ATHENS — The last time Georgia played in the Capital One Bowl, Willie Martinez was still the Bulldogs’ defensive backs coach, hoping he would soon land a job as a coordinator. As it happened, Mark Dantonio — Martinez’s friend for nearly a decade — had just been named the head coach at Cincinnati, and he was looking for a defensive coordinator.
Dantonio called Georgia head coach Mark Richt to ask permission to interview Martinez, and the process moved along from there, but before a job could be offered, Martinez decided he wanted to remain with the Bulldogs rather than jump ship for a job with his old friend.
“He’s an outstanding family guy, somebody I respect a lot,” Martinez said. “I had the opportunity to possibly be joining him, and I just chose to stay here.”
Martinez said the decision was a difficult one, but his loyalty to Georgia was rewarded with a promotion to defensive coordinator after Brian VanGorder left to become an assistant coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Dantonio moved on from Cincinnati to become head coach at Michigan State prior to the 2007 season.
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Still, the two have remained in close contact, which gives Martinez a insider’s understanding of just how big Georgia’s challenge will be when the Bulldogs face off against Dantonio’s Michigan State team in this year’s Captial One Bowl.
“(Michigan State) will be a well-coached football team,” Martinez said. “It’ll be a disciplined football team. They’re going to run the football, play-action you, play solid on special teams and solid on defense. That sounds like a guy over in Tuscaloosa who (Dantonio) worked for. It’ll be tough.”
That guy in Tuscaloosa is Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who first hired Dantonio as an assistant at Michigan State in 1995.
At that time, Martinez was an assistant at Central Michigan, and he and Dantonio shared a mutual respect for each other’s work. They became friends and stayed in contact even after Martinez went to Georgia and Dantonio headed to Ohio State, where he served as defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel.
“We would share ideas,” Martinez said. “We’re pretty similar on defense philosophically.”
Dantonio’s philosophy helped him turn around a Cincinnati program that had failed to achieve much national success prior to his arrival. Two years after he left, many of Dantonio’s former players have helped the Bearcats earn a Big East championship and a berth in the Orange Bowl this season.
Meanwhile, Dantonio has turned around a struggling Michigan State program to lead the Spartans to their first New Year’s Day bowl game in eight years — something that Martinez said should come as no surprise given Dantonio’s impressive track record.
“He built a program (at Cincinnati) that was kind of a sleeping giant, and he left it in good hands,” Martinez said. “Now he’s doing the same thing at Michigan State. He’s worked with some really outstanding coaches in Nick Saban and Jim Tressel, so he’s got unbelievable pedigree.”
Of course, Martinez could have been part of that coaching family tree, too, had he made a different decision five years ago in Orlando. Rather than looking across the sideline to see his old friend leading the Spartans at this year’s Capital One Bowl, Martinez could have been facing off against Richt and the Bulldogs as part of Dantonio’s staff.
“It was a tough decision, it really was,” Martinez said. “He’s a great guy. I came close.”
In truth, Martinez said he has had other coaching jobs offered that were even more difficult to turn down, but his heart has always been with Georgia.
That, however, doesn’t mean he isn’t looking forward to the chance to coach against the man he might have been working for, had things turned out differently.
“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Martinez said, “and it’s going to be fun being across from him.”