Niyo: MSU football aims to start over with less 'division'

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Chris Frey on the Spartans’ problems: “I think a lot of guys realized that they had guys around them that had that (entitled) mindset.”

East Lansing — It’s never easy, trying to disprove a negative.

But it’s harder still when it’s not a basic math equation, or a scientific theory, or even a simple matter of X’s and O’s in a playbook.

No, when it’s about personal character and collective responsibility, and the kind of problems that have cast an ugly shadow across Michigan State’s football program the last several months, including disturbing sexual assault charges against four players this offseason, it can prove nearly impossible and, in some cases, feel hopelessly unfair.

“What happened on this campus. I mean, none of us want to represent that, or have to carry that with us,” said Damion Terry, a fifth-year senior quarterback who was among several Spartans who met with reporters Tuesday, not long after head coach Mark Dantonio acknowledged more roster upheaval in the wake of last fall’s dreadful 3-9 finish.

This was the first chance for some of the Spartans to come clean, if you will. To speak out publicly after months of understandable silence, while a high-profile criminal case was being investigated and a football program was forced to do some serious introspection.

And this rare mid-June media session, as the Spartans kicked off a brief minicamp, was something Dantonio had promised as he and athletic director Mark Hollis addressed the uncomfortable truths a week ago, after police issued arrest warrants for three key members of Michigan State’s vaunted 2016 recruiting class — Josh King, Donnie Corley Jr., and Demetric Vance — and the head coach officially dismissed them from the team.

“I don’t think there’s any question that we’ve been painted with a brush,” Dantonio said at the time, “and everybody needs to understand that, top to bottom.”

It certainly sounds as if they do, based on what the players had to say Tuesday, answering questions about what went wrong this past year — on and off the field — and what they’ll have to do to make things right again.

‘Good character guys’

It starts amongst themselves, obviously, but clearly there’s a recognition that it’ll have to extend outside the Duffy Daugherty Building as well. Players have been more actively involved in community outreach this spring, visiting area elementary schools in support of the non-profit Lansing Promise scholarship program, among other events.

“That’s just what we’re trying to show everyone here,” Terry said. “That we don’t represent anything that happened, that we’re good character guys, that they brought in the right people. We’re all on the same mission now.”

That unity was part of the foundation for what Dantonio built at Michigan State over the last decade, and something players and coaches alike had begun to take for granted, along with all the winning.

Mark Dantonio on MSU’s image problem: “I don’t think there’s any question that we’ve been painted with a brush.”

“We had these great seasons and now just out of nowhere, boom, you get a 3-9 season and everything going on, guys leaving here and there,” Terry said, shaking his head. “So it is kinda hard.”

It won’t get any easier this fall, not with the Spartans losing as many as a dozen players with eligibility remaining since the end of last season, including several projected starters. Dantonio on Tuesday confirmed that cornerback Vayante Copeland was added to that list of departures, though the coach insisted, “He was not thrown off this football team.”

Whatever he says about the individual cases, though, there definitely was something “off” about last year’s squad. And to a man, the players who talked Tuesday all said as much.

There was a freshman class that dubbed itself the “Dream Team” and would-be stars whose attitudes helped make things a bit of a nightmare for the coaching staff. The early signs of entitlement were impossible to ignore, but so was a senior class that struggled to assert itself, failing the annual chemistry experiment that is so crucial to every college football season.

Running back Gerald Holmes, another fifth-year senior who sounds determined to assume a prominent leadership role this fall, shared his frustrations Tuesday about players who talked a big game during the week last fall “and then Saturdays it’s kind of a little timid.” Beyond that, though, he sensed an even deeper disconnect.

“We felt like we were distant,” Holmes said. “There was a lot of division. I’m not saying I know every reason why it was distant. But I felt that.”

And everyone saw the result as those cracks splintered and cliques inevitably clashed — even the divisive U.S. presidential campaign created problems in the locker room — as the losses mounted and the season unraveled.

‘What happened?’

So while Dantonio talks about the “need to re-center ourselves,” he and his staff are encouraged to hear the players talking about communication, first and foremost.

It started months ago, as players began leaving their cell phones at the door when they headed to training table for meals. (“You were kind of forced to talk to the person next to you,” Holmes said.) And now what you find, said offensive line coach Mark Staten, who was promoted to assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator, “is that it’s four guys who sat with four different guys the day before, and four different guys the day before that.”

MSU freshmen aim to restore program’s reputation

It’s also informal player-led meetings every Friday, where teammates are encouraged to stand up and share personal stories with the group, “just to get guys to open up,” said Holmes, who is one of the organizers.

Staten says he already sees “a sense of humility” with this year’s incoming freshmen, and that’ll be important since several might be called on early to contribute given all the roster attrition. Same goes for what’s left of that talented sophomore class, and the upperclassmen who’ll be tasked with setting proper tone. Junior safety Khari Willis says he sees a group of “natural leaders with playing ability” among that group, adding, “I think you’ll be able to see the difference.”

“I think a lot of guys realized that they had guys around them that had that (entitled) mindset, and they might’ve been one of those guys,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “So I think as a whole, we’re trying to change that mentality. All those guys have come in with the mentality that we’re coming to work, and nothing is gonna be handed to us.”

Still, every once in a while, Terry admits, he’ll find himself in a conversation with one of his classmates, someone like linebacker Shane Jones, another fifth-year senior who was around for that Rose Bowl season in 2013 and all the heady success that followed

“And we’ll just be, like, ‘Damn,’ you know?” Terry said, the exasperation plainly audible. “Because everything just kind of happened so fast. I mean, it’s a lot of weight on our shoulders. But we don’t want to sit back and ask, ‘What happened?’ We want to fix it right away. So that’s what we’re doing right now.”