Howes: Michigan State's chaotic search for football coach reminds who's in charge

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

After roughly a week of chaos, Michigan State University appears to have a new football coach.

Welcome to the asylum, Coach Mel Tucker, where the inmates otherwise known as the board of trustees repeatedly demonstrate zero understanding of the difference between management and governance — and where State’s new president, Samuel Stanley, is nowhere to be found beyond a belated news release.

This is not encouraging, especially if a new coach with just one year as a head man at the University of Colorado suspects he answers to, say, trustees Brian Mosallam and Joel Ferguson. Mosallam, the former Spartan O-lineman, spent more time this past week talking about the mess Mark Dantonio left when he abruptly quit amid alleged NCAA violations than either Stanley or Athletic Director Bill Beekman, reinforcing the perception that the only locus of power that matters at MSU is the trustees' board room.

Trustee Brian Mosallam

It shouldn’t work this way. And it hasn’t at the University of Michigan, say people familiar with the process interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett used in his widely anticipated hiring of Jim Harbaugh from the San Francisco 49ers. Or when Hackett's predecessors — charged with making the single-most-important hire just about any Big Ten school can make these days — hired the previous two coaches.

Moreover, an effort by Michigan's largest donor, Stephen Ross, to form a subcommittee to screen and hire a new football coach was scuttled by Hackett, according to a source close to the situation. Two reasons: Ross owned the Miami Dolphins and could not be involved wooing Harbaugh from another NFL franchise and, second, because the school's top donor could not be perceived as picking the football coach.

“We weren’t involved at all,” says Andrea Fischer Newman, a former member of Michigan’s Board of Regents who served for 24 years. “Jim Hackett ran the process, and he ran it himself. There was no individual regental involvement. The regents were kept updated by the president and the athletic director and didn’t interfere. The regents had a lot of faith in Jim Hackett,” now CEO of Ford Motor Co.

The upshot: State’s trustees haven’t learned much from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, its legal aftermath and its cultural indictment. Second, President Stanley appears, publicly anyway, content to acquiesce to a governance culture that is broken enough to prompt one trustee, Nancy Schlichting, to quit after less then a year.

And third, MSU's rookie AD, a former secretary to the trustees and their clubby culture, failed to develop much of a succession plan beyond assuming Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell would, as Dantonio predicted, crawl to East Lansing to replace him. Turns out the winningest coach in State history proved a bit too optimistic.

Couple State's high-level dysfunction with the timing of Dantonio's departure and the sky-high expectations of Spartan Nation, and it should come as little surprise that Beekman's Plan B reportedly culminated in him dropping a very large pile of dough on Tucker. Offering the new guy a deal he couldn't refuse is one way to forestall the national embarrassment of being spurned by the second of State's top three candidates. 

Who could blame Fickell, a 46-year-old outsider and Ohio State Buckeye, from looking in and seeing a bureaucratic morass at State and the prospect of NCAA issues he didn’t create? The question answers itself, to the extent the deniers on the banks of the Red Cedar are willing to concede it.

Mosallam had it right Tuesday when he told 97.1 The Ticket's Jamey and Stoney show: "At the end of the day, we can’t make somebody come here. So we want somebody that wants to be here, that understands Michigan State, that wants to do everything they can to get here. It’s very, very important for a job like this."

Absolutely right. What, precisely, would give the guy who "wants to be here" confidence that he's not inheriting a situation set up for failure? State's trustees are legendary for being meddlesome, especially with football program. The administration is struggling with the aftermath of the Nassar scandal, with mending frayed relations with affected constituencies, students and the faculty.

MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson, left, and Athletic Director Bill Beekman

And the possibility that allegations of NCAA rule-breaking by Dantonio, leveled in the wrongful termination suit by former assistant Curtis Blackwell, could result in sanctions against the program that in big-time college football have implications for recruiting and results on the field.

Formally, State follows a process for such high-level hires as head football coaches that culminates in trustee approval, meaning the board technically is not involved in the search process. Once the pricey hire is approved by the trustees, the coach's employment contract is signed by the president. 

"My job is to evaluate the AD’s recommendation, to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down and then the AD gets evaluated on the performance of that coach," Mosallam told 97.1 The Ticket. "That’s really all our role is."

In theory, maybe. But we're talking about Michigan State here, where trustees seldom resist publicly commandeering the next controversy to remind everyone who's really in charge atop Spartan Nation.

When legendary Alabama coach Nick Saban led the Spartans from 1995 to 1999, his roster included an Academic All-American lineman from Dearborn named Brian Mosallam. Saban is reported to have played an unofficial consulting role in the search for Dantonio's replacement — after, The Detroit News reports, the winner of six national championships called an acquaintance at Michigan State to offer his help.

I wonder who that was?


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Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at detroitnews.com or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.