Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh offered up some serious praise for Mark Dantonio ahead of Saturday’s rivalry game, calling the Michigan State coach’s resume in East Lansing one of the best in the history of the game.
Bad blood between fans and players has existed on both sides of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry for decades, with the most famous jab being Wolverines running back Mike Hart referring to the Spartans as Michigan’s “little brother” nine years ago.
Mark Dantonio was made aware of that comment two days after coaching his first game in the rivalry, a 28-24 loss at home to the Wolverines on Nov. 3, 2007. His response?
“Pride comes before the fall.” And man, he was right. Michigan State has won seven of the eight meetings since, none more dramatic than last year’s botched punt on the final play of the game that Jalen Watts-Jackson returned for a touchdown.
Jim Harbaugh was on the sidelines for that one, suffering his toughest loss in his first year guiding his alma mater. He credited Michigan State for its resiliency, and he continues to laud Dantonio for all he’s accomplished with the Spartans.
Harbaugh knows those recent wins over Michigan are just pieces of the turnaround Dantonio has led since he arrived. The Spartans hadn’t won 10 games since Nick Saban’s last year in East Lansing in 1999 and qualified for only two bowl games under Bobby Williams and John L. Smith.
With Dantonio at the helm, Michigan State has been to nine straight bowls, including victories in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl before earning a birth in last year’s College Football Playoff. The Spartans also have won at least 11 games in five of the last six years.
Michigan State, though, enters Saturday’s game against Michigan with a 2-5 record in what will likely wind up being Dantonio’s worst season in East Lansing. That doesn’t mean Harbaugh has any less respect for Dantonio’s accomplishments.
“He’s done a great job,” Harbaugh said during his weekly press conference Monday. “One of the best college football coaching jobs in the history of the game. At the highest level.”
That’s high praise coming from a rival who knows a thing or two himself about rebuilding programs. Harbaugh arrived at Stanford in 2007, the same year as Dantonio’s tenure began at Michigan State. The Cardinal won one game the year before, and ultimately claimed an Orange Bowl victory in Harbaugh’s fourth and final season before he left to coach the San Francisco 49ers.
Michigan went 5-7 the year before he arrived in Ann Arbor, but he guided it to a 10-3 record and bowl victory last season and now has the Wolverines ranked No. 2 in the nation and in control of their own destiny to reach the College Football Playoff.
And while he has all the respect in the world for the job Dantonio as done, Harbaugh isn’t looking past the in-state rival despite the Spartans having a tough year.
“We know the task in front of us. We know the challenge,” Harbaugh said. “It’s up to us to get prepared to play that game so we go out there confident and execute and have a chance to be successful. They’re a very good football team. We know we’ll be tough to beat and they’ll be tough to beat.”