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How Mark Dantonio quietly built a powerhouse in East Lansing

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 12 Owners Issue. Subscribe today!

LANSING, MICHIGAN, IS still an Oldsmobile town.

The good folks here build Chevrolets now. Not just any Chevys, mind you. Camaros. They also manufacture SUVs for Buick and GMC. The preferred vehicle, though, remains a brand name that hasn't put a new car on the road since April 29, 2004. That's when the last, burgundy Alero rolled off the line at the assembly plant down on the Grand River founded by Ransom Olds himself.

More than a decade later, five short miles away in East Lansing, Oldsmobiles surround Spartan Stadium like a moat on game days. Parking lots are dotted with 88s, 98s and 442s. The PA announcements are of another era: "Michigan license plate THR-892, you left your headlights on. It's a green Oldsmobile Bravada ..."

Even this particular game day has the feel of the old days -- or perhaps a new era, depending on your perspective. It's half an hour before the noon kickoff against Air Force, and the Spartans are just a week removed from a 31-28 win over then-No. 7 Oregon. A 40-something who refers to himself as Big Bill is standing in a Chestnut Road parking lot alongside his Lansing-born automobile, holding court to the encouragement of the green-and-white masses as they march toward the gates.

"Mine's starting to rust out," he proudly declares, pointing to an '87 Calais, silver with a Sparty green interior. "But both my parents worked on these cars, and I'll drive it until the damn thing catches fire. Those big Detroit brands are flashier. But Oldsmobile was born in Lansing. It's old. It's Olds. But it's ours, and we don't give a damn what you think. That's how we do it here."

Big Bill is not MSU coach Mark Dantonio, but he might as well be. Big Bill's Calais isn't literally MSU football, but figuratively it is. And Big Bill's defiant jab toward Detroit and the brand names wasn't necessarily a shot at the big blue school in Ann Arbor. But yeah, it kind of was.

After decades of Big Ten irrelevance and too many Saturdays spent telling stories of dusty national title trophies (the newest of the six MSU claims is from Duffy Daugherty's fabled '66 squad), the Spartans are squarely in the middle of the College Football Playoff conversation. That might come as a surprise, but it shouldn't. Since 2010, MSU has won 11 games four times, including two Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl and a Cotton Bowl. The past two seasons have ended with top-five AP rankings, the first since '65 and '66. After their 35-21 win over Air Force, the Spartans will ascend to No. 2, where they will remain following a 30-10 win over Central Michigan, with only Purdue and a trip to Rutgers in their way before the bitter rivalry game at Michigan on Oct. 17. Five weeks later, they travel to Ohio State.

Yet despite the recent success, MSU undoubtedly continues to trail those two in the public eye and in the view of recruits. The Buckeyes have been on the rise since Urban Meyer's first season in 2012, as well as No. 1 in the polls since winning the inaugural playoff. As of late September, Meyer also had the No. 1 recruiting class for 2016. Meanwhile, the Wolverines, who cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time since Oct. 27, 2013, are ranked No. 1 in magazine covers, thanks to the arrival of Jim Harbaugh, who has catapulted UM from 40th in the '15 recruiting ranks to No. 10 this year, two spots ahead of Big Bill's team.

So, yes, Ohio State and Michigan are Chevy and Ford. Michigan State is Oldsmobile. And the Spartans dig being Oldsmobile.

"That's how we do it around here," says fifth-year senior safety RJ Williamson.

The three-star recruit out of Dayton, Ohio, didn't get an offer from either of the two Big Ten tentpole teams, instead signing on to be a part of Dantonio's program-changing 2011 class, a group anchored by QB Connor Cook and defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas, a Detroit native and the Spartans' lone signee ranked in the ESPN 150 by RecruitingNation.

"People might buy more T-shirts from another school," Williamson says. "The media might send more cameras to cover another team. Other teams might get more votes for the Top 25. But around here, we don't let that get us down. We'd rather operate as the underdog. That's fuel."

