East Lansing — Back in February, when Michigan State named Bill Beekman its interim athletic director, the longtime university employee received plenty of calls.
One of the first, however, came from someone most might not guess. It was from Warde Manuel, athletic director at the University of Michigan.
While Michigan and Michigan State are each other’s chief rival anytime the teams meet in competition, the collaboration between the state’s biggest schools is more common than most understand. And it was in that spirit Beekman quickly came to understand what it means to be an athletic director in the Big Ten.
“I’ve spent part of the last five months getting to know folks in the conference and they have been a tremendous help getting me up to speed,” Beekman said Monday after it was announced he had accepted the permanent AD position at his alma mater. “Many of my fellow ADs are wonderful colleagues. Warde Manuel at the University of Michigan reached out immediately and was very welcoming. Many people think Michigan and Michigan State are at odds and we are several days of the year, but much of the rest of the year we’re great collaborators and colleagues.
“Warde has been very helpful getting me introduced to folks and getting me acclimated with the players, the personnel, the people in the conference. (Commissioner) Jim Delany has been very helpful to work with as well, but that’s a steep learning curve.”
Most of Michigan State’s varsity coaches were on hand for Monday's announcement, including those in high-profile positions like men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo, football coach Mark Dantonio, women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant and hockey coach Danton Cole.
Beekman was asked after the press conference if his lack of athletic administrative experience would make it difficult to make tough choices such as coaching changes.
He said he’s never shied away from facing the hard decisions in his career but pointed out the fact he wouldn’t have to be worrying about that, at least with Izzo and Dantonio.
“As it relates to our coaches, from my perspective I don’t see either of them going anywhere for a while,” Beekman said. “So yes, eventually everyone will turn over, but those are decisions I think we can postpone for a fair number of years.”
Changing the culture
Beekman did not avoid the main reason everyone was in attendance. It was the fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal that helped lead to former AD Mark Hollis stepping down, creating the opening.
“Miles Bridges famously said, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about us.’” Beekman said, quoting the former basketball star. “I’ll paraphrase Miles to say, ‘It’s not about me or us, it’s about them.’ It’s about our 700 student-athletes and their success on the field, in the classroom, and in life. That success is not possible unless we can assure the health, safety and wellness of every student-athlete.
“That hasn’t always been the case. As a result, the last several years have been among the darkest in our history. Among the over 300 survivors who came forward that were subject to Larry Nassar’s horrific acts, over 30 were MSU students, and several of those students were student-athletes. We must do better and we will.
“But all of the rules in the world won’t make a difference unless we have a culture committed to the health, safety and wellness of every member of our community. That commitment will permeate everything we do.”
Behind the scenes
Monday’s press conference was the first time Beekman has spoken with the media, spending the bulk of his five months as interim working behind the scenes.
Whether that approach continues while running an athletic department with a budget of more than $130 million remains to be seen.
“I feel very strongly that it’s about our student-athletes, it’s not about me,” Beekman said. “I’m not opposed to talking to you all, and I’m sure I will many times going forward, but we’ve been working. We’re sort of like a duck; you may not have noticed a whole lot above water, but below water, we’re doing a lot of churning.
“We’re working really hard. We’ve taken a hard look at the budget, we’ve reorganized sports administration, we’ve worked really hard to shore up our health, safety and wellness issues, so in the last five months we’ve been doing a lot of work.”