Hollis: Chaos surrounding MSU athletics 'challenging'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Rosemont, Ill. — Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis indicated his confidence in football coach Mark Dantonio on Monday while also admitting the turmoil that has surrounded the athletic department in recent months has been “challenging.”

Hollis is attending the Big Ten’s spring joint meetings at the conference’s headquarters just outside of Chicago and offered his first extensive remarks since Michigan State has become embroiled in several controversies, including the ongoing legal case against Dr. Larry Nassar, who had a long career working with MSU gymnastics, as well as two sexual assault cases involving members of the football team.

“I’m an AD that cares passionately about Michigan State and East Lansing and our state,” Hollis said. “The situation’s been challenging for everybody. At the same time there’s much good that’s going on, on campus right now that I guess somewhat for good reason has been overshadowed by some very serious issues.”

Those issues include the Nassar case as well as two separate sexual assault cases that have already led to the dismissal of one football player and the suspension of three others. Football staffer Curtis Blackwell has also been suspended.

The first incident with the football program occurred in January and is being reviewed by the Ingham County Prosecutor for possible charges. It has also resulted in a Title IX investigation and a review of the football staff’s handling of the incident.

In early April, former defensive end Auston Robertson was charged with criminal sexual conduct and was dismissed from the team.

Several other off-field issues have also plagued the football program since the first of the year but Hollis said he feels good it is headed in the right direction.

“I’ve had an opportunity to talk to the kids as well as the coaching staff, and that’s continuing to be a work in progress,” Hollis said. “I think everyone wants to get to a good place and they’re doing what needs to be done to get there. Confidence is high that we will get there. The goal is to make this community proud of what has been done, like has been the case over the past 10 years.”

The first sexual assault case has dragged on for several months and there is no indication when it might be resolved. Hollis said waiting to find out has been difficult.

“Patience is challenging for everybody,” he said, “yet as leaders you have to have that patience and you have to allow the process to take place and I have great respect for those that are managing the process. I’m waiting on a number of these cases before we’ll address them, and that’s what I have to do.”

While the identity of the three players suspended in the first sexual assault case have not been revealed, Robertson’s case developed quickly. The alleged incident occurred on April 9 and a little more than two weeks later, after Robertson had returned to his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., he had been apprehended and extradited to Michigan.

He has been released on bond and is awaiting a preliminary exam next month, but there have been questions regarding the decision to admit Robertson to Michigan State because of issues in high school.

In January 2016, Robertson faced a misdemeanor battery charge after an incident at his school and entered a diversionary program. It wasn’t until March 30 that Robertson signed with Michigan State after Dantonio said the situation had been “evaluated over the last three months while utilizing all resources available to us.”

When Dantonio dismissed Robertson, he said Robertson had gone through daily sessions “addressing appropriate behavior and developmental growth.”

Hollis said on Monday the decision to admit Robertson was not solely Dantonio’s.

“There was a lot of conversation and dialogue on campus about that,” Dantonio said. “So coach is obviously the one that puts forward the recruiting and the recommendation, but with any recruit that comes in it’s looked at holistically.”

Hollis did point out that Robertson would have been admitted under the new policy enacted at Indiana by Hoosiers athletic director Fred Glass that bans “any prospective student-athlete — whether a transfer student, incoming freshman or other status — who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony involving sexual violence.”

He also believes the programs in place at Michigan State have been effective and will continue to be monitored and improved.

“We’ve had what I would determine to be an outstanding program and it’s ongoing,” he said. “I’ve been before them myself, the football guys, talking about representing the program.

“One of our six core values is continuous improvement. We’ll continue to work on those programs. Currently, we’re doing it in an environment that has some cases that need to be resolved. We have to allow that legal process to take its course.”