Q&A: Beekman on Dantonio, Izzo, MSU's mission, more

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
MSU Athletic Director Bill Beekman talks about his goals during an interview on the MSU campus Thursday.

East Lansing — The days of pulling double duty are over for Bill Beekman.

Named Michigan State’s permanent athletic director on July 16 after serving for five months in an interim basis, Beekman had been continuing to help out in his old position as secretary for the Board of Trustees.

But Thursday marked the first time he hadn’t attended a board meeting in more than 10 years, and it was his first chance to be only Michigan State’s athletic director. That position alone comes with its set of challenges as Beekman took over after Mark Hollis stepped down in late January.

The university and the athletic department have been dealing with the consequences of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal for some time, and this week, the NCAA notified MSU that it did not find any reason to continue investigating whether it had violated any legislation with regard to the Nassar case. It also stated it found no wrongdoing from basketball coach Tom Izzo or football coach Mark Dantonio in their handling of past sexual assault cases.

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In the midst of all that, Beekman sat down with The Detroit News on Thursday to talk about taking on the new job, his focus on student safety and how his department is changing there, his feelings on the NCAA report, his relationships with Izzo and Dantonio and more.

Question: What has been the challenge of taking over during a time the university is dealing with the effects of the Larry Nassar case?

Beekman: “It’s been a challenge because you’re always wanting to make the place better. So, anytime you discover that there’s a problem, large or small, you’re always sort of thinking about: How do we make things better, how do we do right by our student-athletes? I think the biggest challenge of the last number of months has been just sort of reassuring people, in large measure, reassuring people that we’re doing that. There’s a set of our population that, I’ll say, different people are at different stages. And so some folks are at different stages than others in the process and you have to speak to everybody and try and understand their perspectives, their concerns and incorporate those into your thinking as you try and move the department forward.”

■ Q: What has changed in terms of student safety?

■ Beekman: “Relative to the circumstances surrounding Larry Nassar and the horrible things that he did, a few specific examples that we’re excited about, specific to the athletic department: This year our student-athletes who are female will have the opportunity to see a female primary care physician. So if they come in and have tweaked a knee or an elbow or whatever, our female athletes will have the opportunity to see a female if they wish.

“We also, and I was speaking with the parents of our incoming freshmen over the weekend, and one of the things I was able to reassure those that might be from some distance, is that even though they as a parent might not be able to be here, we have a chaperone program. So an athletic trainer is specifically trained to serve as a patient advocate and chaperone for the student when they have to go to a doctor’s appointment. In addition to their athletic training experience, they’ve received specific training on how to be a chaperone, how to be a patient advocate, how to make sure that each one of our student-athletes, when they need medical care, are getting it in a way that they’re comfortable with and that they know what they’re rights are as a patient.”

■ Q: Have there been any changes in the process of reporting Title IX issues?

■ Beekman: “In that case not really. And I say not really because that’s something that we train on ruthlessly. We train on it constantly and our Title IX folks, our Office of Institutional Equity, meets on a regular basis with our coaching staff, our athletic department; they’re scheduled to meet with me later today as part of my periodic training. So there really hasn’t been a whole lot different there and every time we’ve looked at when a student-athlete came in with an issue, let’s double-check when the coach or assistant coach or trainer was confronted with that issue: Did they follow the rules? Our training really has worked. We’ve been very pleased with the fact that folks have done exactly what they’re supposed to do in terms of reporting.”

Q: Was Kathie Klages an example of that training not working?

Beekman: “I think we’ll find out. I think the charges are being brought because she said one thing and student-athletes said something else and that will work itself through the legal process. That happened 20-plus years ago. Because it’s an ongoing thing I don’t want to say a whole lot more than that, but certainly I think during my brief interim and over the last decade I feel very comfortable that we’ve trained very carefully and thoughtfully, and that our coaches have done a very good job of following that training and reporting as appropriate.”

■ Q: Relative to the NCAA absolving Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo, is that a referendum for them and their programs?

Beekman: “Intentionally conflating those things (Nassar with Dantonio and Izzo) is beyond my comprehension. Tom and Mark were accused of not following the rules in a number of circumstances. In several of those cases the issue had been investigated internally or reviewed internally. It had been reviewed or investigated by an external law firm that we had hired. In some cases, it had been reviewed by the federal government’s office of civil rights. And now they’ve been reviewed by the NCAA.

“Each case was a little different and each case was reviewed by different groups, but what I think is sort of extraordinary to me is that in each one of those cases, whichever subset investigated it all reached the same conclusion. They all reached the same conclusion that Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio followed the rules. How other entities could reach other conclusions escapes me. But I do think that for Tom and Mark it’s yet another signal that they did the right thing. It’s not really a surprise; it’s a validation of what we already knew.”

