One of the best things about being a member of the FWAA (Football Writers Association of America) is having a say-so in some pretty prestigious awards — The Outland, The Nagurski and the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year.
A couple of weeks ago, all FWAA members, including myself, received their award nomination ballots. We were asked at that time to nominate someone for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award. My nomination at that time was Baylor head coach Art Briles.
A few weeks later, after the conference championships concluded, I received the list of eight finalists (Baylor’s Art Briles, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, UCF’s George O’Leary, Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Stanford’s David Shaw) and was asked to rank them 1-8.
Even though I had initially nominated Briles, it was Dantonio’s name that went to the top of the list.
Now you can chalk that up to me being a Big Ten homer if you like, but the fact of the matter is, as the season wore on, Dantonio climbed his way to the top of the coaching ranks.
Unlike Briles and Baylor, Dantonio’s Spartans started the season unranked. They didn’t help themselves on that front by losing to Notre Dame early. After that, however, Dantonio righted the ship on the back of the nation’s best defense and did what he needed to do to close out a perfect Big Ten season that culminated with a win over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the title game.
Now I say “did what he needed to do” for a reason. There are two types of winning coaches in my opinion: aggressive and conservative. Aggressive coaches bring the fight to the other team and try to do things to set the tempo. A conservative coach lets the other team throw haymakers or do whatever it is they do, waiting for the mistake that his team can capitalize off of.
Dantonio’s dominating defense allowed him to be conservative for most of the season. The Spartan Defense — a.k.a. the Spartan Dawgs — were good enough to keep most teams out of the end zone and most games within reach. The result was Michigan State’s offense being able to carry out a vanilla-by-design gameplan most weeks, leaning heavily on running back Jeremy Langford’s legs and quarterback Connor Cook’s efficiency.
Against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, Dantonio flipped the script, opting to be more aggressive on offense. The shock and awe paid off, as the 17 points the Spartans rolled up early on proved to be the difference. Rather than let his offense plug away waiting for the defense to give them field position, Dantonio had Cook taking shots down the field. This took me by surprise and I can imagine it had the Buckeyes surprised as well.
I’ve been pretty hard on Dantonio in the past, often criticizing him for not being prepared or having too simple of a gameplan. I watched him grow as a coach this year, understanding where his strengths are and knowing when and when not to open up his offense. I truly believe that one of the biggest reasons the Michigan State Spartans are preparing for the Rose Bowl is that Dantonio minimized mistakes by limiting unnecessary risks.
Sometimes the best coaches are those who do the work during the week to prepare the team and sit back on gameday and let the players decide the outcome — doing everything they can in the meantime to keep them out of bad situations.
That is what Mark Dantonio did this season and that is why I voted for him as the 2013 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year.
The 2013 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award winner will be announced on Monday, Dec. 16, with official presentation of the award scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 4, in Newport Beach, Calif.
BY J.P. SCOTT ON DECEMBER 12, 2013
Follow @KIAFootball on Twitter.