ANN ARBOR, MICH. (AP) - With about a minute remaining in Michigan State's resounding win over Michigan, Mark Dantonio walked slowly with his wife at his side, toward an elevator that would take him down to meet his victorious players.
Dantonio had spent most of the game in a box high above the field _ hardly an ideal spot for a head coach _ but this result was as perfect as his resilient team's record.
"I had the same feeling that I would have had on the sideline," Dantonio said. "I was very proud of our football team. I did go down at halftime. I did try and keep as much normalcy as we could have without me being on the sideline. I didn't want to take anything away from anybody else in their preparation."
Less than three weeks after being hospitalized because of a mild heart attack following an overtime win over Notre Dame, Dantonio returned to coach the No. 17 Spartans on Saturday.
Although he's been trying to ease back into his job, the schedule didn't necessarily allow for that. His first game back was against the team Michigan State wants to beat most, and the Spartans did just that against No. 18 Michigan, pulling away in the second half for a 34-17 victory to remain unbeaten.
Dantonio missed his team's victories over Northern Colorado and Wisconsin, the latter after being hospitalized again because of a blood clot in his leg.
"He's very intense as a coach. It's a tough lifestyle. There's a lot of pressure on you," Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "I think this whole incident has helped him come back to true north and realize what's most important, which is his faith and his family and us as people."
Dantonio was on the field during warmups, tapping players on their helmets and backs before heading upstairs. The game was a few plays old when he finally arrived at the box, seconds after Trenton Robinson intercepted a pass in the end zone for Michigan State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) to end the Wolverines' first drive.
About 10 minutes before kickoff, a beaming Becky Dantonio said her husband was "real good" as she walked through the press area.
Michigan State beat Michigan (5-l, 1-1) for a third straight time in a series Dantonio has been happy to emphasize since taking over the Spartans before the 2007 season. Dantonio was also an assistant at Ohio State earlier in his career.
"It was just great to see him on the field at the beginning of the game," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "He's our emotional leader. He's our guy."
Toward the end, with the outcome no longer in doubt, Dantonio headed through the press area again on his way back to field level, at one point pausing briefly to look back toward the field. It's not clear where he'll coach from next weekend when the Spartans host Illinois, but Michigan State showed no ill effects from not having their coach physically on the sideline.
"It took me back to my days when I was a coordinator," Dantonio said. "You can see a lot up there."
And Dantonio's wife was never too far away.
"Having her and my girls there was great, sharing the moment together," Dantonio said about 90 minutes after the game in a phone interview with The Associated Press as he traveled back to East Lansing.
Before the game, Dantonio stayed on the field as long as possible, willing to miss some of the action on his way upstairs if it meant a little more time with his players.
"That, to me, kept normalcy. I wanted them to know that I was OK," Dantonio said. "I wanted to experience that too. I wanted to experience this football game close up."