Five Leading Candidates to Replace Mark Dantonio at Michigan State


On some levels, the retirement announcement Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio made yesterday was surprising. After all, it’s a very strange time in the calendar to be stepping away from college football. On other levels though, this was totally expected.

In September, rumors that Dantonio was set to retire at the end of the year ran rampant. It was a poorly kept secret. In October, Coach D. lashed out at a reporter who asked him about his future with the program, and the exchange conveyed that something was really up, just behind the scenes.


Dantonio’s vague announcement, in which he said he’ll still be working for the school, just in a different capacity,  comes just one day after former Michigan State recruiting director Curtis Blackwell filed an update to his ongoing lawsuit alleging that Dantonio and MSU committed multiple NCAA recruiting violations.

Blackwell said Dantonio helped arrange jobs for multiple high-level recruits and took Blackwell on recruiting visits, which is against NCAA rules because Blackwell was not an on-field coach. At his news conference yesterday, Dantonio adamantly claimed that the lawsuit and the allegations within have nothing to do with his decision to step down.

He, along with Athletic Director Bill Beekman, claim the allegations are false. Dantonio decided to walk away on the day before National Signing Day which is interesting. The move also comes just weeks after his contract triggered a $4.3 million retention bonus, so that is even more interesting! After all, Beekman, back in December,  publicly denied claims that the final season for Dantonio would be 2019.

Meanwhile Beekman also said yesterday that he’s been preparing for the day that Dantonio would be stepping down the entire time that he’s had his job.

We learned last night that Dantonio would now transition to a ambassador job at State, and he may even teach a class on the East Lansing campus. The coaching search is underway, here in February! But it’s likely that MSU has been preparing for this moment for awhile.

Let’s take a look at the leading candidates to replace the all time winningest coach in Michigan State history.


Pat Narduzzi, Head Coach, Pitt

Hiring Narduzzi would essentially be the Michigan State version of Paul Chryst’s career path at Wisconsin. Narduzzi was the Spartans’ defensive coordinator from 2007-14, and he was ready for a head job, but it wasn’t open in E.L.

So he took over at Pitt where he’s gone a solid, but not spectacular 36-29 record since 2015. The highlight of the Narduzzi era of Panthers football was the ACC Coastal Division title in 2018. Chryst was ready to take over Wisconsin when Bret Bielema left for Arkansas. However, the gig went to Gary Andersen instead, so Chryst went to Pitt instead. Then Andersen left for Oregon State, so the time and space was right for Chryst.

Mike Tressel, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan State

Dantonio led MSU to a College Football Playoff berth, a Rose Bowl win and three Big Ten titles. To get back to that level, if that level of excellence is coming back soon, the Spartans need to go with a guy who knows the terrain and the culture.

That would be either the guy mentioned above, or Tressel, who is the new interim coach. Beekman didn’t say whether or not Tressel is being considered for the full-time gig. He should be though as he’s the architect of those dominant MSU defenses that defined the program’s identity.

Luke Fickell, Head Coach, Cincinnati

Federal mandate requires that Fickell be included in any and all Big Ten coaching candidate articles. A former play and assistant at Ohio State, Fickell was the program’s interim coach in 2011, leading the Buckeyes to a 6-7 mark amidst investigation and sanction messiness. Cincinnati is 26-13 over the three year span that Fickell has been in charge.

Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Texas A&M

He does not have any FBS head-coaching experience, but he’s the hot coordinator de jour right now in the coaching carousel. He has lots of impressive stops on his resume, including Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M.

Clark Lea, Defensive Coordinator, Notre Dame

More Notre Dame connections! He’s been defensive coordinator in South Bend for the last two seasons after previous stops in the Pac 12, ACC and MAC. The Fighting Irish have gone 23-3 while he’s been leading the D.

Lea was also reportedly in the mix for the Boston College job.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports, which is partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC and Chicago on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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