God and the Gridiron By Todd Schultz

Mark Dantonio said precisely what long-suffering Spartan fans wanted to hear when he was introduced in November 2006 as Michigan State University's new head football coach.

Dantonio promised toughness, pledged to land top high-school recruits and cast a vision of winning championships. Steely and serious, he looked and sounded like the stereotypical Big Ten football coach.

But Dantonio's first press conference also strayed from the script long enough to provide a surprising peek into his soul. He stared into the cameras and, without prompting, declared his relationship with God was more important to him than winning games.

“I'll stand up here today and tell you that my faith is very, very important to me,” Dantonio said at the time.

Today's college football coaches live in a win-or-else world where the paychecks and the pressure to produce are astronomical. Rabid fans, influential boosters and cash-strapped school presidents all want victories – and they want them now.

Dantonio, who earns $1.1 million annually at Michigan State, wants to win as badly as anyone. He knows the scoreboard on Saturday afternoon will ultimately determine his success with the Spartans

But Dantonio also keeps the pigskin in perspective. His Catholic faith keeps him focused on Christ, his family and the long-term welfare of his players and assistant coaches. It's those relationships – even more than the results on the field – that make Dantonio passionate about his high-profile profession.

“Coaching is my ministry,” Dantonio said in February. “It can't be just about wins and losses. The intense scrutiny that comes with this job – it's going to be there. I understand that. At the same time, it's got to be about how we can get our players to move forward with their lives and do things correctly off the field. You're able to make a difference as a coach.”

Dantonio, 51, was raised as a Catholic in Zanesville, Ohio, where he grew up attending weekly Mass with his parents, Justin and Maryann, and his three brothers.
Faith was as much a part of life as football for Dantonio, who earned all-league and all-state honors as a player at Zanesville High and went on to play at the University of South Carolina.

“Faith just always was there,” says Dantonio, who earned three letters as a defensive back at South Carolina. “It was there at a young age. During college, I strayed this way and that way. But whenever I went to church, I always felt a sense of calmness that I'd be able to solve any problems.”

Dantonio can't pinpoint the moment he accepted Christ. But he knows his spiritual journey – and his life – took a key turn in 1985 while he was working as a secondary coach at Akron. That's when he met his wife Becky, an Akron native who was home after attending Ohio State.

“That's when I started looking more at the big picture,” he says. “I started learning more about my walk.”

The Dantonios have grown together in their faith through the birth of their daughters – Kristen, 14, and Lauren, 12 – and a long list of stops on the college coaching trail, including successful stints as an assistant at MSU and Ohio State and his first head coaching job at Cincinnati.

Mark considers Becky – who converted to Catholicism during his six years as a Spartan assistant – his most influential spiritual mentor. Married in 1990, the couple prays together every morning and, win or lose on Saturday, worships at St. Martha Parish in Okemos on Sundays.

“His faith was always important to him and a relationship (with God) was there,” says Becky, who introduced her husband at his first MSU press conference. “(But) it really took off after we got married. There's a time in life where you decide what your faith is going to be and it's no longer the faith of your parents.”

College football is big business to universities and a religion to many fans. But does God really care who wins and loses these games?

“I don't think so,” Dantonio says, laughing. “But there's probably people praying on both sides.”

The Michigan State faithful have prayed for a savior for the better part of 40 years. The perennially mediocre Spartans haven't won a national title since 1966 or a Big Ten Conference crown since 1990. They last reached the Rose Bowl in the 1987 season.

Enter Dantonio, who was 18-17 in three seasons at Cincinnati before landing the MSU job. Dantonio served as an assistant coach at Michigan State from 1995-2000 and was thrilled when offered the school's top job. But before accepting, he gathered Becky, Kristen and Lauren to pray – and to vote.

“This was a family decision,” Dantonio said. “It was not a decision made by one person. Everybody had one vote and one vote could have canceled us.”

In the end, the choice was unanimous.

“The girls kept telling me it was my dream job,” Dantonio says with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Hey, it's got to be your dream, too. You're the ones who are living it.'”

Dantonio's dream is to restore gridiron glory in East Lansing. Winning championships is definitely on his to-do list.

In fact, it's No. 6. Dantonio says five other priorities come first for his players, his coaches and himself:


1. Making the right decisions as people
2. Family
3. Graduation
4. Giving back to the community
5. Getting bigger, faster and stronger

“You can't get to a championship without getting to the others first,” Dantonio says with a shrug.

For Dantonio, faith is as fundamental to football success as blocking, tackling and toughness. He's attended weekly Bible study at every stop. As the defensive coordinator at Ohio State (where he helped lead the Buckeyes to the 2002 national title), Dantonio even took breaks from the frenzied game planning for arch-rival Michigan to meet with God.

“I came out of there with a calmness and perspective that it's not all about what happens in that stadium,” Dantonio recalls. “It has to go beyond that, otherwise you're not going to be a very happy person because you can't be on top forever.”

When Dantonio formed his coaching staff at Cincinnati, he took a spiritual inventory of the assistants he was interviewing.

“I asked them where they were at (in their relationships with God),” said Dantonio, who brought most of the same coaches to MSU. “The accountability (for coaches) has to go beyond the accountability to me. I want coaches to care about kids. That's important to me.”

So is caring for his coaches. Though they log long hours during the season, Dantonio encourages his assistants to make time to attend recitals, ballgames and other can't-miss events for their children.

Dantonio spent his spring driving to Cincinnati to see Becky and his daughters, who finished school before the family moved to East Lansing. The Dantonios will be together this fall when Mark leads Michigan State on to the field. They trust God to be with them.

“He's given us all the good things in our life,” Becky Dantonio said. “He's guiding us. He brought us to MSU and I don't think he brought us here to fail.”

Where to find spiritual support in college

Most major universities have a Catholic presence on campus in the form of a Newman Center and/or a student parish. Often, even smaller schools have a campus minister. In the Diocese of Lansing, there are student parishes at:

The University of Michigan – St. Mary Student Parish, 331 Thompson St., Ann Arbor, 734.663.0557, www.stmarystudentparish.org

Michigan State University – St. John Student Parish, 327 MAC Ave., East Lansing, 517.337.9778, www.stjohnmsu.org

Eastern Michigan University – Holy Trinity Student Parish, 511 W. Forest, Ypsilanti, 734.482.1400, www.catholicsoncampus.org