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Wojo: Dantonio's leadership will be tested like never before

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio

There’s no playbook for this, no easy solution, no timetable. Mark Dantonio is facing his biggest challenge at Michigan State, a multi-layered crisis that ranges from on-field competitiveness, to public perception, to far more troubling legal issues involving three players and one staff member.

Dantonio’s leadership will be tested as it never has, and if this was merely a matter of rebounding from a 3-9 season, I’d say his program would recover in due time. But the longer uncertainty swirls, the tougher it gets, and the tougher it gets, the more uncertainty swirls.

Michigan State is stuck at the moment, which is why the school’s leaders have been mostly, uncomfortably silent. You can’t disrupt the legal process and you can’t ignore the overriding priority, that there might be a victim of a sexual assault who deserves justice. Three unnamed football players are suspended, as is recruiting director Curtis Blackwell.

That’s why Dantonio or athletic director Mark Hollis or president Lou Anna Simon can’t stand on a podium and field questions. Should Dantonio have released a statement earlier saying he was “extremely concerned” and restated his program’s values, as he did Tuesday? Certainly. Waiting nearly three weeks was a mistake. But expecting Dantonio to answer basic spring-practice questions in the midst of this is equally short-sighted.

In sensitive cases, the public wonders about the optics. If the coach is silent, hey, he’s hiding something. But if he’s talking about, say, the quarterback competition while an alleged heinous crime is being investigated, he’s tone-deaf. And how could Dantonio reasonably discuss any position battles on his team without revealing — intentionally or unintentionally — the identity of the suspended players, who haven’t been charged with anything.

Growing pains

It’s apparent the school is treating the case as seriously as it should. There are three ongoing investigations: By the MSU police of the possible sexual assault; by a Title IX consultant of possible violations; by an external law firm of the football staff’s compliance in the case.

Michigan State football long craved the big-stage spotlight, and handled it very well while winning 11-plus games five times between 2010 and 2015. But this can be part of the downside, as a program built on humility and work ethic stretches its boundaries. On National Signing Day a month ago, Dantonio notably emphasized loyalty, chemistry and other intangibles in the new batch of recruits.

Shortly thereafter, news broke of the alleged sexual assault. Then it was revealed defensive end Demetrius Cooper was arrested in November and faces assault charges for allegedly spitting in a parking enforcement officer’s face. Then projected starting offensive tackle Thiyo Lukusa announced he was leaving because he didn’t love football anymore. Then starting linebacker Jon Reschke departed, and apologized for making an “insensitive” comment about a former teammate.

This is not piling on, no matter how some fans’ blinders might view it. It’s piling up, and like it or not, fair or not, it’s framed by the school’s ongoing Title IX investigation. The major focus is the horrific case of former Michigan State and USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, accused by more than 80 women and girls of sexual assault. That’s completely unconnected to the football program, let’s be clear on that.

But the accusation against the football players also falls under the Title IX umbrella, as universities across the country face increased scrutiny — rightly so — from a law designed to ensure women equal rights (including freedom from sexual violence). As far as football goes, Michigan State’s case is nothing like the scandal at Baylor, where everyone from the school president to coach Art Briles were pushed out amid allegations of as many as 52 sexual assaults by players over a four-year period.

The road back

There are legitimate concerns on all campuses, so we shouldn’t wrap Michigan State’s problems into some tidy, trite lesson. Yes, Dantonio once famously said of rival Michigan, “Pride comes before the fall,” but I don’t think excessive pride necessarily caused this. I do think wild success can obscure problems and make players feel immune, and a coach stubborn to change.

Locker-room leadership and chemistry clearly slipped last season — Reschke’s case being one example — and maybe it began to slip the year before, when much was made of quarterback Connor Cook not being named captain. That became an afterthought as the Spartans reached the playoffs, and gave the impression the program was strong enough to overcome anything.

Outside of a few powers, no program is. Early last season, when the Spartans fell to 2-3 after a 31-14 loss to BYU, Dantonio was unusually frank about the challenges of sustaining success.

“This program’s been built on a pretty solid foundation, and it’s taken nine years to do that,” Dantonio said in October. “It’s taken that long to get to where we’ve been, and the ride up the mountain’s very difficult at times. And that ride down sometimes is very quick. … I tell our players all the time, ‘Hey, you think you’ve got it bad now, it can always get worse, I promise you. You need to find a way out of it, out of the hole.’ ”

The Spartans have emerged from a hole before. In 2009, in the midst of a 6-7 season, 11 players were suspended after a fight at on-campus Rather Hall. In 2012, Michigan State went 7-6 and some questioned whether Dantonio’s run had hit a wall. The Spartans merely responded by going 36-5 the next three seasons.

This is a much bigger threat, and not because of the 3-9 disaster, or the personnel losses, or the unproven players at quarterback and other positions. It’s not even because of the recruiting and competitive challenges sharing a division with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.

This is an enormous threat to Michigan State because it’s multi-pronged without a clear scope of the size, or any sense of the timetable. After criminal charges are or aren’t filed, the school could still be conducting its own investigation, in addition to the Title IX probe.

In 10 years under Dantonio, there’s rarely been much doubt about the sturdiness and strength of the program. This is the ultimate test, and unfortunately for all involved, there might be no quick resolution, and no quick recovery.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski