December 4, 2015
THE MODERATOR: We'll ask Coach Dantonio to make an opening statement, then go to questions.
COACH DANTONIO: First of all, we're very excited about the opportunity to represent the eastside of our division, of our conference here in Indianapolis. It's an opportunity. We've been down here three times in the last five years. Tremendous environment and atmosphere, everything you want in a college football game. What we've expected and what we've come to find out.
Very proud of our football team, our staff, our players, all we've been able to accomplish this year. We fought through adversity, we moved in the right direction. This was our goal, goal number one, to get to this point and place at this point in time.
So again, this is an opportunity to me to be here with special people at a special place at a very, very special time.
I'll take some questions and we'll go from there.
Q. Mark, since you arrived at Michigan State, you've made it more about relationships than football. What is special about this team relationship-wise to be on this ride with them?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, when you really look at our football team, we have people from all over really. But the 2011 team that came here, we had quite a few of our redshirt seniors, we have I think 17 scholarship seniors, more than that, 21, 22, 23 players, so many of those guys made the trip down here in 2011.
It's about stability. It's about relationships. It's about seeing them go from an 18-year-old coming here wide-eyed, some of them sitting in the stands because of the numbers we're restricted to on the sidelines. Now we see them here as a senior coming back for this opportunity. It's gratifying to see them grow as people. That's really what we've tried to do.
I think college football, and I'm not naive to the size and the scope of it, what's going on in college football, all the money, all the advertisement, all those different things that go along with it. But I do think it's a time in people's lives when you grow from an 18-year-old young man to a 22-, 23- year-old person. There's a lot of experience in there they've gained.
We've always been about that moment or that trip from 18 to 22. That's what he would tried to do here.
Q. Mark, oftentimes people will look at a school and say that's predominantly a football school or basketball school. At Michigan State, you can't say that. What goes into that that makes two programs thrive so well? Do you two feed off one another in your success?
COACH DANTONIO: We definitely feed off each other. When I came back, I was an assistant at Michigan State in the late '90s, when I had the opportunity to come back as the head football coach, I saw at that time a championship basketball program that had been resilient really from the time I got there in '96. '99 they hit the national championship and all that type of thing, 2000 maybe. So I saw it grow and I saw it happen.
So there were great examples of those things happening when I looked across the intermural fields to our basketball arena. When I went and saw practice, I saw players communicating with each other, trusting in each other, attention to detail. Really focused, competitiveness at a very high degree. When I went to basketball games, I watched our basketball team perform. We didn't always lead throughout the entire basketball contest, we would make plays down the stretch that would allow us to win a basketball game.
I saw that composure, that ability to handle adversity and win down the stretch. We try to emulate that as we move through.
Tom and I are very good friends. We were good friends when I left, we're good friends now. He's a great example of a guy in a position of leadership that is excelling really at all levels with his relationships with his players and obviously also winning basketball games.
Q. Coach, do you feel this game, essentially being a play-in game for the playoffs, on top of Ohio State's national championship run, has changed the perception of the Big Ten nationally?
COACH DANTONIO: I've always thought there's a lot of parity in college football. My feeling, I've sat up here at Big Ten Media Days, the coaching in the Big Ten Conference are as fine as anyplace in America. I tell our players all the time, we have world class athletes at Michigan State and elsewhere throughout the Big Ten. But you got to find the inches. Inevitably obviously this year this conference has found some inches.
So you find a number of teams up there in the top 10, a number in the top 20, 25. It's a very competitive conference as is every conference in America.
I'm not here to say this is the best conference. I'm saying at this point in time we're excelling. I really think there's a lot of parity in college football and it's across the country, not just in a conference.
Q. You mentioned this is your third time here in five years. What does that mean to you, compared to Iowa, hasn't been here before?
COACH DANTONIO: Really to me I don't know if that gives us an edge other than maybe we've sort of been here. But it speaks to our program's stability. It's more a program statement I think in terms of our lasting success rather than one here and done, not being back. That's what I was speaking to.
The people that came here as true freshmen saw people play like Keshawn Martin, Kirk Cousins, Le'Veon Bell, people like that. Now they're in that position to make a name for themselves. You say Shilique Calhouns, Jack Allens, Connor Cooks at this point in time. I think it's a program statement in general. But we've been here before, but this is still goal number one for us.
Q. Mark, what all do you think went into Connor Cook's decision to come back for his final season? What kind of growth have you seen from him this year?
COACH DANTONIO: I think when I talked to him, it was basically about doing things like this, having opportunities to possibly go beyond where we were last year and win a championship. He wanted to win another championship, were the exact words that he said to me.
He likes college. He likes the college environment. He likes his teammates. So really, I mean, he was pretty grounded, I thought, in the way he approached everything and made the decision pretty quickly to come back.
We say all the time, in order for us to be where we're at right at this point and place, our seniors have probably had their best years as a group, or have had to. I would say Connor Cook is exactly in that vein. He's probably had his best year as a quarterback at Michigan State this year.
Q. With all the success that you've sustained and the consistency your program has achieved over the last six years, would a win tomorrow night elevate your program from being a blue-collar underdog to being a college football blue blood at this time?
COACH DANTONIO: I hope not. I hope not. I hope we stay grounded in who we are as a program and continue to just stride and do a little bit better than we've always done and always try and move a little bit farther.
When you've gotten to a point, you want to move farther than that, I think that's a human spirit working. I think that's the competitiveness in you. Regardless of what you do for a living, or sport, I think you want to try and go just a little bit farther or repeat or do something like that, because I think that's human nature.
I hope we keep the same attitude that we must overachieve. There's no question in my mind that we must all overachieve for us to be successful, regardless of our level of abilities.
Q. You've kind of got two things on the line in this game. First and foremost obviously the Big Ten championship, but then secondly College Football Playoffs. How do you deal with that mentality with your team?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think you get one, you get the other. We're just worried about winning a Big Ten championship. I think if we win the Big Ten championship, we'll represent the Big Ten at a higher level. If Iowa wins, they're going to do that. As we heard earlier, the success this conference has had this year sort of puts everyone in a position to do that.
So, again, let's not forget this is a game, just go out and play. Pressure is there, there's no question about that. But don't stress out about it, play the game.
We're concentrating on winning the Big Ten championship and whatever else shakes out, which I'm sure it's going to for one of these two teams, then we'll deal with that at that point in time.
Q. Mark, you've mentioned several times about the experience, the guys that were here as redshirt freshmen. Do you take time this week or some of the seniors talk to these guys that get to come down who weren't here two years ago to soak it all in and understand that you don't get here every year, you have to work to get back at this spot?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I think that our players do that on their own a little bit. We really haven't referred too much to those two years that we've been here because this is a different time with different players. We got a core group that are seniors, but 4/5ths of our team are of a different era, haven't been here in 2011.
I think we draw from the experience. But this is a new time, a new football team, and so we've got to be able to play this one out individually and understand that this is about this year.
I don't know if I'm answering the question, but I'm trying.
Q. Mark, you've talked about continuity among position groups. Gerald Holmes has taken major steps this season. Talk about the runningbacks a little bit.
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, last year after Jamie Langford left, who is having a great career right now, first year with the Bears, we had no identity coming back at runningback. Very few carries. Delton Williams is back. But we had to establish that.
Now I think we have four runningbacks that can play very effectively at this level and be successful. Gerald Holmes, first we start with Madre, then it was LJ Scott, it's been Gerald Holmes. All three of those guys are playing. Delton Williams played last week as the first back end. All four of those guys, we obviously have a lot of confidence in to be able to do the job.
I think Gerald had a workmanlike attitude or I guess performance, and he's been extremely productive here coming down the stretch.
But Madre has been hurt. He's back fully healthy now, Madre London. LJ Scott has been a guy that's been pretty consistent with what he's been able to do. Really all four of those guys are in the mix to play tomorrow night. We're looking forward to that challenge.
Q. You've had a lot of different slogans, mantras.
COACH DANTONIO: A few.
Q. Did the bus roll into the stadium before you went to the team hotel after you arrived and is there a mantra or saying for this game yet?
COACH DANTONIO: No, the bus went straight to the hotel, sorry to say.
But, you know, there was an Indy racecar leading the bus in. It happened to be No. 10. We'll take it from there. I don't know.
To me, we have certain things that we talk about, the basic theme was to reach higher this year, to go beyond what we had done. But it also was about being mentally tough, four to one, physically, a Bobby Knight saying. I was saying that was us, that had to be us, just how we approach things on a day-to-day schedule. With everything that was going on, we had to work through things. If Connor Cook wasn't going to quarterback, we had to have somebody else step in and play effectively. We did that. On it goes for us.
We use what we can get just like any coach. But I think basically this season belongs to our players. They've done the job. They've done the job. You never know who will be the one every single game, who will be the one guy that will bring us all back.
Q. Mark, I'm not sure how much stock you put into recruiting rankings. When you have a five-star guy like Malik, he starts to live up to those expectations, does that do anything for a program?
COACH DANTONIO: Guys come, they're five stars, they're two stars, they're three stars. Darqueze Dennard cam on the scene and was outstanding. Malik has come on the scene, is really outstanding. Really it's the work that you do once you get here that really elevates you.
We table everything when they come here and they start from scratch. But he's had an outstanding year. Obviously very highly recruited guy. We have other highly recruited guys on our football team as well.
