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The Register's Chad Leistikow and Rick Brown preview Iowa's Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State

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INDIANAPOLIS — It was the spring of 1989. Kirk Ferentz was 33, and Mark Dantonio was lost.

To be more specific, Dantonio was Youngstown State’s defensive coordinator at the time. As the story goes, head coach Jim Tressel sent his 32-year-old assistant on a recruiting assignment to Florida.

“I got in my rental car, didn’t know where I was going and there were no cell phones back then, no GPS,” Dantonio said.  “So I drove around behind the guy from Iowa, which was Kirk. I think we did that for two days. I felt like he was very grounded, wasn’t aloof, just sort of said it the way it was.”

The two up-and-coming assistant coaches shared stories over grouper sandwiches during lunch stops on the trail around Tampa.

“Funny how the world turns around sometimes,” Ferentz laughed Friday. “How many years later this is, here we are in Indianapolis. No grouper sandwiches this weekend, though.”

The longtime coaching combatants might share a handshake and a short conversation Saturday night before marching to opposite sidelines for their highest-stakes encounter: Ferentz and his fourth-ranked Hawkeyes against Dantonio’s No. 5 Michigan State squad, with a Big Ten title and a spot in the college football playoff riding on the outcome.

The roles are different than they were almost 27 years ago. Ferentz is the one in foreign territory. His Iowa team is 12-0 for the first time in school history. The Hawkeyes are making their first Big Ten title game appearance.

Dantonio knows his way around this town. Michigan State is back in the conference championship game for the third time in five years. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in five of the past six seasons. Dantonio is the first coach in league history to pull off that feat.

A logical question surfaced Friday when Dantonio stood at the dais for his portion of the pregame news conference: Would a win Saturday night elevate the Michigan State’s program status from blue-collar to college football blue-blood?

“I hope not,” Dantonio said. “I hope we stay grounded in who we are as a program and continue to just strive to do a little bit better than we’ve always done and always try to move a little bit farther. When you’ve gotten to a point, you want to move farther than that. I think that’s the human spirit working (or) that competitiveness in you. … But I hope we keep the same attitude that we must overachieve.”

In a roundabout way, Dantonio is in this position thanks to Ferentz. When he became a head coach for the first time in 2004 at Cincinnati, Dantonio looked around for programs he wanted his to be like.

“Iowa was probably the dominant one, because I knew (Ferentz) had a staff with great continuity that would stay in place. They were excellent coaches; I knew he had a program that was built on toughness,” he said. “They didn’t flip back and forth on different things. They had a belief system in place from a football standpoint.

“It was very structured — defensively, offensively and special teams — and they were very, very successful. The man has won a lot of football games. He’s had success in this conference throughout 17 years. That’s a statement in itself.”

The funny thing is, Iowa is in this position, in part, thanks to Michigan State. When Hayden Fry split up scouting assignments in the 1980s, Ferentz drew the Spartans. He grew to appreciate their program. One thing stuck with him: Michigan State won the 1987 Big Ten title and beat USC in the Rose Bowl with a team full of unheralded recruits.

“If I remember correctly, 17 of their players weren’t offered by a major conference (school),” Ferentz said. “It really impacted me because that was a great football team. … They did it with a bunch of guys who weren’t marquee players. If you look at Iowa in the ‘80s, it was much the same.

“Dan Gable never worried about that. I remember reading about his philosophy and talking to him about that. Tom Brands is the same way. They’re caught up more in what a player is going to be in college.

“Part of it is circumstance. We can’t always get in with all the four- and five-star recruits. We don’t get a lot of first-round draft picks at our place. That’s kind of the reality. We have to do a better job of identifying the guys that aren’t the obvious players. It’s tricky to do. Your batting average might not be that high. Common sense would tell you that. … But if you get hung up on that stuff, you might miss out on some good stories.”

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The Big Ten football championship will be decided in Indianapolis as Iowa takes on Michigan State.

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