Just days before retirement, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio was 'frustrated' by ongoing lawsuit
Publicly, Mark Dantonio maintained his typically stoic demeanor.
But privately, the ongoing court battle with a former Michigan State football staffer — and all the headlines it was creating — was wearing on him just weeks before he suddenly stepped down as head football coach.
On Sunday, Jan. 19, in a regularly scheduled meeting with athletic director Bill Beekman, Dantonio expressed "frustration" over the Curtis Blackwell lawsuit.
On Feb. 4, the day before National Signing Day, Dantonio shockingly retired after 13 seasons, during which he became the program's all-time winningest coach.
Asked that day what impact the Blackwell lawsuit had on his decision, Dantonio responded quickly and directly: "Zero."
That, however, is not to say it wasn't affecting him.
In a deposition under oath on Jan. 20, Beekman told Blackwell's attorneys that he had met with Dantonio just the day before, and that Dantonio started the meeting by discussing the Blackwell suit, which has been going on since November 2018.
"It came up in the context of Mark expressing frustration that — frustration over the litigation and his perpective that it's, that any characterization of somehing being other than performance-based is inaccurate," Beekman said, according to a partial transcript of his deposition that was filed by Blackwell's attorneys this week.
"After that, the discussion was just "general conversation about the week's events before we got down to the subject of our normal working meeting," Beekman said.
Blackwell worked for MSU from 2013 until May 2017, when he was let go from his year-to-year contract over what Dantonio termed "philosophical" differences with the program's recruiting coordinator. The decision came after Blackwell was suspended, with pay, for several months following a January 2017 campus party at which a female was allegedly sexual assaulted by three football players. Blackwell was accused by police of obstructing the investigation, though no chargers were ever filed.
Blackwell is suing Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis and former president Lou Anna K. Simon for wrongful termination, saying he was made a scapegoat, as well as two MSU Police detectives for wrongful arrest. He's seeking more than $5 million from police, an unknown amount from the former MSU officials.
A federal judge is holding a hearing in Grand Rapids on Thursday to hear arguments from both sides, as Dantonio's lawyers are trying to get the case thrown out based on alleged ethics violations by Blackwell's legal team, particularly lawyer Drew Paterson.
Dantonio and Beekman met in Dantonio's temporary office on the seventh floor of Spartan Stadium, as the MSU football building is being renovated. Beekman termed it one of his "regularly scheduled" meetings with Dantonio. Beekman said he had no other conversations with Dantonio about Blackwell, including Blackwell's suspension and his employment separation. Hollis was athletic director when that all went down.
Beekman addressed the lawsuit the day Dantonio retired, the same day Blackwell's lawyers alleged NCAA violations by Dantonio. Beekman, at the time, called the allegations "patently false," but since, MSU has acknowledged it is in communication with the NCAA and the Big Ten. In mid-February, a mother of a former high recruit submitted a sworn affidavit, including a photo, of Dantonio and Blackwell together in the reruit's home in December 2015. Blackwell, as an off-field coach, wasn't authorized to recruit off-campus, as Dantonio acknowledged in his deposition.
Blackwell's lawyers also alleged Dantonio would help secure employment for parents of high-profile recruits, and defended the relevance of their NCAA allegations, saying they call into question Dantonio's credibility.
In response to that court filing, Dantonio's lawyers said he didn't remember that home visit, nor did he travel with Blackwell to the home or authorize Blackwell being there. Blackwell is a good friend of the recruit's family, as he is with many Metro Detroit families, from his work as co-founder of Sound Mind Sound Body.
The photo evidence of the home visit caught Dantonio and his lawyers by surprise. They were made aware of its existence just days before it was included in the court filing.
A small, two-page portion of Hollis' deposition, which has been mostly sealed by a federal judge, also was released in court this week. In it, Hollis said he was made aware that Dantonio was letting Blackwell go around the same time that Dantonio told Blackwell.
Blackwell, Dantonio, Hollis, Simon, Beekman, the two MSU Police detectives are among those who sat for depositions, with jailed former MSU football player Auston Robertson scheduled to answer written questions late last month.
The discovery period for the lawsuit ended at the end of the February, and a trial could take place this spring or early summer, pending the judge's ruling Thursday.
Dantonio hasn't spoken publicly since his retirement press conference, which came about three weeks after he collected a $4.3 million retention bonus. He said the day he retired that he was moving into a "special-projects" role within the MSU athletic department, one that could pay him $1 million a year.
He was replaced as coach by Mel Tucker.