How a retired Mark Dantonio helped out ex-MSU assistants Pat Narduzzi, Mel Tucker

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ATLANTA — In the spring and late summer, Mark Dantonio abandoned retirement to go on a tour of college football practices.

Michigan State was among his most frequent stops, as was Cincinnati, logically; those are the two places he served as head coach.

But Dantonio also visited with the Pitt Panthers. And his two former pupils, Mel Tucker and Pat Narduzzi, will face off in the Peach Bowl on Thursday.

“Having Coach D around is a pleasure,” Tucker said Wednesday. “He and I go way back, all the way to 1997. And so he's a friend first and then a colleague and then also a lifelong Spartan. So every moment that I'm able to spend with him, I truly cherish those times.”

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi and Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker pose for a photo with the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl NCAA college football game trophy, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, in Atlanta.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi and Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker pose for a photo with the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl NCAA college football game trophy, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, in Atlanta.

MSU (10-2) owns a 6-0-1 all-time record against Pitt (11-1), the Atlantic Coast Conference champion, but the two programs have not met since 2007. The Spartans’ 17-13 win was just the third game with Dantonio as head coach and Narduzzi as his defensive coordinator in their first season after arriving from Cincinnati.

The pair went on to help rewrite MSU history, winning Big Ten titles in 2010 and 2013, then making MSU’s first New Year’s Six game in 2014. The Spartans’ thrilling 42-41 win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 1, 2015 was Narduzzi’s last with MSU, and the 55-year-old has gone on to produce a 55-36 record in his seven seasons with the Panthers, earning his fifth bowl trip and first NY6 game.

[ Michigan State football vs. Pittsburgh: Peach Bowl scouting report, prediction ]

“We came in there, took over a program and built it up — built it up to where Mel took it over and has done an outstanding job as well,” Narduzzi said. “The games (Dantonio) won there, bringing them to the playoffs (in 2015), Rose Bowl victory, Cotton Bowl victory, my last game there, just watching the build there was incredible. And that to me is what it's all about.

“And he did it the right way. He didn't do it the wrong way. He did it with integrity and character. The kids loved him. They still love him to this day. I think that's the most important thing is how he did it, not what he did.”

Tucker also worked with Dantonio, first as a graduate assistant on defense in 1997-98 while his mentor was Nick Saban’s defensive backs coach, then from 2001-03 joining Dantonio, then the defensive coordinator, at Ohio State.

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, left, shakes hands with former coach Mark Dantonio before the Michigan game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, left, shakes hands with former coach Mark Dantonio before the Michigan game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.

Tucker, Narduzzi and their coaching and support staffs were together at a reception dinner Tuesday at the Capital Club in Atlanta. It was a chance for Narduzzi to reconnect with those he worked with at MSU, from Tucker’s assistants Ron Burton and Harlon Barnett to trainer Sally Nogle and other team medical staff, among others.

Narduzzi also flavored his program with MSU connections over the years, with his staff including former Spartans defensive back and graduate assistant Archie Collins as Pitt's secondary coach and Ryan Manalac his linebackers coach. Manalac, who played for Dantonio and Narduzzi at Cincy, was part of MSU's program as a video assistant, graduate assistant and operations assistant between 2011-15.

Dantonio brought former assistant Jim Bollman with him to visit Narduzzi and the Panthers, and he “shared with them some of the good Italian food in Pittsburgh.” And in return, Dantonio provided insight for his team.

“He just shares his knowledge and shares what he sees on the field. And coaches, players, kind of an evaluation of what you're doing,” Narduzzi said. “So it was great to get him for practice.”

Dantonio, who retired after the 2019 season as MSU’s all-time winningest coach, tweeted Wednesday that he was fishing but planned to head to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl afterward. After touring the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this week, both Tucker and Narduzzi think their old boss belongs enshrined in there.

“Certainly, coach Dantonio should get strong consideration to be in the Hall of Fame,” Tucker said. “He's done a tremendous job his entire career, and especially here as a head coach at Michigan State. He's won a lot of football games. Like Pat said, he's done it the right way. He's beloved by all Spartans in this country and throughout the world. A tremendous person.”

SEIDEL: How a meeting with Mat Ishbia led to more than just Tucker's $95M contract

Connor Heyward’s finale

Michigan State's Jayden Reed, left, celebrates his touchdown with Connor Heyward during the fourth quarter in the game against Nebraska on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Jayden Reed, left, celebrates his touchdown with Connor Heyward during the fourth quarter in the game against Nebraska on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

Thursday will be senior Connor Heyward’s final MSU game, as he plans to not take his extra year of eligibility from the 2020 COVID-19 waiver. He finishes his college career near his hometown of Duluth, Georgia. And he will do so against his parents’ alma mater.

Heyward’s father, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, was a star running back at Pitt from 1984-87 and finished fifth in the 1987 Heisman Trophy voting (just behind MSU’s Lorenzo White). Ironhead went on to an 11-year NFL career as a fullback before dying from a brain tumor in 2006 when Connor was 7 years old.

Narduzzi tried to land Heyward as a recruit and was impressed by him at one of the Panthers’ summer camps.

“Let me tell you this: I know that guy's an excellent football player. And obviously Mel knows better than I do because he works with him every day,” Narduzzi said of the younger Heyward. “But when he came to camp, he came to summer camp with his mom. And that guy was all over the place. I loved him. He played every position in camp. He was at quarterback, he was at running back, he was at linebacker. This kid, that's what you want in a college football player — a guy that can play everything.”

[ 12 Michigan State players who could shine in Peach Bowl vs. Pitt ]

That versatility showed again this season as Heyward transitioned from running back to tight end for the Spartans. Heyward, 6 feet, 240 pounds, Heyward started the first 12 games and has 30 catches for 289 yards and a touchdown. He also has flashed his father’s toughness as a hard-hitting blocker.

Tucker said Heyward has been “very consistent in his preparation, day in and day out,” and he has not seen any difference in him despite preparing to face a school that means so much to his family.

“You get the same player,” Tucker said. “He's a leader for us. … He's a very mature player, and he understands that we need to keep the main thing the main thing,” Tucker said “And that's just preparing for the game and going through our process.”

COVID clear?

Though bowl games around the country and MSU’s basketball team have been affected by recent COVID-19 outbreaks, both Tucker (“good shape”) and Narduzzi (“great shape”) said their programs remain on course for Thursday’s game.

“We're following all the protocols set forth by our medical staff, and our players and coaches have done an outstanding job in our preparation. Not just on the field but off the field as well,” Tucker said. “So the game is very important to us. And we're doing everything that we can to get to the game.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ex-Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio helped Pat Narduzzi, Mel Tucker

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