You will not find many Michigan Wolverines out there that are going to sit back and feel sorry for the situation that the Michigan State football program finds itself in. This includes me, but I would be lying if I said I was not frustrated at the current state of the rivalry.
Mark Dantonio cashing a check and retiring right before National Signing Day will do down as one of the biggest snake moves in the history of the Big Ten. When faced with a tough decision — either adapt or leave when the time was right and do right by the university — he took his ball and went home just weeks after accepting a $4.3 million longevity bonus from MSU Athletics.
Make no mistake about it, Michigan State moving forward is in a better spot to evolve than it was with him still at the helm. After a College Football Playoff appearance in 2015, the Spartans followed it up with 3-9, 10-3, and consecutive 7-6 seasons to out the Dantonio era. It’s pretty clear now that the 2017 campaign was fool’s gold as the program’s offensive output and defensive aptitude declined in each season.
Whether he has fully lived up to expectations or not, Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor in Dec. 2014 sent shockwaves throughout the conference, but perhaps none more so than up the road in East Lansing. The rise of Dantonio’s program coincided with the worst period of Michigan football in recent history. That’s not to take away from what the Spartans were able to accomplish under him, but the facts are facts. At the very least, Michigan was going to once again be competently coached and unwilling to be bullied by anyone, let alone their in-state rivals.
From 2010-15, Dantonio ran a program that — despite twisting the knife every opportunity he got against the Wolverines — I respected the hell out of him. They were tough. They were physical. They were poised. And it all stemmed from a hatred of Michigan. And while some people call it a fluke run because Michigan was down as a program, keep in mind Dantonio got the best of Urban Meyer and Ohio State a few times.
When Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, there was a snapshot in time where fans felt as beaten down by the MSU rivalry as the Ohio State one. Under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, Michigan lost seven of eight games to the Spartans with the lone victory coming in a 12-10 barnburner in Ann Arbor in 2012. This rivalry needed some juice, and boy, did Harbaugh and Dantonio ever deliver on it. The two would spar through social media and press conferences and the fire between the two teams was back to a spot it had not been in a while.
Dantonio was able to take two of the first three in the series, the first of which came on a last-second punt block return at the Big House. That moment is about all that Spartan fans have to hold onto these days, as Michigan has won the last two in the series by a combined score of 55-21.
As Harbaugh and Michigan continued to build, the talent on Dantonio’s roster began to wane. It was clear that something had to change, but MSU elected to empower its head coach to keep employing his friends instead of modernizing its offensive and defensive attack. That sort of loyalty and stubbornness is what would ultimately cost him his job.
While never a recruiting power, MSU failed to capitalize on its trip to the College Football Playoff, then it stopped developing talent on the offensive side of the ball, period.
And this is what has bothered me over the years about what the national media — and even local media — has said about Harbaugh, who has shuffled assistants and handed the keys to his offense to a young coach with new ideas in the last few years.
“He’s too stubborn.”
“He’s too loyal.”
“He’ll never change and he burns people out around him.”
“They’ll never fire him and he’ll run that program into the ground.”
Despite all of his transgressions, which also multiple legal issues with players within the program and other off-the-field issues, MSU was willing to ride or die with him until the very end. It seemed slim that they would ever actually fire him and was going to allow him to go out on his own terms.
In exchange for that loyalty, Dantonio pulled the rug out from under them and had the audacity to call his farewell a “celebration.” Faced with a rebuild, he took his money and the easy way out.
Michigan State needed to make a splash and after overtures with Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, MSU was able to make a second push late in the process to get Mel Tucker to come over from Colorado. By all accounts a good recruiter, the administration is giving him the staff and budget resources they think he needs to compete. But a long and arduous rebuild has gotten even tougher.
What followed the start of the Tucker era in East Lansing was an unprecedented global pandemic that canceled spring football and impacted everyone’s ability to recruit. The one thing Tucker was supposed to bring was prowess on the trail. Without the ability to bring in kids for visits and go on the road with his staff, any legs to a quick infusion of talent into the program was cut out from beneath them.
Nobody is going to sit here and weep for the Spartans, though. Not on this website and certainly not in the space that we occupy.
The Spartans officially bottomed out last weekend in Tucker’s debut after three weeks of padded practices with a new staff and concepts and seven turnovers. From this perspective, that lays right at the feet of Dantonio, who actually had the gall to be there in attendance to watch it happen. His shadow literally cast over a program that has one of the biggest — if not the biggest — holes it will ever have to climb out of.
I write all of this today because as weird as it sounds, I’m as frustrated with the state of MSU Football as some of its fans are. The rivalry with Michigan has all of the pieces in place to be an Iron Bowl-type of rivalry in the Big Ten. The hatred that Harbaugh and Dantonio had for each other was palpable and fueled the fire in this showdown even in the last few years when these games got less competitive. Even when MSU was not as talented, you knew you were in for a fight.
That might still be the case going into this weekend, but I feel mostly nothing about this matchup other than the desire to watch Michigan hand down its beating and move on to next week.
I don’t hate Mel Tucker right now. I just feel sorry for him.
Dantonio had to go, but he railroaded any attempt for his successor to come in and, well, succeed. And in that, it’s going to take time for this game to had the juice it once had even a few seasons ago.