The Michigan State Spartans broke into the exclusive club of elite college football programs in 2013, winning the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl Game on New Year’s Day, beating two very good football teams along the way in Ohio State and Stanford. The team in East Lansing has been one of the most consistent programs in all of FBS football, with six winning seasons in the past seven years, and beating in-state rival Michigan five of the past six seasons. It’s no accident that the Spartans’ return to prominence coincided with the hiring of Mark Dantonio in 2006. Dantonio has a reputation for a scowling demeanor on the sideline, as well as his membership in the Greg Popovich club of tough halftime interviews.
That said, Dantonio is beloved by his players and his assistant coaches, and after listening to him speak at the AFCA Convention in Indianapolis this week, it’s not difficult to see why.
Listening to Dantonio speak about his team and what’s important to the people under him, it was obvious that he’s a guy who means what he says. Standing in front of the crowd at the Indianapolis Convention Center, he said all the right things, and a large portion of his presentation contained things that most in attendance had heard plenty of times elsewhere. However, in this case, actions spoke louder than words. Admittedly, I haven’t been around the game nearly as long as a lot of other coaches I know, but Tuesday afternoon, I saw something I’ve never seen happen before at a football clinic.
After a quick introduction, and a few words about the season and the Rose Bowl Game, Coach Dantonio had each of his assistants stand up in the crowd, and spent at least 1-2 minutes on each of them, talking about how vital each of their individual efforts were in Michigan State’s historic season. Afterward, he also had his grad assistants and support staff in attendance stand up and be recognized, and he proceeded to follow that by asking for any of his former assistants who worked with him during his seven years at Michigan State to stand as well.
Gained even more respect for Mark Dantonio today. Spent 15 minutes recognizing each of his asst coaches, talked about their contributions.
— Alex Kirby (@AlexJKirby) January 15, 2014
The message was clear. To quote Dantonio, “It’s about the people.”
Again and again throughout his 50 minute presentation, all of his points kept coming back to the importance of the people you work with. “It’s important to understand that you didn’t get here on your own,” he said. “This didn’t just happen.”
Furthermore, Dantonio echoed what David Cutcliffe said the day before about forming real relationships with your players, with the goal of forming lifelong relationships with players, coaches, staff and the team as a whole at the top of his list of program goals.
Another interesting point he brought up was the process of actively empowering his assistant coaches whenever possible. “Do you let your assistant coaches speak to the team,” he asked the audience. “Empower them, put them in charge of something.” Allowing your assistant coaches and other staff members under you more freedom to make decisions and provide input will in turn create even more of an emotional and psychological investment in the team and what you’re trying to accomplish. A guy who believes that the head coach or coordinator values his opinion will work that much harder to prepare and look for ways the team can get an advantage on game day. Conversely, if you’re worried that you can’t trust the people under you to take responsibility, then you’ve hired the wrong people.
The concept of empowerment also extends to the players on the team. Just like Jimbo Fisher’s team, Michigan State also has a governing body of players called the Unity Council to handle internal discipline. The players vote five different times during the year for who they want to make decisions. Each assistant coach has a group of players that he meets with every week in a “Mentor Meeting.” The groups are not assigned, instead, the players choose who they would like to meet with, and this can also include graduate assistants and quality control staff members as well. The players come up with a list of things that are important to them, and each year, the team, led by the Unity Council, creates a mission statement. The Spartan players also have a way to evaluate the coaches by way of anonymous surveys. In East Lansing, player evaluations run both ways.
Clearly Dantonio, to borrow another tired expression, is a man who practices what he preaches. At Michigan State, words like empowerment and accountability are more than just empty buzzwords that are often thrown around at corporate motivational seminars, they are a way of life. The constant emphasis on applying these principles is a big reason why the Spartan football team finished #3 in the country this year.