The 29-year old assistant coach from Virginia Tech who interviewed for an opening on Nick Saban’s Michigan State staff in 1996 came across as “very intense, very knowledgeable,” Dean Pees remembers.
The only problem was that Todd Grantham was a defensive line coach and Michigan State had an opening for a linebackers coach.
“We got done with the interview and I remember going into Nick’s office and said, ‘We’ve got to get this guy,’” said Pees, Michigan State defensive coordinator from 1995-97 and now linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens. “We moved the staff around a little bit, actually, to hire him.”
Grantham became defensive line coach and Greg Colby shifted to linebackers coach.
The secondary coach then was Mark Dantonio, now head coach at Michigan State.
Datnonio’s Spartans go up against Georgia, where Grantham is completing his second season as defensive coordinator, on Jan. 2 in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
Michigan State is ranked fifth in the nation in total defense. Georgia is third.
“I know how thorough he is as a coach, I know what he believes in philosophically and does an outstanding job,” Dantonio said.
Grantham grew up in Pulaski, Va., was an offensive lineman at Virginia Tech, where he coached on defense for six seasons before joining Saban at Michigan State.
The Spartans went 6-6, 7-5 and 6-6 during Grantham’s three seasons in East Lansing, which came after the program was hit with NCAA probation and a reduction in scholarships for violations under previous coach George Perles.
The Spartans, with Grantham and Dantonio on staff, ranked 19th in the nation in total defense in 1996 and 13th in 1997.
Rival Michigan won the AP national title in 1997 when Grantham was there, but the Spartans stunned top-ranked Ohio State a year later in Columbus.
“There’s a lot of tradition in that conference,” Grantham said of the Big Ten. “There’s a lot of passion up there from the fans. It is important to do well. Big Ten bands are cool, too.”
Grantham was promoted to defensive coordinator after the 1998 season, but left a couple of months later to coach in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.
Grantham said Saban, who had been defensive coordinator with the Browns, already was running an NFL-type system, so the transition from Virginia Tech to Michigan State was a bigger adjustment than his jump to the Colts.
Grantham went on to coach in the NFL with Houston, Cleveland and Dallas before returning to the college level in 2010.
His years at Michigan State heavily influenced the type of coach Grantham became.
“Nick Saban’s probably been as a big an influence on my career as anybody,” Grantham said. “Just the three years I was able to spend with him and his coaching and the way he ran his program and the way we did things there. … The volume of stuff we did, the way we called things and that whole process. Everything from the way we recruited to the way we game-planned. There’s a reason Nick’s won, and I was fortunate enough to be with him for three years. I owe a lot to him for my success.”
Dantonio left Michigan State after six seasons for Ohio State to become defensive coordinator. He was head coach at Cincinnati for three years before returning to Michigan State in 2007 as head coach.
Pees, who considers Dantonio probably his best friend in coaching, said, “Todd and Mark are similar in their work ethic, their attention to detail, but they’re different styles of people, their different personalities, but just qualiy, quality people.”
Grantham said “a lot of the things we do now,” come directly from what he did at Michigan State under Saban.
“Last year, when I went in to do some scouting in the offseason for the draft, I went and talked to Todd and even went to a practice,” said Pees, New England’s defensive coordinator from 2006-09. “Half the terminology I can sit there and tell you. … Same thing from Michigan State. It wasn’t really changed. They’ve tweaked it over the years to put their own identity on it, but it all kind of comes back. It’s all kind of the same. There’s a lot of carryover.”