It was an awkward feeling, Kevin Wilson will tell you now.
Hours before last year’s game at Michigan State, the Indiana coach was sitting on a bench along the visitor’s sideline at Spartan Stadium, watching his opponent work through its pregame routine.
He felt uneasy, perhaps out of place with his eyes trained on the Spartans completing a drill on their home field so close to kickoff. So Wilson buried his head in Michigan State’s gameday program, flipped through the pages and tried not to look so conspicuous.
Then he felt a tap.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said.
Thus began a brief, four-minute conversation between the two Big Ten bosses. Wilson has long admired Dantonio and the way he has built Michigan State’s program into a national power and he is looking forward to seeing how his IU team matches up on Saturday night.
Wilson always takes a pregame stroll onto the field. Most coaches do.
At road venues, Wilson might linger on the turf a little longer due to the cramped locker room accommodations. At some point, those pregame walks must all blend together, but the one in East Lansing last October sticks with Wilson for good reason.
He got to talk shop with one of the nation’s best.
“You go out there in warmups and shake hands (before every game),” Wilson said on his weekly radio show. “It’s all the feel-good stuff. This was a genuine (moment). I said, “Man, you guys are so good.’ He said, “We got a senior class that buys in. It’s about your seniors, winning at home, being tough.’
“I got a tremendous amount of respect. There are a lot of great coaches in this game. Mark Dantonio is one of the best that does what we do for a living.”
Dantonio is close friends with Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, a man Wilson assisted for nine seasons in Norman. So, to a degree, Wilson understands what has made Dantonio so successful in East Lansing during his 10 seasons as Spartans coach — a run that includes three Big Ten championships, two conference coach of the year awards and an appearance in last season’s College Football Playoff.
Indiana hung with Michigan State on that late-October afternoon last season, getting within two points late in the third quarter until the Spartans rolled to 24 unanswered points in the final period.
In two days, Wilson will have another chance to measure his program’s progress against a man he so admires.
“I wish they weren’t in our league because I’d like to go visit with him,” Wilson said. “You can’t really visit with the guys you compete against. I’d love to watch his team practice and pick his brain. They do an awesome job. It’s going to be a great challenge for our football team Saturday night.”