When we get here collectively, we sit down and say whose doing the job and then they start to excel. I think between the ages of 18, and 17 in some cases, or 22, as we talked about, there's such a change in transformation in terms of physically, emotionally and mentally in terms of preparing for football, that it's really hard to gauge how a person is going to predict at the end of it all.
We're going to take guys that fit our system, that are going to want to play at this level, and that can compete at this level. We look for certain things in them. But he's done the job, there's no question.
Q. Mark, curious about your long stated theory you don't win a game like this on Thursday, Friday, Saturday afternoon. You let the lion out of the cage at 8:15. Did you bring this to the program?
COACH DANTONIO: I was talking to one of our players at one point in time. He was struggling a little bit. I said, What did he tell you? He said, Keep the lion in the cage. I said, Oh. I can apply that to our football team a little bit. That's how that happened. That was not an Ohio State thing. That was something we sort of stumbled upon here.
Point being is we don't win the game tonight. Get yourself ready to play tomorrow evening, make sure everything's off the table, that your heart's right, that you're emotionally right, you're rested. Make sure you're at your best when your best is needed and it will be needed tomorrow. Just go from there, lay it all out, we'll do our best. That's what we'll do.
Q. A lot of people were calling for Kirk Ferentz's job before the season. What can you say about what he's done with that team? Do you think it's a disturbing trend in college football that a lot of fans and even media are calling for a coach's job when they win consistently eight to nine games a year?
COACH DANTONIO: I think we live in a society right now where it's a media gratification type thing where people want it done right now. They don't want to wait. When things start to slide, they want to make change.
When I became a head football coach, I looked around at different programs, I said this throughout the week, I looked around at different programs and said who do we want to pattern our program after. Iowa was probably the dominant one. Had a staff that had great continuity, that would stay in place, excellent coaches, a program built on toughness, not a system. They didn't change, switch back on different things. They had a belief system from a football standpoint that was very structured, defensively, offensively, special teams. They were very, very successful.
The man has won a lot of football games, has had success in this conference really throughout 17 years. So, I mean, that's a statement in itself to me. I live in a bubble. I don't really know what's going on around me too much sometimes. I think the University of Iowa and its administration showed great character in the way that they've handled that. I'm not sure they ever missed a bowl game, but the standards were set so high. Obviously he's back, going strong.
Q. Mark, you talked about the experience of some of your players in this game specifically. In all the big games you played over the last couple years, how does that experience benefit Connor particularly?
COACH DANTONIO: Connor has played on a big stage and has succeeded on big stages really from his sophomore year on up. We're not going to be intimidated by the situation. I don't think Iowa will either. They played in big games on big stages. That's what this conference is about.
You play in front of a lot of people, every team, on national TV, every team. So you get a lot of media exposure, things of that nature. I think inevitably you get used to playing on those stages.
In Connor Cook's case I think he's done very well on a big stage and we'll obviously need him to play very well tomorrow.
Q. Back to the runningbacks. Against Ohio State, Gerald had that touchdown, LJ the big run up the middle to kind of seal it. How do you temper young guys like that?
COACH DANTONIO: I don't temper them. I let their emotions run wild really. I mean, I want guys playing emotionally. I want them to have fun. I want them to be confident. All the things that you want when you're coaching the little league, youth football. You want them to be excited about football, their opportunities, and to play hard.
That guy, if you watch Gerald Holmes, he's on the kickoff team, he's our starting tailback, he's on the punt team. I mean, he's on everything and doesn't want to come out. That's the kind of football player he is.
He's a very, very solid football player. He's a great tackler, all those different things. Doing the job as a redshirt sophomore, very good player.
Q. Mark, you've talked about the pressure. When you have a long day off waiting for a night game, how do you keep that pressure off the guys in the course of the next 24 to 36 hours?
COACH DANTONIO: That's a good question, how do you do that. Take a long nap, I guess.
You know, I think the pressure is not bad. I say this to our players. I don't think pressure is bad if you can control it. When it spins out of control, that's when it gets tough on you, I think.
We take a very methodical approach, just like every other football team I'm sure. They have a system in place. There's different things we do throughout the day to keep it rolling. It's a little bit of a long wait.
You sit around, you watch some games a little bit. But we try and keep them dealing with something specific, but not try and create an environment where they always have to be someplace, too structured.
But that's a good question. It's a long wait for a Saturday night game. It is a long wait. We'll see how we do when we get there.
Q. How would you describe your relationship with Kirk Ferentz? As you studied Iowa, have you seen any hard evidence of the concept of New Kirk?
