Mark Dantonio flashed back to the late fall of 2006, shortly after he’d been hired as Michigan State’s football coach. He’d come to the Detroit Free Press Football Awards Banquet to help honor the All-State Dream Team and to get to know some of his fellow coaches from around the state.
That night at the Dearborn Inn still sticks with him. He revisited it Sunday night as guest speaker at the annual awards banquet, in the same room to the same audience.
“There was an air of disrespect for Michigan State football. And I sat here and I listened to whoever was master of ceremony that particular day disrespect Michigan State,” Dantonio said Sunday night at the annual awards ceremony. “And I can tell you this — at that point in time, when I got up there to talk, I said we would measure up. And I think we’ve been able to do that with a lot of hard work.”
On Sunday, Dantonio sat next to Mark Hollis, who received the Distinguished American Award from the Free Press and the State of Michigan Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame. They whispered and chatted like brothers at the dinner table.
Their third-ranked Spartans are two wins away from a national championship. MSU will play No. 2 Alabama on Dec. 31 in the College Football Playoff national semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic in Arlington, Texas.
But the two also talked a lot about what they’ve built at MSU in the past nine years.
“At Michigan State, we have a few things that we just hang on to. One is family,” Hollis told the 23 All-State football players and others while accepting his award. “It’s expanding your family every day, bringing people into your life that can have a positive impact. It’s preparation for what’s next, what’s around the corner as you play football — but more importantly, as you prepare for your life, what you’re going to do to become a contributing member of society.”
Tony Versaci, a former MSU assistant coach and the president of the state’s NFF chapter, said he remembered that first year when Dantonio came to the banquet. Dantonio promised him then that he would attend every year. Other than last year — a recruiting dark period in which college coaches were not permitted to attend, per NCAA rules — the Spartan coach has been back for every banquet.
Versaci introduced Dantonio as “hopefully the coach of the national champion Michigan State Spartans,” but defined the coach more by his traits as a father, husband and friend.
“Coaches win because of discipline, character, convictions, honesty and, of course, strategy. That’s important to all coaches,” said Versaci, the former Dearborn Divine Child head coach. “We’re all very aware of the incredible record that Mark has had at Michigan State. But you know, it kind of pales in comparison to the type of person he is.”
Dantonio delivered many of the key phrases he uses with his own team, telling the high school athletes about dreaming big, handling adversity, overachieving and “driving forward.” He talked of “developing relationships” and about everyone having their own “story to tell.”
Like Hollis, remembering their family — blood relatives and extended — also was Dantonio’s key theme for the players as they prepare to embark on the next phase of their football careers.
“You’re writing your story as you go,” Dantonio said. “But as you’re finalizing your high school career, you gotta think back to that coach, that parent, that grandparent, that aunt, that uncle, that brother — that someone who was influential in your life to try and bring you to this point.
“Because we don’t get here by ourselves. It just doesn’t happen by ourselves.”