Dantonio takes old-school approach at MSU

Mark Dantonio was taking his staff to a Detroit Pistons game the other night.

"Love basketball," the first-year Michigan State football coach said. "Love Michigan State basketball. Tom Izzo preaches toughness and intensity. If we can match their intensity … "

Izzo was on the school's search committee and helped conduct the interviews that identified Dantonio as a candidate.

"We think alike," Izzo said. "Players play the game, but tough players win the game. This really isn't brain surgery. Get guys to play beyond their abilities."

Suffice it to say Dantonio wasn't hired to succeed John L. Smith because of an 18-17 record and two bowls in three seasons at Cincinnati. He wasn't hired to be an eloquent speaker.

He wasn't hired because he once coached under Nick Saban at Michigan State and Jim Tressel at Ohio State. He was hired to bring toughness and intensity back to East Lansing: the elements on which Spartans football intermittently has thrived.

"Discipline, work ethic, attention to detail, meticulousness," Dantonio said.

So, it's not flashy. But the flashy Smith era led to fireworks on and off the field that sometimes would result in upset victories and sometimes in colossal collapses.

So Dantonio's first recruiting class consisted largely of fullbacks, tight ends and linemen. Lots of linemen.

"The neighborhood just got tougher," Tressel said the day Dantonio was hired.

That day, Dantonio flashed a national championship ring he earned as Tressel's defensive coordinator in 2002.

Asked about his role as a head coach, about getting players to do the right things, about how he'll bring stability, seriousness and class to Michigan State, Dantonio referred several times to what he calls the six areas of "Spartan life."

Displayed on a new placard at the entry to Michigan State's locker room, and printed on cards Spartans players carry, are those six areas: moral/spiritual, academics/career, personal/family, strength and conditioning, football, and community giving.

"You can't fool people, and already, anyone here who's listened to Mark Dantonio understands what we've got," said Joel Ferguson, the chairman of Michigan State's board of trustees. "It's not razzle-dazzle. It's class. And you can't teach class."

Safe to say Dantonio won't be slapping himself after any news conferences.

"It's pretty obvious if you say or do the wrong thing a lot will be made of it or it will be taken out of context," Dantonio said. "You have to keep your guard up, but you also have to be yourself. I am who I am. And every day, I ask myself, 'Am I conducting myself the right way in those six areas I ask my players to?'"

"You can't fool people, and already, anyone here who's listened to Mark Dantonio understands what we've got. It's not razzle-dazzle. It's class. And you can't teach class."
-- Joel Ferguson, Michigan State board of trustees

Previous Michigan State coaches -- and there have been nine since 1972 -- have lamented the school's proximity to Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Dantonio, in part because of previous success in East Lansing, wants to challenge those schools head-on, and that includes competing for recruits in Detroit that have long escaped.

"I'm sure I'll be judged by our results in those games," Dantonio said. "That's my hope. We've done it before. When I was here, we beat Ohio State two straight years. When I was here in 1999, we beat Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Florida. So it can be done. It's about a mind-set. We were picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten."

Izzo said having Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame to compete with would be akin to having Duke, North Carolina and UCLA in your basketball recruiting backyard.

"We're not kidding anybody here," Izzo said. "You don't beat them head-to-head on tradition. You have to out-recruit them. You find ways to get the talent to even out. And you do it by hitting the local areas hard. Mark's got the personality and the genuineness to get that done successfully."

When Michigan State opens spring football practice March 19, Dantonio plans to challenge his players with toughness drills such as the infamous "Oklahoma," in which the entire squad gathers around and watches two players go one-on-one.

Every practice will be a lead-up to the traditional spring game, which Dantonio plans to bring back after it was relegated to a practice under Smith. Another change to look for: Cincinnati ran on 62 percent of its offensive plays last season, compared with 48 at Michigan State.

"We can't get away from who we are," Ferguson said. "To win, you have to run and stop the run, and we haven't done that recently. This isn't reinventing the wheel. It's about Dantonio doing here the things he did at Ohio State and Cincinnati."

Dantonio says most casual observers can't identify the small techniques that separate the difference between, for example, a short or long gain. He says his team will be able to play "tough and old school" once it understands where to be and what to do.

"It's our responsibility to teach every 6-inch step and every power angle," Dantonio said. "Most football teams are well-coached. What we need is attention to all those little techniques that allow something good to happen, as opposed to something bad to happen. And if you're not coaching it, you're letting it happen."

It's uncertain whether Dantonio can bring Michigan State to the level of its nearest rivals. But it seems certain that he is a respected face of a program and a coach who has recruited and understands the Midwest -- not to mention someone who wants to win games and win over people.

"I want my players to always be able to pick up the phone and call me, wherever they're at," Dantonio said. "I hope Spartans will look at our team and realize that we always played with toughness, effort and passion. I want my players to graduate and go on to make a positive impact on society. And I hope we become Big Ten champions and one day, national champions."

Joe Schad is ESPN TV's national college football reporter.