Photo: Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins avoids the Texas Tech defense in the 2010 Alamo Bowl.
The 2010 Alamo Bowl crowd roared, the Texas Tech band played and bodies swirled around Red Raiders interim head coach Ruffin McNeill and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio at midfield following the 2009 season’s bowl game played in San Antonio.
Yet McNeill remembers a surreal silence as he and Dantonio shook hands.
Texas Tech had come from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Michigan State 41-31. McNeill understood the handshake routine despite being named interim head coach only four days earlier when the Red Raiders fired head coach Mike Leach.
“When coaches meet at midfield, a lot of different exchanges go on,” he said. “Some are sincere and some are fake handshakes and you quickly leave.”
McNeill wasn’t sure what to expect from Dantonio; they didn’t know each other well before the Alamo Bowl.
“The game came down to the end and we were fortunate to win,” McNeill said. “I told Mark, ‘Great job.’ The first thing Mark said to me was he was going to say in his press conference, ‘You are the man they should hire to get that job as head coach.’ Here’s a coach who just lost a tough game and that’s the first thing he says to me.
“Sure enough, in the first question or two he said it with conviction. I’ve come across people who had my best interests at heart, but I didn’t really know Mark. I’ll never forget that. He’s is one of the men I most respect in this business.”
Five seasons later both coaches are preparing for yet another bowl game. Dantonio, 58, is in his eighth season of having revived Michigan State as a Top 10 program. The Spartans won the Rose Bowl last year, finishing No. 3. He has No. 8-ranked Michigan State (10-2) back in Texas as the Spartans face No. 5 Baylor (11-1) in the Cotton Bowl Jan. 1 at AT&T Stadium.
Texas Tech ignored Dantonio’s endorsement, but McNeill, 58, landed on his feet as the head coach at East Carolina, his alma mater. The Pirates (8-4) are bound for their third straight bowl game and fourth in McNeill’s five seasons when they face Florida (6-5) on Jan. 3 in the Birmingham Bowl.
Actually, the Alamo Bowl was a week of turmoil for both coaches. Dantonio suspended 14 players following a dormitory fight that centered on a player he kicked off the team.
“That was a tough deal for him, but he did what he believed in,” McNeill said. “That’s why he’s one of the top coaches in the profession. He wins in a tough conference and wins year in and year out. He doesn’t win for a season; he wins for seasons. He has a program. He’ll continue to win because of his values.”
McNeill was thrust into his new role when Texas Tech suspended Leach on Dec. 28 and then fired him Dec. 30.
“That was my most challenging week in this business, and I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said. “I was at the age when I didn’t know if I’d get the chance to be a head coach. I felt I’d have a chance if we could beat Michigan State.”
During the bowl week, head coaches, assistant coaches and spouses have various roles involving the media, fans and bowl sponsors. It was important to McNeill he handle his role with aplomb to impress his bosses. McNeill said Dantonio helped put him at ease.
“You have a lot of interaction with the other coach,” McNeill said. “I could tell there was genuine respect from Mark.”
But McNeill especially appreciated the help Dantonio’s wife, Becky, provided his wife, Erlene, during bowl week events. McNeill was somewhat comfortable as a long-time coach and defensive coordinator, but his wife was thrust into a new world.
“Mark’s wife sought out Erlene and helped her throughout that week,” McNeill said. “Erlene felt so much better with those types of things.”
Five seasons later, the two schools are comfortable with the right hire and entrenched coaches. But if something comes up, McNeill hopes Dantonio knows he can call on him.
“If he needed anything from me,” he said, “I would leave right now and do whatever he needed.”