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Wojo: If Dantonio wants to revive Spartans, he needs to stand and be heard

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Silence can’t always be the answer from Mark Dantonio’s program. Status quo can’t always be the solution.

Michigan State’s football season ended a month ago with another 7-6 record and another round of speculation. Maybe Dantonio doesn’t have a plan yet for the future, or has an incomplete plan, or has a plan that will be criticized and he’s reticent to talk about it. Whatever the case, it’s troubling and disrespectful to fans, alums and the program not to address it.

Mark Dantonio

Half of his assistants have contracts soon to expire. On the Feb. 5 National Signing Day, Michigan State will unveil a recruiting class ranked around 35th in the country and ninth in the Big Ten. After his in-house staff shuffle last Jan. 10, the Spartans’ offense was nearly as bad this past season. Every time Dantonio was asked about more changes, he said he’d discuss it in the offseason, and yet so far, nothing.

When you wonder what the oft-used phrase “leadership void” means, this is what it means. When a program is drifting, still not recovered from the fallout of a scandal, someone has to stand up and say it will be fixed, do something to inspire confidence. Or say it’s time to step aside and let someone else fix it.

More: Recruiting trouble: Inside the sex assault scandal that threw MSU for a loss

There’s no tangible evidence Dantonio will retire after 13 seasons that produced the finest era of Michigan State football. He has said he plans to stay, and for his unprecedented stretch of success, he has that right. He’s the winningest coach in program history, he’s only 63 and he has the support of the athletic director, Bill Beekman, and school president Samuel Stanley, who said Dantonio is “the right person to continue.”

If he’s staying to rebuild what he built and has a plan to upgrade his staff, why won’t he detail it? Even if he’s not changing much — against the angry objection of many Spartan fans — he has to lay out the reasons. He should do more than hand out “Program Win” hats after a 19-16 victory over Maryland.

Bad look

If Dantonio isn’t physically hiding, he’s certainly dodging scrutiny. It’s a bad look that doesn’t exactly instill faith. He showed up at the high school football coaches convention in Lansing 10 days ago and left without speaking to reporters. In his short presentation, he gave hints, but nothing firm.

“Expectations are very high,” he told the coaches. “It’s a labor of love. But you’ve got to win, you’ve got to make changes.”

OK, we’re listening. Dantonio gave a six-hour deposition Jan. 10 in the wrongful-termination lawsuit brought by former staffer Curtis Blackwell, who was dismissed in 2017 after sexual-assault allegations involving Michigan State players. Blackwell’s attorneys want more time to question Dantonio, who hired Blackwell in 2013 for recruiting and mentoring purposes. Could the attorneys’ request be a tactic to create the appearance of a lack of cooperation, or could it be that Dantonio isn’t fully forthcoming?

The Michigan State community deserves answers, and not just because the Spartans slumped to a 27-24 record the past four years. On-field struggles spark the discussion and criticism, but off-field woes and roster upheaval are equally concerning, and the after-effects linger.

In 2016, Dantonio signed defensive line recruit Auston Robertson over the objection of others on his staff, according to a Detroit News report. Robertson reportedly committed several acts of sexual misconduct and was kicked out of his Fort Wayne, Indiana, school. Some of the charges were sealed and later dismissed or reduced, and Dantonio said he and his staff vetted Robertson “utilizing all resources available to us.”

They probably didn’t know everything but they knew enough to recognize the risk, and Dantonio has never offered remorse or clarification. After less than a year in East Lansing, Robertson was charged with raping a woman, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and is in prison in the Upper Peninsula. Three other recruits from that touted 2016 class — Donnie Corley, Josh King and Demetric Vance — were dismissed from the team after being accused of sexual assault, and they pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

That’s effectively where Michigan State’s on-field decline began, as Dantonio strayed from his blue-collar, team-focused ways and tried to bring in elite talent. He hired Blackwell from the Sound Mind Sound Body football camp in Detroit to ramp up recruiting. Dantonio’s program was a rising power then, 36-5 from 2013-15, reaching the College Football Playoff in 2015. Now it’s as if he’s trying to wish away and wash away the past four years, and Michigan State apparently doesn’t have anyone strong enough to demand a direction.

More: Special report: Michigan State football sex assault scandals

Unsettling situation

Dantonio collected a $4.3 million retention bonus Jan. 15, and that’s fine. Negotiated and earned. Barring new developments, he deserves the chance to stay — if that’s truly what he wants. But he doesn’t deserve to stay without oversight or a concerted effort to invigorate the program. He shouldn’t get to stick with an outdated offense and an insular staff that hasn’t adjusted to a changing game.

Because half of his assistants have a year remaining on their contracts and no announcements have been made, you assume some will be back. Offensive coordinator Brad Salem, quarterbacks coach Dave Warner and others are on one-year rolling deals, which expire if they’re not retained by March 15.

Most programs across the country have filled their openings. There’s no indication anything significant is looming at Michigan State, although veteran assistants Jim Bollman and Don Treadwell could make quiet exits. There’s no need for acrimony, but there is a need for Dantonio to show he cares more about his program than his coaching friends.

Maybe he’s waiting for this recruiting cycle to end, or for the Blackwell lawsuit to be resolved. Maybe he still isn’t sure who he wants to hire and fire, if anyone, and whether he wants to keep doing this.

It’s an unsettling situation that Dantonio has allowed to fester. I hear people say there’s nothing new, so why does he get criticized for decisions in the past? Well, it’s because those questionable decisions impact the tough choices ahead, and to restore the program’s luster, he has to restore the trust.

The longer it goes, the deeper the silence, the more concern it raises. If Dantonio wants to fight for his program and his legacy, then set aside loyalties and fight. No one is piling on here. It’s just difficult to know whether it’s safe or wise to continue supporting him and his ideals. Deep down, I think a majority of Spartan fans want to believe in him again, but they’re impatiently waiting for a fresh reason to do so.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski