It has been an unforgettable year for Mark Dantonio both on and off the field. Michigan State's fourth-year coach guided the Spartans to an 11-1 record and their first Big Ten championship since 1990. He also worked his way back from a heart attack in mid September and made several of the season's most memorable play calls.
Dantonio and the Spartans wrap up their season Jan. 1 in the Capital One Bowl against defending national champion Alabama. The game serves as a reunion of sorts for Dantonio, who opposes Nick Saban, his former boss at Michigan State. But most of all, Michigan State has a chance to "measure up," Dantonio said.
I caught up with Dantonio earlier today.
Here's the first part of my interview. Part II will appear Wednesday morning.
What has been the focus of your preparation for this game?
Mark Dantonio: We try to have a different focus every day, and our first focus when we got down [to Orlando] was to refocus and get back to work. We've got to measure up, we've got to measure up to Alabama. In a lot of ways, we're a football team that has come on this year. Alabama's a football team that had come on a couple years ago and was the No. 1-ranked team and the defending champion and [had] the defending Heisman Trophy winner. And we're a team that wasn't in the Top 25 early on. We're a team that has raised our play as the season went along. So we've got to be able to measure up to that football team that we're playing. It's a great challenge, a great opportunity as well.
It seemed like your players had no letdown about not making a BCS bowl. Was that you reinforcing it to them or the players realizing on their own what's at stake?
MD: I think it was mutual. We talked all year long about how our focus was to win the Big Ten championship. In a normal year, an 11-1 [overall record], a 7-1 [conference record] is going to win the Big Ten championship outright. From my perspective, from our players' perspective, the main thing is we are champions of this conference and we want to represent. That's why we talk about how we've got to measure up. We have to be emotionally ready coming into this football game. It's so important that you not be flat, that you not let Disney World and everything else around us have us fall asleep and the next thing you know, it's New Year's Day and we're not ready to play emotionally. That was the focus today.
What has it been like for you to spend time with Coach Saban leading up to this game?
MD: It's been good. When you have an opportunity to step back and see someone who's had a direct impact on your career, it's always good to spend time together again. I spent five years of my life as his secondary coach, so we worked very closely in that area. It was good just to talk to him, whether it's about recruiting or about the families or whether it's just about things. I had an opportunity on Sunday morning to spend about 20 minutes with him, so that's been a big positive for me personally.
He's been a mentor to me as a football coach. When I look at what we do and how we do things, organizationally, recruiting, defensively -- even though they may have a different defense now and we may play a different one than we played when we were both at Michigan State -- there's still some common threads there. He has had a direct impact on my career.
Has he had a stronger influence on you as a defensive coach or as a head coach?
MD: I would say as a defensive coach. I worked with Coach Saban from '95-99, so you're going back 11-15 years ago when I was an assistant. As I moved forward in coaching, it was to become a better defensive coach, then a defensive coordinator and then a head coach. So even though we follow a lot of the same things that we did at Michigan State, the biggest impact he's had on me is as a defensive coach and the fundamentals that were really instilled in me and the philosophy. The X's and O's may be a little bit different, but the philosophy in how to do things and the teaching progression and the importance of technique, all those things he influenced me greatly.
You mention defense. What are some of the biggest challenges for your team defensively in this game?
MD: Alabama presents so many different problems for you. Outstanding wide receiver in Julio Jones, 75 catches made. [Marquis] Maze is equally as impressive. They've got a couple other guys who can play very well also. Their running backs, [Trent] Richardson and [Mark] Ingram are outstanding running backs. A little mirror type seasons. Last year, Richardson was hurt early. This year, Ingram was hurt early, but they're both tremendous backs and have game-breaking ability. And then you look at their offensive line: big, physical, a little young in places. And then their quarterback, [Greg] McElroy, throws the ball very effectively, 70 percent completion ratio, and an outstanding leader. He does a great job leading his football team offensively. They'll be a challenge to stop. We've got to eliminate the big plays and force some turnovers and play well in certain situations.