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Hot Reads: Mark Dantonio’s Magic Ability to Balance the Wins Budget

February 05, 2020

Mark Dantonio, the man with the most wins in Michigan State football history, is no longer the man in charge of Michigan State football. He stepped down on Tuesday after 13 seasons in East Lansing. The Spartans went 114-57 under Dantonio with Big Ten titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015. The last title put Michigan State in the College Football Playoff that season.

I probably won't remember the wins as well as some other things. The perpetually dour expression, straight from classic-football-coach central casting, and the usually dour (but highly effective) brand of football will stick with me more. So will some intense, high-stakes Husker-Spartan games during Nebraska's early years in the Big Ten.

But the thing that will undoubtedly stick with me the most? Dantonio's Spartans were the perfect Pythagorean Wins team. I'll never forget his tenure for that very reason.

My spreadsheet with Pythagorean calculations for every team in college football starts with the 2007 season, Dantonio's first at Michigan State. The concept here, and it's one I've written about often, is that points scored and allowed can be a better indicator of quality than actual wins. Most of the time, teams' win-loss record will accurately reflect the points scored and allowed, but every year there are teams at the extreme ends of the spectrum, those that win or lose more games than they should've based on the points on hand. There's a correlation for those teams for the following season that's strong enough that I look at it each year. The 10-win team that had an expected (Pythagorean) win total of eight, tends to see its win total drop the following season. The opposite is true for the eight-win team that scored like a 10-win squad. It isn't a perfect predictor, but its pretty good.

For Dantonio's Michigan State teams, however, it almost always worked. Here, see for yourself. This is insanity.

The chart below shows you MSU's win totals during each of Dantonio's seasons, its expected win total based on Pythagorean wins, the difference and next year's change in wins. Green text indicates when the Spartans were better than their record (and thus could be expected to improve the following year) and red indicates the opposite. For those teams that were less than a half-win from the actual total, you can count those as neutral.

YEAR W EXP. W DIFF. NY +/- W
2007 7 8.14 1.14 +2
2008 9 7.47 -1.53 -3
2009 6 7.43 1.43 +5
2010 11 8.57 -2.43 0
2011 11 10.86 -0.14 -4
2012 7 8.04 1.04 +6
2013 13 12.17 -0.83 -2
2014 11 10.89 -0.11 +1
2015 12 9.51 -2.49 -9
2016 3 5.00 2.00 +7
2017 10 8.05 -1.95 -3
2018 7 7.16 0.16 0
2019 7 6.45 -0.55 ??

If the colors match above, the Spartans’ trajectory that year is what you could’ve inferred it would be based on the expected wins from the season before. They match in nine of the 12 seasons they could have with no data yet for the 2020 win total, obviously. 

What does this bizarrely conformist string of results say about Dantonio?

To me it says his teams were remarkably consistent, and consistent at a pretty high level. The Spartans' good seasons often weren't as good as they looked––something that didn't bother you at all if you were an MSU fan because, hey, 12 wins and a league title, a Rose Bowl, a Playoff appearance––but their bad seasons weren't usually as bad as they looked either. It all evened out in the end.

Dantonio won 114 games. Based on points and the Pythagorean formula, he was expected to win 112.3. Michigan State, here at the end of Dantonio's run, was a perfectly balanced budget. As a football coach, that is probably his genius. Randomness impacts this game more than anyone likes to admit, but Dantonio, somehow, found a way to maximize his runs of good fortune and minimize the streaks of bad luck.

Any team in the country, if it can take pride out of the equation, should be willing to take that. It will probably be tough to find again as the Spartans look for their first new coach in more than a decade.

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