CANTON, Ohio – For six years, Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State Spartans were winning but still chasing really big prizes and really big goals.
In their last two games last season, the Spartans ended Ohio State’s 24-game win streak and won the Big Ten championship — then went to the Rose Bowl and beat Stanford thoroughly.
At least 14 starters and a bunch more contributors return for 2014. A realigned Big Ten has the Spartans competing with their two biggest conference rivals, Ohio State and Michigan, in the East Division. Those two programs are officially chasing Michigan State.
Now, Dantonio’s team is the hunted.
"We’ve talked a lot to our players about handling success," Dantonio said Monday afternoon. "That’s been a big thing. We have to (remember) how we got to where we are right now. It’s not always easy to do. Your seniors have a lot to do with that. They have to show great leadership and have their best year. We got that last year’s (seniors) but it’s difficult."
A native of Zanesville, Ohio, Dantonio was in Canton to address the Hall of Fame Luncheon Club. Ironically, next week’s speaker is Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
It was Dantonio’s first appearance at the HOF Club — which draws sports figures from all kinds of backgrounds and Q-ratings — since 2007, just a few months after he took over at Michigan State. He had just taken the job after three years as a first-time head coach at Cincinnati, where an 18-17 record was good enough to get him the job at Michigan State, which at the time hadn’t been to a bowl game in four years.
He came back very much atop his game.
"The Rose Bowl, I don’t know if that’s ever going to leave you," Dantonio said. "It’s sort of like winning the national championship. It never leaves you, but you put it in the past and you’ve got to move on to your next goals. There’s a great deal of accomplishment and satisfaction and there’s contentment, too, in seeing people reach their goals — not just myself but in seeing the players reach their goals and that ultimate happiness.
"I saw that after the 2002 season (when he was defensive coordinator at Ohio State) and then this (2013) season. There are a lot of seasons in between there that are still (about) hard work, grinding it. We’ve learned how to grind."
Dantonio said he believes the Michigan State program is "on the verge of something even greater. You can feel that. It may not happen next year, it may not happen the year after that, but you can feel it. I truly believe the best is yet to come."
Dantonio couldn’t help but smile as he told the crowd that his team didn’t crack the top 25 last year until the ninth week of the season.
"I’ve learned after numerous years…it’s how you finish," he said. "You have to play well through November. We still have a mindset. It’s nothing personal but I don’t worry about where people pick us."
Dantonio wasn’t shy last December about saying his one-loss team deserved to be considered for the final BCS National Championship Game. Asked about the new four-team playoff that starts this year, he said his message to his players will be that they can neither worry about nor control which four teams make are selected for the playoff.
"We can control winning the Big Ten and getting to the Rose Bowl," he said. "That remains our mission. That’s all we can control…chase that and see what happens from there."
In Week Two in September, Michigan State goes to Oregon for the start of a home-and-home series. The nation will be watching.
"Yeah, that’s a good way to (avoid a hangover)," Dantonio said. "We’ll find out a little about ourselves as we go out to Oregon and play. It will be a great challenge for us. It’s something we’re looking forward to. We look forward to the challenge."
Jim Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard is gone to the NFL — and probably the first round of next month’s draft — and so are senior leaders on both lines and at linebacker. But the Spartans still have plenty of talent and the swagger to match, and Dantonio seems more than content with new spotlight and expectations last year’s success might bring.
Michigan State has won 42 games over the last four years. The last two wins have more people than ever paying attention.
"They’re long, hard years," Dantonio said. "All of them. It was seven years of working, seven years of dreaming. Last year, it culminated in winning the Rose Bowl.
"I had a dream. We had a dream and a plan. I can only be concerned with where we are. You’re always either getting better or falling back a little bit. Our players know that. We’ll see how they handle it."