CollegeFootballNews.com 20th Anniversary Top 20 Coaches
Who were the top 20 coaches since CFN started in 1998? No. 18 Mark Dantonio, Michigan State & Cincinnati
CFN Era Top 20 Coaches: No. 18 Mark Dantonio, Michigan State & Cincinnati
CollegeFootballNews.com is turning 20 this season, so we’re looking back on the greatest players, games, coaches and more since we first kicked things off back in 1998.
Wins and losses are certainly a part of it all – okay, a massive part of this – but it’s also about who came up with the biggest coaching performances over the long haul. Consistency matters, championships matter, and personality plays a role, too.
Who are the 20 coaches who defined college football since 1998?
One note, accomplishments before 1998 don’t count, other than when it comes to a coach’s legacy and overall status.
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (2007-2016), Cincinnati (2004-2006)
Mark Dantonio was hardly an overnight success.
He worked his way up the coaching ranks, becoming known as a terrific defensive assistant, spending the 1990s working the secondaries at Kansas and then Michigan State before getting the defensive coordinator gig at Ohio State under Jim Tressel for three years.
Finally, at 48, he got his shot at a head coaching gig, taking over an okay Cincinnati situation and leading the way to two seven-win runs in three seasons.
But even though he didn’t exactly make his mark with the Bearcats, with his defensive coaching skills, and the respect in the coaching community, he was seen as the right guy to fix a flaky Michigan State situation.
John L. Smith had some fabulously talented Spartan teams over his four seasons at the helm, but they kept losing in bizarre and crazy ways. The program needed a steady head man who would be more of a pro-style, no-nonsense type.
Enter Dantonio. Michigan State went to just one bowl game in the previous four years. It went to nine straight after he took over.
However, the Spartans were still also-rans, and while they got to bowls, they kept losing them. Even with 22 wins in the first three seasons, it was time to start doing more.
And then it all kicked in.
In Year Four, Dantonio led the way to a share of the Big Ten title and an 11-win season, the first in a run of five 11-win campaigns in six years.
And yes, the Spartans starting winning bowl games. Big bowl games.
Dantonio became the confident, Belichick-like leader for a program that suddenly turned into a star with three Big Ten Championships and another division title in a six-year span.
Biggest Moment: Oct. 17, 2015 vs. Michigan
This was supposed to be when Michigan took back its big brother status again.
The No. 12 Wolverines lost the opener of the Jim Harbaugh era to Utah, and then got really, really good, allowing just 14 points in wins over the next five games before hosting Michigan State.
The Spartans were 6-0 ranked seventh, highlighted by a win over Oregon, but they weren’t playing all that well. They struggled defensively, needed to push too hard to beat Purdue, and got by Rutgers in a 31-24 fight.
While they played well against Michigan, they were sunk.
The Wolverines were up 23-21 in the final few seconds with the ball near midfield. All they had to do was get one final punt off, and order would be restored in the Maize and Blue world.
Yup. All they had to do was get off one final punt, and even if they couldn’t do that, all they had to do was come up with a tackle and time would probably run out …
The 27-23 shocker was just a part of a stunning run to the Big Ten title and the College Football Playoff, shocking Ohio State in Columbus – and without starting quarterback Connor Cook – and getting past an unbeaten Iowa in a classic Big Ten Championship.
Mark Dantonio’s Best Season: 2013
2015 was outstanding, but considering that team got blasted by Alabama in the College Football Playoff, 2013 ended better.
Dantonio had been saying for a few years that Michigan State was good enough to get to the Rose Bowl, and the program was building and building towards something special.
And then, he turned out to be right.
While the defense was a killer right away, the offense needed a little while to get going. After a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame, it looked like Michigan State would be okay again, but hardly ready to own the Big Ten.
Thanks to the defense that dominated week after week, the Spartans kept winning. It wasn’t always pretty, but the D was on a mission.
MSU allowed more than six points just once in the final seven games of the regular season as it dominated on the way to a date against a loaded and unbeaten Ohio State team in the Big Ten Championship. If the Buckeyes won, they’d have played for the national title.
Instead, Ohio State forgot to run the ball when the ground attack was working, and the Michigan State offense got nasty, pounding away for a huge day from Jeremy Langford, who scored late for a 34-24 win and a Big Ten title for Dantonio and the Spartans.
On to the Rose Bowl against a terrific Stanford team, Michigan State broke a 17-17 tie on a Tony Lippett touchdown catch early in the fourth, and the defense did the rest for a 24-20 victory and an 11-2 season.
Mark Dantonio’s Worst Season: 2016
Could Michigan State reload after losing a historic senior class that led the way to a Rose Bowl win, and College Football Playoff appearance, and two Big Ten titles?
The Spartans managed to get through their first two games – including a win at Notre Dame – despite not playing well, but winning ugly was nothing new.
A great Wisconsin team showed what was to come with a 30-6 blowout, and things didn’t get any better with six straight losses to follow.
The Spartans played tough against Michigan – and lost.
The played well at Indiana – and lost.
They gave Illinois one of its three wins on the season, lost to Maryland, got blown away by Northwestern, and finally broke the losing streak against Rutgers, but by then, they weren’t eligible for a bowl.
Playing tough against Ohio State and for a half against Penn State was little solace for a 3-9 campaign that only got uglier in the offseason as the program had to deal with sexual assault allegations against a few players.
CFN Era Coaching Record: 18-17 in three years at Cincinnati, 90-42 in ten years at Michigan State
2010 and 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year
CFN 20th Anniversary lists compiled by Rich Cirminiello, Pete Fiutak, Phil Harrison & Russ Mitchell