Nick Saban might be the best college football coach in the country, yet for Michigan State, it's hard to imagine a better fit than Mark Dantonio.
Saban all but conceded that point after his Alabama team was paired against Dantonio and the Spartans for this year's national semifinals.
"I think Mark has done far more than I ever dreamed that I could have done at Michigan State," Saban said.
Saban and Dantonio, who worked on the same staff when Saban coached the Spartans from 1995-99, will be on opposite sidelines when second-ranked Alabama faces third-ranked Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl on Thursday night. Saban has won four national championships since leaving the Spartans, so under different circumstances, Michigan State fans might view him as the one who got away.
But with Dantonio in charge, there's no need for any what-ifs around East Lansing.
"We just kept sort of pecking away," Dantonio said. "We found a way to win and we found a way to get to the bowl games and eventually we found a way to win the bowl games. ... These last three years, I guess we're 36-4."
Alabama, over that same span, is 35-5.
Dantonio was an assistant at Kansas for four seasons before coming to Michigan State as a secondary coach for Saban.
"I thought we were fortunate to be able to hire him and he did a fantastic job for us in the five years that we were there," Saban said. "I always thought he'd do great if he ever got an opportunity to be a head coach."
For Dantonio, coming to Michigan State meant working for a coach with NFL experience. Saban had previously worked as a defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick.
"Had I never had that opportunity to go to Michigan State, I wouldn't be sitting here right now. He's a defensive back guy. I'm a defensive back guy. So I learned a tremendous amount of football in that time," Dantonio said. "I had the opportunity to work with a guy who had been in the NFL and had a, obviously, a lot of success as a coordinator in the NFL. So my knowledge in the secondary grew greatly in those five years. I appreciate everything that he's done for me in that vein."
Under Saban, the Spartans finally broke through in 1999, falling a game short of a Big Ten title. Michigan State went 10-2 and finished that season ranked seventh in the country, but Saban wasn't around for the bowl game, having already left to take the LSU job.
The Spartans' success at the end of Saban's tenure — Dantonio said recently they were "poised to sort of take off" — was an indication of what the program was capable of under the right leadership.
"Things were certainly on the uptick," said Ken Mannie, Michigan State's strength and conditioning coach.
Mannie's tenure with the Spartans dates all the way back through Saban's years at the helm, so he's had a chance to observe both Saban and Dantonio.
"They both are very, very goal oriented," Mannie said. "I think the word 'driven' describes both of them."
After descending back into mediocrity following Saban's departure, the Spartans eventually hired Dantonio before the 2007 season. His first three years were similar to Saban's start — results were mixed — before the breakthrough came in 2010. Michigan State went 11-2 and tied for the Big Ten title.
Since then, Dantonio and the Spartans have checked more accomplishments off their list. They won the Big Ten title game in 2013 and played in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988. Now they've reached the College Football Playoff.
Saban won a national title at LSU and three at Alabama. He's leveraged the Crimson Tide's status as college football royalty and built a Southeastern Conference dynasty, routinely bringing in top recruits and turning them into formidable teams on the field.
Would Dantonio be able to accomplish that at a place like Alabama? Perhaps not.
But if Saban had stayed at Michigan State, would he have become as successful as Dantonio? That's also a difficult question to answer. The circumstances were different when Saban took over in East Lansing. In 1996, the NCAA announced scholarship and recruiting restrictions resulting from investigations that began before Saban was coach.
The NCAA found that the school violated rules on recruiting, benefits, academic eligibility, ethical conduct and institutional control. The probes had begun in 1994, before Saban took over, and the penalties may help explain why he didn't have the type of success at Michigan State that Dantonio has had.
"We were coming off probation and we were short scholarships," Saban said. "But Mark has done an outstanding job of evaluating players, getting good players to come there, improving the team every year he's been there and doing a great job of developing the players he has, and establishing a winning character on his team."
The continuity on Dantonio's staff has helped. When the Spartans lost standout defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi after last season, they simply promoted Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel from within. Those two are now co-defensive coordinators.
Barnett has his own ties to Saban. His first collegiate coaching job was under Saban as a graduate assistant at LSU. There's no question that Saban's influence has affected Michigan State — and its current coaching staff — in a positive way.
But Spartans fans don't have to wonder what might have happened if Saban had stayed in East Lansing. No need to let their minds wander into that alternative universe.
Reality is just fine, thanks to Dantonio.
"I believed it could happen here, because it had happened here in the past," Dantonio said. "I think you have to be bold and you have to dream big."