DANTONIO GRINS WHEN he hears the underdog question. At least as much as he ever grins.

Smiles aren't his thing. Coach Dan face-splitters are so scarce that the beat reporters have taken it on as a challenge to elicit the expression whenever Dantonio is on the podium. But right now, just moments after defeating Air Force, perhaps Dantonio grins because he thinks an out-of-towner is trying to set him up.

"Trust me. We don't go out of our way to sell the underdog, woe-is-me, chip-on-the-shoulder thing here," the 59-year-old says. "If anything, I feel the complete opposite. I fully expect us to win every time we walk onto the field. That's not an underdog."

Dantonio would know a 'dog when he sees one. He arrived in East Lansing in 2007 and took over a program that hadn't posted a winning record in three years, had reached eight wins just once in seven years and hadn't won an outright Big Ten title since 1987. MSU's lone marquee postseason invite in the interim had been a Citrus Bowl victory over Florida after the '99 season, when Dantonio was defensive backs coach under then-head coach Nick Saban, who left for LSU before the bowl was even played. It was no coincidence that Saban's move came after the Orange Bowl had passed on the Spartans for the Wolverines, a team that had the same number of wins but had lost head-to-head. "We were never No. 1 -- that was always Michigan," Saban said after his departure.

The next seven years were yoked by that inferiority complex (just two winning seasons), which was crystallized in 2007 when Dantonio faced Michigan for the first time at the helm. UM won 28-24 on the road, its sixth straight win in the series, and Wolverines running back Mike Hart gave what has become the rivalry-defining speech. "Sometimes you let your little brother get excited when you're playing basketball and let him get the lead," he said. "Then you just come back and take it back." Lost now to the erosion of time is Hart's more biting follow-up about the self-loathing in East Lansing: "What can I say? If they think that, I think that."

Nearly every state in the union has its own collegiate civil war, the prestigious flagship school that seemingly adorns every bumper on every highway, typically followed by the land-grant stepchild burdened by an extra "State" or "Tech."

"The question is always, 'What are you going to do with that?'" says retired coach Jackie Sherrill, who led Pitt against Penn State, Texas A&M against Texas and Mississippi State against Ole Miss. "Are you going to use it as an excuse to go 7-5, screaming, 'We don't have what they have!' Or are you going to say, 'OK, you all think we can't do this, well watch us!' "

Dantonio's choice has been clear. That crystallized inferiority complex? Consider it smashed. Since Hart's below-the-belt jab, State is 6-1 against Big Bro, a record relished by a staff packed with decidedly non-Wolverines. When Dantonio was hired away from Cincinnati in 2006, he brought a team of coaches who had followed him to Cincy from Ohio State, where he won a national championship as defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel. They had the shared experience of success at a school with all the advantages and at a school without them, as well as the perks and slights that come at both.

And while nothing about Dantonio's approach has been flashy, his offense and his defense are deceptively complicated. "You have to defend everything," says Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks surrendered 31 points and 389 yards in their Week 2 loss to MSU. "They can go to two tight ends and smash it, or they can go five-wide empty and throw it."

Even with the loss of eight-year defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to the top job at Pitt, the unit is relatively unchanged, pressing the line of scrimmage in the mold of Jimmy Johnson's old Miami 3-4.

"If you want to win consistently, everything about your program needs to be consistent," says co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, nephew of Jim and co-worker of Dantonio's since 2002. When Narduzzi left, Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett, a former MSU All-America safety who's been with Dantonio since '04, made the transition nearly seamless. "The way we practice, the way we coach, the way the players practice and grow," says Mike Tressel, "there's an environment here that keeps everyone's head down and focused. One day you look up and all that work starts paying off."

