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Tony Banks on Michigan State-Michigan Rivalry, Saban and Dantonio

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

Tony Banks remembers precisely the moment on Nov. 4, 1995 when he fully understood the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry.

Prior to that day the Spartans’ senior quarterback from San Diego failed to separate Michigan from other Big Ten schools on the schedule. He had grown up far from the Midwestern rivalry that burns in the Great Lakes State.

That changed 20 years ago. Banks led a fourth-quarter drive that beat No. 7-ranked Michigan 28-25. He drove the unranked Spartans 11 plays and 88 yards to score with 1:24 remaining on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Nigea Carter. But it was not until the final 84 seconds ticked off the clock that his antipathy for Michigan grew.

“I remember at the end of the game those guys were dropping to their knees and not doing the gentlemanly thing of shaking their opponents’ hands,” Banks said. “They were all crying. They thought it was unbelievable they lost to us.

“I was offended by that. Up until that point, I didn’t have a hatred for Michigan. When I was in high school it was the time of (Michigan basketball’s) Fab Five and black socks. Other than (Michigan State All-American running back) Lorenzo White, I didn’t have a tie to Michigan State. That game was when I learned to hate Michigan.”

Now, he is like any other Michigan State alumnus this week as No. 7 Michigan State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten East) travels to No. 12 Michigan (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten East) for Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor. Twenty years ago Nick Saban was a nationally touted name as Michigan State’s first-year coach. His defensive backs coach was Mark Dantonio, who is now the Spartans’ ninth year head coach.

Banks’ passion for Michigan State, especially under Dantonio, and disdain for Michigan, under any coach, still burns.

“Twenty years,” Banks said. “You’re making me feel old. I didn’t win as many games as (Michigan State quarterbacks) Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook with Dantonio, but I’m proud of my time at Michigan State and that game.”

He completed 26 of 34 passes for 318 yards for the game. A fourth-and-11 pass to Derrick Mason from Michigan’s 33-yard line kept alive the drive.

“Derrick Mason ran a deep comeback on the wide side of the field,” Banks said. “Most college defenses don’t defend that play because most college quarterbacks don’t attempt to make that throw. But it was in our offense. I threw that one late, but Derrick managed to make the catch and do a little dance at the sidelines to stay inbounds.”

After the game, Banks and his father went to dinner at the Outback Steakhouse on Brookside in Lansing. They usually stopped there when his father was in town, but this time Banks was greeted by a standing ovation as they entered the dining area.

“This was the era before social media, but fans knew you and appreciated you,” Banks said. “That’s one of the things special about going to a place like Michigan State.”

He went on to a 10-year NFL career that included a Super Bowl XXXV ring with the Baltimore Ravens as Trent Dilfer’s backup. Then he transitioned to TV, including working for the Big Ten Network. He’s now living in Dallas and working on Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans football shows.

Banks watches the Spartans from afar, but he’s comfortable stating Michigan State is in better hands under Dantonio despite the success Saban later enjoyed at LSU and Alabama with national titles. Saban stayed five years at Michigan State, but instead of being remembered for an upset of Michigan in 1995 and No. 1 Ohio State in 1998, he is a villain for leaving for LSU in 1999. And nationwide he is known as much for his harsh demeanor as for winning.

“Since Dantonio has taken over, I could care less at bout Nick Saban and his time at Michigan State,” Banks said. “Don’t get me wrong; he’s still one of my favorite coaches. He helped me get drafted higher in the NFL for the pro-style offense he and (offensive coordinator) Gary Tranquil ran. I highly respect his ability to coach Xs and Os. But he’s tough to like for leaving Michigan State.

“Dantonio also good with Xs and Os, he’s running a pro-style offense and defense that kids want to play to make it to the NFL and he’s better with kids.”

Banks likes how Dantonio prepares his teams week to week. That has been especially important this year as the Spartans have remained unbeaten despite a rash of injuries. Head athletic trainer Sally Nogle gains as much TV time as a quarterback while helping players off the field. Her training room has been transformed into a M*A*S*H unit.

“Without even being there in the environment, you can tell from Dantonio’s interaction with the kids how hard they play for him,” Banks said. “He can dig into them, but as opposed to a say to the (Notre Dame coach) Brian Kellys of the world, he’s not yelling and screaming at everybody.

“He coaches hard on the weekdays like a lot of pro coaches I’ve been around. If you’re still coaching on game day, you haven’t done your job during the week. He does a great job of coaching his players during the week. He’s the kind of coach you want running your program.”

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