COACH DANTONIO: I think we have a great relationship. I've always liked Coach Ferentz. As a matter of fact, when I was at Youngstown State way back in the '80s, they sent me to Florida to recruit. I got in my rental car. I didn't know where I was going. No cell phones or GPS back then. I drove around behind the guy from Iowa, which was Kirk.
I think we did that for almost two days. I got to know him at that point in time. I just always felt like he was very grounded, wasn't aloof, sort of said it the way it was. Obviously have a lot of respect for him as a football coach.
As far as the New Kirk, hey, they're winning football games. Looks to me they're doing it the same way they've always done it, great defense, very solid play with a great runningback situation, outstanding quarterback that makes plays, offensive line that's very geared up, and extremely cohesive, good tight ends, solid wide receivers, great special teams.
So conceptually there's little nuances I think there, but I think what you see is an Iowa program that knows how to win. If they haven't won to this level the last couple years, they found how to win. I believe it's always about relationships. I'm sure he has strong relationships with his players.
Q. Mark, you've preached mental toughness throughout this season. When evaluating how you've gotten here, beating Michigan in the fashion that you have and Ohio State, can you talk about how this team has grown toughness mentally throughout this year.
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, to me mental toughness is how you handle adversity or how you handle success, both cases really. If you win, how do you handle your next game. Is there a big emotional letdown. If you lose, how do you handle it. Do you play till the end of the game regardless of the score. Can you accept getting beat deep or getting beat at all, missing a tackle, dropping a pass, something of that nature, then get back up and play the next play.
Those are things we talk about. There's substance to that and there's also examples of people that have done that.
The living examples that we've had, there's a great message in that really for the rest of our players and the rest of our team. I think we've always been like that. We haven't just started that this year. We've won a lot of games on the last play of the game throughout these years. I just think it's sort of built in.
I believe, or our belief is that our seniors have to have their best years, as I said before. But our seniors create the chemistry that exists on a football team. They're the true leaders. They're the ones that have been through a lot of things. They create the chemistry and that chemistry creates energy. We have great energy on our team and we have a great group of people that have great relationships with each other. I think that forms a bond.
When you have something emotional happen to you, whether it's a loss or a win, whatever, it strengthens those things, I believe. So we get there.
Q. Mark, if every team has its own personality from year to year, how would you describe this team's personality? Was there a game where those traits made the difference?
COACH DANTONIO: I would describe our personality as very determined. If there was a game that shows that, you could look at a lot of games really throughout our year. But I think it's maybe the Ohio State game. Very determined. Just a mindset in terms of how we're going to go about our business. Doesn't mean we're going to succeed, but we're going to be ready, we're going to be focused, and we're going to prepare.
Q. Given the finishes you had at Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska this year, how as a coaching staff are you able to maintain that even keel that you talk about?
COACH DANTONIO: It's a game. I mean, really, it's a game. I've always sort of approached it like that. I think you drive yourself crazy if you think you're going to win every game or it's all about winning. I think you have to be able to accept losing as well as you accept winning. I believe you have to be able to do that.
You have to take it in, collect yourself, get better from it, experience it, be able to move forward. You have to keep it a game because as soon as it's not a game anymore, then the pressure really mounts on you.
So that's how we tried to approach it. We've approached it about having a relationship with our players, making sure they're graduating, winning games, having these types of experiences where they can look back years from now and say, I remember when I was at the Big Ten championship game back in 2015. They can paint their own picture with what happens tomorrow night, but it's still a memory for them.
I just think that these are young people and they're looking for opportunities to grow. So you get that by winning and losing. You don't just get it by winning. As I said earlier, I think society generally characterizing everyone who wins as the best. There are a lot of guys who aren't winning that are truly doing remarkable things as well. That's how we've done it.
Q. I don't think you've addressed this yet. The record you set this year, the 11-win season. I think it's five out of six hadn't been done in Big 10 history. When I spoke with you in the pre-season, you weren't even aware of that. Can you put that in perspective and what does that mean to have risen above Yost and Tressel in that category?
COACH DANTONIO: I just think it's a group of people along the way that have done something from a program standpoint, again it's growth. Those are program goals. We've had great continuity here in terms of our coaching staff. A lot of people have come and gone to help make that happen. Coaches, players.
Because I sit at the top as the head coach, I guess the wins and losses fall there. But, I mean, they belong to everybody. I can't tell you how many texts I get before every football game from past players, especially games like this, from past players, from people who have been here in the past. 2007 football team.
So we're all going in the same direction, all of us. Everybody who's walked in this door, played for us, they're all going in the same direction. As long as you do that, I think great things are possible. I said that the day I was hired. If we could all go together, not splinter away when bad things happen, we could be extremely successful. With the same president, athletic director, board, for the most part, those things have happened. There's been support at every angle. You see the result of it.
Thanks so much, guys. Go Green.
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