Michigan State has no idea what it’s doing, trying to conduct a hurried coach search led by an athletic director who’s never done it before, shadowed by administrative gawkers, dogged by ugly perceptions. If that’s not the truth, someone please convince us otherwise.
It began because the school had no idea what Mark Dantonio was doing, almost to the very day he retired a week ago. Now it’s a disaster that can always get worse, as candidates drop out whether offered the job or not. It can’t get much worse than this week, when Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell bailed on a deal that Michigan State apparently thought it had sealed. Next came reports the Fickell family was nervous about the campus culture at Michigan State, followed by a goofy “waffling flake” retort from a Board of Trustee member.
Geez, what possibly could have shaken the Fickells? Could it be the meddling, or the uncertainty, or the pending lawsuit against Dantonio, or the well-documented sexual-assault scandals, or the barren roster itself?
Dantonio took Michigan State football on a 13-year ride, a mostly exhilarating one. The program went from disarray to dominance to defiance, and ended at delusion. That’s why it’s time for a break. No more interviews, while the toxic fumes linger. Unless an intriguing mystery candidate emerges, AD Bill Beekman should halt the search now and keep Mike Tressel on an interim basis.
Stop the embarrassment now. There’s no indication the school has the leverage or appeal to make a good move at the moment. I’m not suggesting Tressel can pull off a turnaround. I am suggesting he can calm the situation for a year and allow the school to properly vet candidates — and vice-versa. It would be safe and cautious, two traits Michigan State needs to embrace at the moment. It likely would hamper recruiting, but the recruiting can’t get much worse.
Whether Fickell was being fickle or smart, he sent a powerful message, to Michigan State and prospective candidates. In the program’s current state of denial, I’m not sure the message was received. Board of Trustee member Brian Mosallam went on 97.1 the Ticket Tuesday morning to ostensibly clear things up, and said the Spartans didn’t want a “waffling flake,” an apparent allusion to Fickell. It was excuse-making and pandering, and beyond foolish to mock the only prime candidate willing to listen.
One that got away
I mean, if the Spartans can’t even land a “flake” making less money at a smaller program, who can they land? And based on Dantonio’s indecision, wouldn’t he be considered the original waffling flake?
When the top remaining candidates appear to be Bret Bielema, who left Wisconsin and Arkansas in unappealing ways, or Pat Shurmur, the former Spartan and recently fired New York Giants head coach, or Butch Jones, who was fired at Tennessee, what’s the rush? Colorado's Mel Tucker also might be an option if the Spartans feel compelled to act now, although he already turned down overtures.
Once they missed on Fickell, diligence should be more important than desperation. Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain and Eastern Michigan’s Chris Creighton could be capable, but to fix its problems, Michigan State needs a strong leader. It starts with the AD, and Beekman looks weak, man. All the fanciful ideas of landing a big-time coach are squashed by the timing — a nasty parting gift from Dantonio — and the dysfunctional state of a program that was in the playoff four years ago and is 27-24 since.
Something, or someone, finally nudged Dantonio to do the right thing and retire. Whether it was fatigue, as Dantonio suggested, or fear of what was next, many questions are unanswered.
If anything, Spartan officials are the ones who should be interviewed by candidates. Is Beekman, originally appointed as an interim, a viable long-term AD? Is school president Samuel Stanley sufficiently motivated to exert control? Is anyone powerful enough to politely inform the Board of Trustees not to muck things up?
Most pointed: How deep are the accusations in former staffer Curtis Blackwell’s wrongful-termination lawsuit against Dantonio, with possible NCAA violations already leaking out? And speaking of delusion, how could Dantonio not settle the lawsuit before any depositions? How could nobody at the school demand he do so? Did he really think the lawsuit would quietly slip away?
If Dantonio didn’t want to settle because he believed he did nothing wrong, well, he hired Blackwell and worked alongside him for four years, and even gave him a substantial raise. If Blackwell was a problem, Dantonio was wrong to take so long to handle it.
No succession plan
Michigan State let Dantonio do whatever he wished, recruit whomever he wanted, follow his own timetable with no regard for succession plans and collect his $4.3-million bonus right on schedule, despite the unsettling optics of retiring two weeks later.
Dantonio was a superb coach who took the Spartans to incredible heights, and that should not be lost. His program got linked to a crisis it had nothing to do with, the Larry Nassar horror, but he arrogantly ignored the shifting campus climate it created. Often with success comes denial, defiance and delusion.
The signs were growing. Dantonio’s recruiting got more aggressive, riskier, which led to the disastrous admittance of Auston Robertson, now in jail for rape. After another poor offensive season, Dantonio defiantly refused to change his coaching staff last year and merely shuffled their roles. Virtually nobody ever got dismissed under Dantonio, except Blackwell.
Dantonio is still in the athletic department and might be involved in the coaching search, and is close to Fickell and Tressel. That makes Fickell’s spurning more curious, and Tressel’s candidacy more plausible. It’s such an unusual time for a major college job to come open, current head coaches have to worry about the risk in bolting.
The names you first heard as candidates — Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Tucker — are all head coaches. The names you hear now — Beliema, Jones, Tressel, former MSU defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett — aren’t currently head coaches, so of course, they’re interested.
Barnett, who left the Spartans two years ago to become defensive coordinator at Florida State but was let go after Willie Taggart was fired, has emerged as the choice of a vocal group of former Spartan players. It’s fine to have a discussion about it, but Michigan State shouldn’t rely on the emotions of any particular group.
These are dangerous times for a proud program. The Spartans will find a guy eventually, and if they choose wisely, they can rebound. But if they have to look this long and this far, it’s probably time to take a break and look within, for now.