Mark Dantonio and Nick Saban met face-to-face for the first time since the Capital One Bowl officially extended invitations to Michigan State and Alabama, Thursday in Orlando.
At a press conference promoting the Jan. 1 bowl game, Dantonio and Saban greeted one another with smiles, a handshake and hug before a gathering of local media.
Dantonio, who coached MSU to an 11-1 record and a No. 7 ranking, served as defensive backs coach for Saban when Saban was head coach at Michigan State from 1995-99. This will be the first time Dantonio and Saban have coached against each other, and although neither enjoys coaching against friends, they are savoring the opportunity to renew acquaintances.
"It will be a little different, and will feel a little bit like coaching against Jim Tressel, who I spent a lot of time coaching with," Dantonio said. "You know how he coaches, and you know a lot about the defense, but it's the players that make the plays. He will have them ready to go and he is a great football coach and a great organizer. He is a defensive-minded coach as well as special teams and all areas. We will represent the Big Ten Conference as co-champions and come down here looking for a win."
Saban, who left Michigan State to become head coach at LSU in December of 1999 after leading the Spartans to a 9-2 record, said he still has fondness for Michigan State.
"I have great relationships at Michigan State," Saban said. "I was there for 10 years, two five-year stints. Lot of great friends, from Tom Izzo to (MSU president) Lou Anna Simon. Mark was a coach for us and did a fantastic job.
"He's done a fabulous job with his team and what they have accomplished this year and how he has built the program back to national prominence. I'm looking forward actually to being able to see a lot of the acquaintances and relationships we have. I never really look forward to competing against my friends but this is a great opportunity for our team."
Saban was asked if he still keeps an eye on the results of Michigan State games.
"Probably as much as any team in the country," Saban said. "I do the same thing with Michigan State basketball. Because we spent so much time there in two stints you kind of feel like it's almost your school, or where you went to school, so I always keep up with Michigan State because of all the relationships I have there."
Spartans Eager To Represent
Michigan State returned to the practice field this week, with the Spartans focusing during early bowl practices on development of younger players. There are no reports as yet from those practices although there will be player interviews on Friday. But Dantonio acknowledged that there is a high level of excitement in the MSU locker room.
"There is a great reason for celebration right now, winning the Big Ten for the first time in 20 years is a statement, and a statement where we have progressed," Dantonio said. "We have progressed to that point. We had the opportunity in 2008 to do that and we fell flat in our last game. This time we didn't (fall flat), so our players are very excited about this opportunity to represent and to win our last football game. Winning the last game makes all the difference in the world on how you carry yourself throughout the rest of the (year). A win in this game would probably put us in the top five in the country right now so that's a big positive."
Dantonio said earlier in the week that bowl preparation for the Alabama game would begin on Thursday, but coaching tasks had to be tended to outside of East Lansing as well.
"This week we are sort of trying to balance recruiting and practice," Dantonio said. "We are having technique practices. The coaches that are in are able to handle that, and we'll get busy this weekend.
"It's a little bit different set-up this year because exam week is next week, as opposed to the following week. And we played the week of Thanksgiving. So it's a little bit different for us, but we have to continue to recruit and we have to continue to get ready for Alabama, so we have to be able to balance those two."
Bama Trying To Shed Inconistencies
After spending the first five weeks of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, Alabama went 4-3 in the last seven weeks of the season.
Alabama's most recent game, a 28-27 loss to rival Auburn, was a microcosm of the Tide's season. Alabama stormed to an impressive 24-0 lead, but then became stymied in the second half and suffered an excruciating defeat.
Now, the question is whether Saban can get his players to continue to care.
"I think that the challenge for our team is that we are only a good team when we play our best," Saban said in Orlando on Thursday. "The inconsistencies we have had this year has caused us to create some self inflicted wounds we haven't been able to overcome, so everybody needs to take ownership for that so our seniors and entire team had the opportunity to finish the season on a positive note."
Saban said subtle aspects of the game need to sharpen up for the Tide in order to harness the level of consistence
â€¨"I think it is consistency and performance from top to bottom in terms of the intangibles they play with and the discipline to execute and the effort and toughness," Saban said. "Because we have a young team I think we have been a little bit inconsistent in that way. You have to be able to overcome adversity and when you have older and more mature players like we did last year you handle those things better. But this team has learned and grown and I have been very proud of the way they played. Even though we didn't finish the last game the way we liked I thought we played very well, especially in the first half."
Dantonio on his respect for Alabama:
"A great respect. They are defending national champions and have a defending Heisman winner in Mark Ingram from Flint, Michigan, so we know a lot about him. But I have a great respect for Nick Saban and having worked with him for five years I know the situation in and out. But a great football coach and a great man and I have a great respect for them and the job they have done. They are a football team who has lost two of their three games by four points total. So when you look at BCS-type teams and the teams we would have played had we the opportunity to go to a BCS (game), I don't think we could have picked a better team than Alabama. I don't know if they have even been underdogs this year, so we have a great respect for them and it will be a great challenge for us."
Saban on the Spartans:
"I think Michigan State has a very good all-around team. They have great balance on offense with a good quarterback and can throw the ball efficiently in the passing game. But one of the better running teams we've played with the running backs they have and the job they do in scheming people and in terms creating balance. Defensively they are in the top 25 in a lot of categories and especially scoring defense in the things that really matter and have a great inside linebacker in Greg Jones. They are just a really good, well coached all-around team, and when you play teams like that you have to play with discipline and can't make a lot of mistakes because they will be difficult to overcome."
Saban on balancing the bowl experience:
"I always tell our team it's about balance. We want you to have a good time and it's a reward for having a positive season and it's a lot of positive gratification for the fans and families. But at the same time I have never been to a bowl game that anybody is really happy about unless you have success on the field. Everyone has to take ownership for creating a balance of preparation as well as separating to be able to enjoy yourself."