■ Q: What’s your relationship like with Dantonio and Izzo?

Beekman: “I really hadn’t known them a lot. In my role as Secretary of the Board of Trustees, I typically attend the bowl games and Final Fours so I would say that I had a reasonable working relationship with the coaching staffs and those programs. But I didn’t really have a particularly significant or strong relationship with either coach. I think since I took on the interim role in February, we have gotten to know each other a lot better. I try, if we haven’t seen each other in a few weeks, to stop by practice or stop into their office and they’ll do the same, and I think we’re getting to know each other and working well together.”

Q: How important can those programs be in helping the university move forward?

Beekman: “I think they’re very, very important. I’ve always joked with some of my academic colleagues, maybe who aren’t particularly interested in athletics, that if MSU wins a Rose Bowl for example, even those folks who may not particularly be interested in athletics have a little more spring in their step, feel a little bit better about things just because the whole university community is a little more vibrant and upbeat. We’ve got physicians working to cure cancer, we’ve got the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, we’ve got folks working in so many areas to try and make the world a better place in extraordinary ways. But I do think athletics has a role in creating a vibrant, enthusiastic community and they can put a little bit of a spring in everybody’s step when things are going well.”

■ Q: Do issues at other schools like Ohio State and Maryland affect how you approach things here?

Beekman: “Our absolute first priority has to be the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes. And so whether things happen at other places or they don’t, we’ve got to be laser-focused on making sure that every parent that drops off their young adult and puts them in our care can sleep at night knowing that we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that they have a positive experience and they’re safe and healthy. That’s just sort of a universal truth regardless of what’s happening anywhere else.”

Bill Beekman

Q: Did MSU lose that focus for a while?

■ Beekman: “I think in any huge place there are always pockets of an organization that are more focused than others. And I think that to me that’s probably true in any large organization and you hate to have a circumstance like this be the event or incident that causes everybody to refocus. Certainly, it does. You hope that your normal processes and protocols, your infrastructure, accounts for those things and sort of keeps everybody up to speed. But I think we are, certainly under my leadership, are going to be laser-focused on health, safety and wellness.”

■ Q: How do you want to put your stamp on the athletic department?

Beekman: “From my perspective, no offense to the media, but the media and most of our alums will measure us on two things. They’ll measure us on wins and losses, and 95-plus percent of that is tied to football and men’s basketball. And they’ll measure us on whether any of our student-athletes are getting in trouble or not. What I’ve explained to our athletic department is that we need to make sure that all of our student-athletes have the ability to succeed in three areas — on the field of play, in the classroom and in life. My benchmark for my personal success is if in 10, 15, 20 years our student-athletes are being positive contributing members of their communities and making the world a better place. And so while much of the public will judge us coming in one direction with wins and losses, to me, I’ll judge us coming the other way in: Are people being successful in life? Are they doing well in the classroom? And sort of lastly, are they winning? So I think what we have to work really hard to do is make sure that whichever way you’re coming you are doing well.”

Q: Have you become a huge sports fan now?

■ Beekman: “I’ve always had an interest in sports. I’ve made no secret that I’m not exactly an athlete myself. But for the last decade as vice president and secretary of the Board, I’ve had a role working with our major donors on game days and probably catching less of the game than I’d like. What I’ve really enjoyed as athletic director is getting out and seeing some of the other sports. Spending some time watching volleyball practice, getting over to a tennis match. Had lunch last week with the golf coach. I’m not particularly familiar with the rules of field hockey but our field hockey coach promises me that she’ll get me up to speed. I’ve gone to football games my whole life, been to a lot of basketball games, but really spending some time with a lot of the other sports has been great fun.”

Q: Have you given much thought to life after Izzo and Dantonio?

Beekman: “I think certainly whenever Tom and Mark decide to hang up their cleats, those will be massive decisions in the interest of our athletic department and the university. At the moment my principle job is trying to convince them to stay forever. So I’m still working on that. We’ve always got plans. We’ve always got a plan B, but I’m pretty much focused on the plan A, which is keeping them here as long as they’re willing to be here.”

■ Q: Do you pay attention to the critics?

■ Beekman: “I’ve always, well before I was in this role, have always had a philosophy of don’t pay too much attention to your good press and don’t pay too much attention to your bad press and just try and do the right thing. I don’t think you can completely ignore it. I don’t have a ban on reading the newspaper or watching TV in our family but I really, from my perspective, if I can come in every day and when I walk out to my car feel like I’ve done the right thing and I can sleep at night then I’m good. You’re gonna get folks that are unduly favorable and unduly critical and from my perspective, it’s probably best to put as much of that out of your mind as you can.”