Mark Dantonio and Pat Fitzgerald both took over programs in tough situations and elevated Michigan State and Northwestern, respectively, to historic levels of consistency.
Dantonio is the first coach to guide the Spartans to five consecutive bowl appearances. His 43 victories are the most by a Spartans coach in the first five seasons. Last year he guided Michigan State to a share of its first Big Ten championship in two decades, and this year the Spartans reached the inaugural Big Ten championship game. His teams have beaten archrival Michigan in each of the past four seasons, marking the Spartans' longest win streak in the series since 1959-62. When Michigan State in October beat Ohio State for the first time since 1998, it gave Dantonio wins against every Big Ten squad aside from new member Nebraska. He's 13-3 in November games.
Fitzgerald has guided Northwestern to four consecutive bowl appearances (the school never had reached more than two bowls in a row). The sixth-year coach already is second on Northwestern's all-time coaching wins list with 40. He has a 13-8 record in the month of November and, like Dantonio, has defeated all but one Big Ten school (Ohio State).
Both Dantonio and Fitzgerald have been awarded long-term contracts and both have become the faces of their respective programs.
Both also have one unchecked box on their coaching checklist: Neither has led his team to a bowl win.
Dantonio and Fitzgerald are a combined 0-7 in bowl games as head coaches at Michigan State and Northwestern, respectively. They've both come close, particularly Fitzgerald, who has two bowl losses in overtime and three by seven points or fewer.
Both men can break through in the coming days as Michigan State faces Georgia in the Outback Bowl and Northwestern takes on Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
"We've done a lot of things in five years here," Dantonio said. "The different wins against different people, the number of wins and things of that nature. Guys have set individual records as well. But the one thing we have not done collectively or individually is win our bowl game. We need to springboard for next season."
Both coaches say the bowl milestone means more for their players than themselves. Michigan State's seniors are the winningest class in team history (36 victories). The same holds true for Northwestern's seniors (30 victories).
Northwestern's bowl drought goes deeper than the current players and coaches. The team hasn't won a postseason game since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Fitzgerald was a star linebacker on Wildcats teams that lost bowls (1996 Rose and 1997 Citrus).
"It's the only negative left against our program," he said. "When Gary [Barnett] recruited me and the guys I had the privilege to play with, there were a lot of things used against us in recruiting. It's kind of the last negative hurdle to get over. To be a champion at anything is pretty special. It's on our goal board. It's been up there all year, to be bowl champions, to win a bowl game.
"This senior class wants to be that group."
Dantonio recently met with Michigan State's seniors and talked to them about their legacy.
"Our seniors have left a big thumbprint on this program in terms of what they've been able to do," he said. "With that being said, the final thing would be to send us into 2012 positively with a win and leave that final print by doing something that has not been done here in this time since I've been here as the head football coach.
"That's something we’re striving for."