all of that, Dantonio literally shrugged and sort of gave the impression that none of that, while important and fun for the fans to think about and debate, matters much to him.

“I leave all of that stuff up to you guys and the fans to talk about it.  I just look at the games on our schedule and try to win ‘em.”

Other coaches are happy to go on and on about the possibility of World Cup soccer games being played at their home stadium.

Mark Dantonio focuses on what’s most important for his players and his program and leaves the circus stuff for the other guys.

Like Michigan State University itself, Dantonio’s program is far from perfect.

But the head coach knows that better than any of us.

And when he talks about leadership, chemistry, the players liking one another and working hard to continue to strengthen the locker room and not let a season like 2016 happen again, some might want to say it’s corny or even fabricated.

“Little Giants,” Kyler Elsworth’s 4th down stop in the Rose Bowl, Kirk Cousins’s leadership, Javon Ringer’s determination, Jeremy Langford’s work ethic, Jack Conklin’s journey from walk-on to first round draft pick, LJ’s epic score against Iowa, Arthur Ray’s entire life story, the Allen brothers, the Panasiuk brothers, the Dowell brothers, the Bullough family, the 8-3 record against UMAA, the three Big Ten Championships, the College Football Playoff berth, and the three players that represented Michigan State at this year’s Big Ten Media Days and demonstrated the leadership Dantonio wants and needs to badly – none of that is fabricated.

It’s all as authentic as the facts that point to the wins, the championships, and the accomplishments that have made the program something all Spartans can proud of.

Latest

More SpartansWire
Home