Seeing a team rack up 12 wins and earn a bid in the coveted College Football Playoff one season, only to follow it up with a serious head-scratching 3-9 campaign, is easily one of the bigger surprises in recent college football history, possibly among the biggest drop-offs of all-time. That’s what happened to the Michigan State Spartans on the gridiron from 2015 to 2016.
There was a laundry list of glaring issues, a lot of which were unorthodox of a Mark Dantonio-led Spartan football team. Among those has been discipline and accountability, which was noticeably lacking in 2016. With a lot of turnover from the 2015 team that reached the College Football Playoff, the decline in production and perseverance was evident more often than not.
A couple weeks back, Dantonio was a part of a panel at a convention held in Nashville hosted by the AFCA, the American Football Coaches Association. Among the topics being discussed was the importance of discipline and accountability for a team. And the Spartans head coach didn’t shy away from mentioning his team:
It runs through your entire program and speaks to how you play on the field. It also speaks to the big picture, how you life your life. We went through a tough year this year — I would say we lacked discipline. Doesn’t mean we won’t get it back. We’re accountable for every young man’s life when they walk through that door. You’ve got to ask yourself: ‘Are you accountable for pushing that young man’s life forward?’
The leadership was very much absent from the 2016 Spartans, and a lack of leadership from the players often leads to a lack of discipline and accountability amongst the players. Obviously given the amount of success that MSU has had in recent years prior to this past season shows that the way the players police themselves and the way coaches orchestrate finding leaders has worked in East Lansing. But following a tough season, widespread overreaction is going to flood the fan base.
Dantonio was asked specifically how he goes about finding that select group of leaders for any given team he is coaching:
“I ask for our coaches’ input, I ask for our players’ input,” he said. “I think we do a good job in finding our leaders. I don’t pick our leaders. They pick each other. Probably four or five times a year, we pick 12 of them. We want our team to be represented. I talk to those individuals on a weekly basis. I always think a player-led team is better than a coach-led team.
“For that, they need to be accountable for their action. They need to deal out discipline at times. I ask them, ‘What should we do? What do you think is fair? What is consistent with what we’ve done in the past?’ They need to deal that out. How will we get back? We’ll get back with people. People are our resources. Our coaches, players, they’re the biggest resource we have.”
Then there’s the accountability aspect of teams. It’s a maturity thing that only players themselves can figure out. But even that starts at the top with the coaching staff, according to Dantonio:
Accountability’s about growth. How do we keep each other accountable? It’s a growth process. I always ask myself, ‘Am I consistent with something? Am I fair?’ I’m not looking to put pain into anybody. I’m looking for people to grow.
All in all, Dantonio talks about how discipline and accountability are areas that they never want to hear put into question from outside voices when pertains to their team:
“The worst thing you can say to any coach is that you have an undisciplined football team, and there is no accountability,” he said. “We’re all trying to strive for that.”
Michigan State will be a very intriguing team to watch this off-season and come next fall. It’s hard to imagine they put together another dreadful season like they did in 2016, after a string of winning 11+ games in five of six seasons – something no Big Ten team had ever accomplished before.