CHICAGO – Mark Dantonio knew Monday wouldn’t be easy. Certainly nothing like how the Michigan State football coach felt a year ago when he walked into a hotel ballroom to face the assembled Big Ten media.
“A year ago at this time, we were the epitome of what you want to be in college football,” Dantonio said. “No problems, championship winning, graduating our players.”
Dantonio vowed that those standards remain, but he also acknowledged that his program must “re-establish” itself after a tumultuous stretch, on and off the field.
The once-charmed program careened into a ditch with a 3-9 record, including a 1-8 mark in the Big Ten. The program’s image also suffered serious damage with news of two sexual assault cases involving four players.
Suddenly, Dantonio’s program was cast in a different light.
“No matter where it’s at and who does it, it tarnishes the reputation, and the name and brand of our team,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “It’s our job as a team to put that behind us and rebuild our name.”
How the Spartans respond to crisis could change the narrative. Dantonio dismissed three players charged with sexual assault and did not renew the contract of a football staff member who reportedly attempted to investigate that case.
Dantonio said he reviewed different facets of his program — from educational programs to recruiting practices — and remains confident in his blueprint. Michigan State’s Board of Trustees gave Dantonio a public vote of confidence in June.
In addressing reporters at the unofficial start to a new season Monday, Dantonio used buzz words such as “re-established” and “re-centered” in describing his program’s mind-set.
“Sometimes you’re measured a little bit by how you handle the problems, not just in all the good times,” Dantonio said. “We’ve had some good times and those are easy to stand up there and sing the fight song and put a hat on. Not as easy when you are going through these type of things. I was hired to solve problems, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
That includes the on-field product, which was alarmingly dismal last season. The litany of reasons included a lack of pass rush, ineffective quarterback play and poor leadership.
The climb back to the top won’t be easy. The Spartans reside in the Big Ten Beast, er, East Division, which also includes Ohio State, Michigan and resurgent Penn State. Most predictions put Michigan State behind those three.
“Everything that you experience is a growing point for you,” Dantonio said. “You’re going to be in turmoil at times in your life. How you handle it will ultimately define you.”
That starts with distancing themselves from their mess. The Spartans prefer to focus on what comes next rather than revisit their 2016 nightmare.
“Right now I have a very good feeling about our football team,” Dantonio said. “The future is bright. We just have to inch by inch take it back.”