December 30, 2011

MSU reunion for Grantham

TAMPA, Fla. - Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio knows Todd Grantham well.

The two were assistant coaches together with the Spartans for three years (1996-1998) under current Alabama coach Nick Saban during his tenure at East Lansing, Dantonio as the secondary coach and Grantham as the defensive line/ assistant head coach.

Some 13 years later, they meet again in Monday's Outback Bowl when the 12th-ranked Spartans (10-3) take on the 18th-ranked Bulldogs (10-3) at Raymond James Stadium (1 p.m., ABC) here in Tampa.

Now the Spartans' head coach, Dantonio has nothing but fond memories about his good friend and former colleague.

"Todd's a great football coach - an outstanding football coach. He and I sat in that same staff room for three years, day in and day out, and he is a very good friend of mine and an excellent coach," Dantonio said. "He obviously brings a lot of energy to the game, believes in an aggressive form of play. He's a technician and is a great teacher. You see that with Georgia's football team."

For his part, Grantham is looking forward to Monday's meeting as well.

"It's going to be very good to see (Dantonio) again," Grantham said. "It's hard to talk to him a lot, but we stay in touch. Mark's done a great job with that program."

Statistically speaking, Grantham's Bulldogs are one of the nation's best.

Grantham's defense ranks in the top 10 in four key team categories - total defense (third, 268.4 yards per game; 9th in rushing defense, 103.38 ypg; 8th in passing defense, 165 ypg and third in third down conversions, 28.81 percent).

Those were exactly the kind of results Georgia coach Mark Richt was hoping for when he hired Grantham away from the Dallas Cowboys, signing to him to a three-year deal for what at the time was the third-highest salary paid to a college assistant at $750,000 per season.

But getting a top-notch Xs and Os coach wasn't Richt's only priority during his search for a new defensive coordinator.

"When I was looking to make the hire, I wasn't necessarily looking for someone to run the 3-4, 4-3 or looking at schemes so much as I was trying to hire the right guy," Richt said. "I've been using the term fire in his belly and the guy has a lot of spirit, he's got a lot of enthusiasm."

Sometimes that enthusiasm has gotten Grantham in trouble.

His sideline "choke sign" at Florida kicker Chas Henry during the 2010 game against the Gators drew plenty of criticism, but even that did not compare to the post-game exchange with Vanderbilt coach James Franklin after the Bulldogs 33-28 victory in Nashville.

The confrontation became locally somewhat of a YouTube favorite, although an incident both Richt and athletic director Greg McGarity publically stated they were far from pleased with this season.

But despite what amounted to a public reprimand for his actions, the fact that Grantham was quick to defend his players was not lost on the ones he was trying to protect.

However, as linebacker Cornelius Washington explains it, seeing Grantham jump to protect his players was not anything new.

"He does that all the time," Washington said. "He gets us to play for him and that's one of the reasons why - at the end of the day he's going to have our back just like we've got his."

Richt obviously likes what he's seen.

"He has a vision for what he wants our defense to look like; he had that vision when he came. We're moving very quickly in that direction so we were very excited when we hired Todd," Richt said. "The one thing that helped me make the final decision on Todd was my brother-in-law (Brad Johnson) was with the Dallas Cowboys as a player when Coach Grantham was there and I just wanted to know just how he was with players, I wanted to know how he talked, what his style was and Brad was just very impressed with the guy."

Washington laughed that it only took the players one meeting with Grantham to discover the intensity that Bulldog fans have come to see for themselves.

"He came in and tried to explain the 3-4 to us in nutshell. He said something to a few guys … yeah, he was very intense right at the end of the meeting," Washington said. "It was not as bad as game days but it was a little sneak peek how he is and like in football."

It didn't take Grantham long at all to earn his players' respect, not only due to his persona, but his knowledge of defensive schemes and the ability to adjust on the field.

"He's a scientist, he knows his craft, he loves football and this is what he loves doing," Washington said. "I do respect that about him. As time has passed, he's become more than just a coach to us. We see him as one of our friends, but when we come out on the field, we play for him because we respect him."