While in San Francisco last week to promote the Redbox Bowl, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio joked “you can bet the place is going to be green.”
Michigan State (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten) and Oregon (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12), which will play in the Dec. 31 Redbox Bowl (3 p.m., FOX) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., share one school color. Their coaches also both previously worked for Alabama’s Nick Saban, one of the most successful coaches in college football history.
“I think the parallels of the programs run by guys that worked for him under that tree – you’ll see it,” said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. “There’s a lot of similarities.”
Dantonio was Saban’s defensive backs coach at Michigan State from 1995-99. After compiling a record of 34-24-1 in five seasons, Saban left for LSU while Dantonio stayed in East Lansing for one year working for Bobby Williams before becoming Ohio State’s defensive coordinator.
“The basis of what I know defensively really comes from all the coaches I’ve worked with, but I think he’s had the most dramatic impact on me as a defensive coach,” Dantonio said of Saban.
Dantonio made his debut as a head coach at Cincinnati in 2004 and, after three years, took over at Michigan State. Now in his 12th season leading the Spartans, he has an overall record of 107-50 with three Big Ten titles.
“I think Mark has exceeded the expectations of all of us in terms of what he’s done at Michigan State, and certainly done a better job than I ever did there, I can tell you that,” Saban said in 2015, before Alabama’s 38-0 win against the Spartans in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
Dantonio is only two victories away from tying Duffy Daugherty for the most in program history and has won more Big Ten championships and bowl games (five) than any Spartan coach. Saban, meanwhile, has been remarkably successful since leaving East Lansing. He won a national championship during a five-season run at LSU and, after two seasons leading the Miami Dolphins, took over at Alabama in 2007. He has a record of 145-20 with the Crimson Tide, including five national titles.
“You essentially get your Ph.D. in certain parts of your coaching regimen and structure,” Cristobal said in July of working for Saban.
Cristobal is in his first year as Oregon’s head coach and took over after Willie Taggart departed for Florida State following just one season. Before joining the Ducks as Taggart’s co-offensive coordinator, he was Saban’s offensive line coach from 2013-16.
Now in his second stint as a head coach, following six seasons at Florida International, Cristobal still draws on his experiences as a player at Miami under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson, as well as four seasons with Saban. He said each former Saban assistant has their own tweaks, but the blueprint remains.
“I think it’s something that, for what it’s worth, it has stood the test of time over the course of many decades,” Cristobal said. “I think it’s something that a lot of guys have invested time into and feel comfortable in carrying out and certainly it’s something that we have carried over to the University of Oregon.”
Cristobal in January hired Williams as Oregon’s specials team coordinator. Williams was Michigan State’s head coach before being fired in 2002 late in his third season and spent the bulk of his time since working for Saban at multiple stops and in various roles, including at Alabama from 2008-17. Before working with and for Williams at Michigan State, Dantonio was a graduate assistant at Purdue in 1981 when he was a player.
“Our relationship goes way back,” Dantonio said of Williams. “He’s an outstanding football coach, recruiter and outstanding person. It will be great to see him as well.”