Dantonio's mantra of loyalty (many of his staffers have been together nine seasons) extends to his roster: MSU's two-deep includes 41 players in at least their third year in the program, with
15 fifth-year seniors. It is an extended development system nearly nonexistent among top-tier programs. Redshirting isn't shrugged off as a non-option for recruits hoping to go three-and-out; it is treated as a necessity for incubating pros. And when the team does have to rely on youth, as it has this year at tailback with redshirt freshman Madre London and true freshman LJ Scott, the army of veterans helps smooth out the learning curves.

But this year's corps seems particularly special. Dantonio's 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes didn't rank in the top 25, yet MSU has produced Cook, who is draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.'s No. 1 senior QB; Calhoun, who leads the team with 4.5 sacks and would've likely been a midround pick had he come out; junior tight end Josiah Price, who switched from defensive end and had four TDs on just seven catches through three games; junior linebacker Riley Bullough, who leads the team in tackles; and junior offensive tackle Jack Conklin, a former walk-on who is a potential first-round pick.

But Sparty's unexpected superstar appears to be senior wideout Aaron Burbridge, who patiently posted just one 100-yard game over his first three years before opening 2015 with three straight, including the most acrobatic catch of the season so far, a full-extension, tiptoe-down, pylon-bending 28-yard touchdown against Air Force, one of three for him on the day.

The MSU coaches don't complain about working uphill against the brands when it comes to recruiting. They play it to their advantage in living rooms. Dantonio quickly rattles off unheralded preps he signed and molded into pros. Trae Waynes, for example, who was a three-star recruit in the 2011 class and went No. 11 to the Vikings this past April. Or Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and Bengals corner Darqueze Dennard, both two-star recruits in 2010 who chose Dantonio because he gave them their only big-school offer.

"Practice to me was harder than the games," says Dennard of his maturation at MSU. "We're hitting through the whole week. And then you get to the game and you're used to it. Connor Cook, his redshirt year, he was the scout-team QB -- and it was live on him. So he turned into the player that he is because he saw a top-five defense. It's just the way [Dantonio] runs the program. He doesn't care about how many stars. If you can play, you play."

When Dantonio enters a recruit's living room these days, he doesn't need to do nearly as much selling. Four straight bowl wins, including the dramatic 20-point, fourth-quarter comeback to beat Baylor on New Year's Day, speaks for him.

But don't let Dantonio fool you. Hart's slight still fires him up. As he quipped on signing day back in February, swearing it wasn't aimed at his new colleague in Ann Arbor, "We're not selling hope here. We're selling results."

AFTER THE WIN over Air Force, Cook and a handful of standout Spartans enter the Tom and Lupe Izzo Family Media Room. They have just come from their brand-new locker room down the hall, part of a $5.5 million upgrade to the Duffy Daugherty Football Building. None of this was here when Cook's 2011 class arrived. In fact, when Hart delivered that now-infamous quote, he was in a trailer set up for media interviews on the north end of Spartan Stadium, which underwent its own $24.5 million makeover that wrapped last year. But Cook & Co. hope what they've helped build will turn out to be greater than just sparkling facilities.

"They used to say we couldn't win the conference, and we have," Cook says. "They used to say we couldn't win the Rose Bowl, and we have. They said we couldn't beat Michigan. But we will still have a chip on our shoulder, no matter what."

Pressed about his coach's comments that the underdog mentality was a thing of the past, Cook responds with an equally incredulous grin: "Did you see our summer weight room shirts?"

Sure enough, printed right on the shoulder is a rendering of a Michigan State helmet -- 
sitting in the center of a poker chip. A couple of players admit that they continued to wear those shirts under their pads in August, leading with their chip shoulder so it would collide first with the blocking sleds.

But just how long can a program pretend to be underrated and overlooked when it's receiving first-place votes in the AP poll?

"We've still got stuff to move around here," says Williamson, a bit breathless after an interception and 64-yard scoop-and-score. He catches the eye of Bullough and gives his fellow upperclassman a head nod and a wink before continuing. "The goal isn't to be No. 1 right now, though, is it? The goal is to be No. 1 in January. They can't ignore you then, can they?"