Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said it will be Chris L. Ruckerís decision whether to make the trip. (Associated Press)
Mark Dantonio's risk-taking mentality has been celebrated all season, rightly so. Not this time, no way.
Dantonio just took Michigan State's special run and needlessly swaddled it in controversy, and I'm astonished he did it. Mere hours after being released from jail, senior cornerback Chris L. Rucker was reinstated Thursday and back at practice, and I honestly don't know how Dantonio can think the decision is good for his program.
It's good for Rucker, who might be a decent kid who made two bad mistakes. It could help the team, at some point. But it's flat-out embarrassing for MSU, just as it heads to Iowa for its biggest game in decades, for a chance to go 9-0 and move closer to a shot at a national title.
If Rucker plays Saturday, it would be ridiculous. Dantonio said it would be Rucker's decision whether to make the trip, and that also makes no sense. This is Dantonio's program, his fate. It was his "zero tolerance" policy after the dormitory fracas last November involving 15 players, and he's tearing it up for, well, what?
I never advocate tossing someone aside, and it's noble Dantonio has a passion to help Rucker. Apparently, so do some of the players, with quarterback Kirk Cousins saying they pushed for his return. But would all that empathy run just as deep if the Spartans weren't 8-0 and gunning for a championship? Sorry, that's not just the question I'm asking — it's the win-at-any-cost question plenty will ask.
Dantonio said it took some soul-searching but it would be a "travesty" if he didn't let Rucker finish his career. In the next breath, he said he wasn't condoning what Rucker did — violating his probation for a misdemeanor assault and battery charge by getting arrested for driving while intoxicated. That was reduced to reckless driving and cost him eight days in jail.
If Dantonio isn't condoning it, he's certainly twisting and fudging his own words to find a way to explain it. That's what I can't understand: Why do Rucker's interests suddenly trump the team and the school? And if this isn't just about benefiting one person — Rucker — it's almost worse, if Dantonio really felt he needed another experienced defender to beat future opponents.
Rucker has been craving redemption against Iowa because he was the one beaten on the final play last year, a 7-yard touchdown catch by Marvin McNutt. At what cost is he allowed to make amends?
There's plenty to like about Dantonio and his program. It's amazing what the Spartans have done this season, winning games with guts, going for it on fourth downs, faking an overtime field goal to beat Notre Dame. It's stirring what Dantonio himself has overcome, suffering a heart attack six weeks ago.
But this almost speaks to a growing arrogance, and you could see it when Dantonio refused to answer a perfectly reasonable question about Rucker the other day. He practically sneered, and while that's part of the demeanor that makes him a good coach, it can be misused.
Yes, he knows far more than us about the player and the dormitory fight and the punishment still awaiting Rucker. In many cases, I trust Dantonio's judgment. In this case, I seriously wonder.
Dantonio said this was his decision, his responsibility, all on him, but if so, why do it now? Maybe he feels strongly Rucker should be back with his teammates. OK, fine. Two chances seem plenty to me, but if you must make an exception, let him work his way back. From the jail cell immediately to the practice field is unseemly, and sends so many wrong messages, you can barely add 'em up.
"I think I'm making the right decision for him," Dantonio said. "The easy decision would have been to cut bait, not to stand here and publicly be put through the ringer."
I hope it's the right call. A similar call was wrong before, when Dantonio allowed troubled runner Glenn Winston back and he was part of the dorm fight. Winston finally got booted, but the embarrassment was profound, and should have been enlightening.
Each case is different. Each kid is different. Absolutely. Then don't set up some vague discipline code that shifts according to circumstance. Dantonio said Thursday that "zero tolerance does not mean automatic dismissal."
He can make all those arguments and defend his decision and pray Rucker proves him right. But this is not a fake-kick gamble that might cost him a game. This is a gamble with his program's reputation, and it's disappointing he took it.