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MSU’s Dantonio: Last 4 months ‘especially difficult’

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Mark Dantonio spoke on Monday afternoon, but even he wondered if it was the right thing to do.

“You sort of think to yourself, is this really a good time?” Dantonio said at the West Michigan Sports Commission luncheon at the JW Marriott.

The Michigan State football coach and his program are in the midst of plenty of turmoil and his public appearances have been limited. So whether he would address the crowd of roughly 800 was a legitimate question.

Dantonio answered his own question by admitting the last four months have been especially difficult while focusing on getting his program headed back in the right direction.

“Obviously the last number of months, really starting in July when we lost Mike Sadler, it has been difficult,” Dantonio said, referencing the death of his former punter in an automobile accident. “It’s been, really, just difficult, one thing after another as we move through the year. The last four months especially difficult.

“What I will tell you is I’ve spent 17 years at Michigan State — six years as an assistant coach now 11 years as the head football coach. During that time, I’ve been part of hundreds of young people’s lives. Hundreds. There’s been ups and downs as we’ve gone through it, I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

The downs have far outnumbered the ups in the past year. After winning 36 games over a three-year stretch, Michigan State hit rock bottom with a 3-9 record in 2016, one season after reaching the College Football Playoffs.

The bad news continued in the off-season as linebacker Jon Reschke left the team after making an insensitive comment to a former teammate and defensive end Demetrius Cooper was charged with misdemeanor assault for spitting on an East Lansing Code Enforcement officer.

In February, a week after national signing day, it was announced that three players were being investigated for sexual assault after an alleged incident on campus. All three were suspended while staffer Curtis Blackwell also has been suspended with pay.

The Ingham Country Prosecutor is still reviewing the case and the three players have yet to be identified. In addition to that criminal case, Michigan State is also undergoing a Title IX investigation as well as an independent review of the football staff’s handling of the incident.

The latest issue concerns defensive end Auston Robertson, who was dismissed from the team by Dantonio after being charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct following an incident on April 9 when he allegedly assaulted a woman in her apartment.

Robertson was extradited back to Michigan from his home state of Indiana last week and is awaiting a preliminary exam next week.

On Friday, several players on Michigan State’s leadership council spoke with the media and talked about the difficulty of moving forward through all the off-field issues and said it has all brought the team closer together.

During his speech Monday, Dantonio emphasized his role in helping those still on the team.

“My job right now is really to keep the birds in the nest,” Dantonio said. “I tell my players I’ve got my birds in the nest. My job is to protect them, the ones that are sitting in that nest right now and move them forward in their lives.

“There is no question that at this point in time, our situation impedes progress. It makes it difficult to go day to day without dealing with some problem or dealing with some sort of issue that has to do with the whole.”

However, Dantonio also said he believes Michigan State has the right people in place and defended his players from outside criticism.

“It seems like sometimes when things go wrong in your corporations, in your businesses, in your families, people want to point to the one thing that is going wrong, and they want to lump everybody together,” he said. “That’s not the case. You don’t have the success we had in the past without good people. You don’t get there without good people.”

Dantonio avoided many specifics about the team, pointing out his excitement about the season quarterback Brian Lewerke could be on the verge of having.

“Our outlook for 2017 is promising, very promising,” he said.

Afterward, however, it was clear his speech would be it for the day. Approached by reporters, Dantonio said, “Can’t talk, guys,” and ducked out of the ballroom.