East Lansing — Timing isn’t everything. But it’s something Bill Beekman knew he’d be asked about early Tuesday evening, moments after Mark Dantonio had left the room and officially left him without a head coach for Michigan State’s football program.
On the day before National Signing Day for recruiting. And long after college football’s coaching carousel had ground to a halt.
“You know, I don’t know that there’s ever a good time,” said Beekman, Michigan State’s athletic director. “There are times that are better than other times. But I think that when you’ve won 114 games and you’re our all-time winningest coach and you’ve taken us to the places Mark has taken us and you’ve set the bar where Mark set it, I was comfortable operating on his timeline, whatever that would be.”
And with the clock now officially ticking, Beekman tried to offer some reassurance to a fanbase — and a locker room — blindsided by Tuesday’s news, adding, “I think that we’ll find a very good coach.”
The sooner, the better. And judging by the sound of things Tuesday in a hastily called news conference prior to Michigan State's basketball game — a 75-70 loss to Penn State at the Breslin Center — it appears Beekman & Co. understand that, with the AD promising "a tight, quick process" without naming any names.
Dantonio, for his part, scoffed at the idea that timing might be a problem in finding his successor. Part of that, I’m sure, was his intimate knowledge of what’s already in the works here.
But Dantonio also wanted to reiterate a point he has been making for some time now, that he thinks this program — coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons — is in far better shape than some of his critics do. He mentioned all the winning the Spartans have done during his tenure — one that includes three Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win and a national playoff berth — and spoke again in vague terms about plans for “building new facilities.”
So will Michigan State find a suitable replacement?
“Are you kidding me?” Dantonio said. “People will run here, they'll crawl here. Michigan State will get an outstanding football coach.”
And the underlying theme in his comments Tuesday made it clear they’ll also get something that he couldn’t offer anymore. It’s a nagging thought that kept hounding him as he made all those visits and phone calls to recruits the last couple weeks and came to the realization he couldn’t honestly commit to being Michigan State’s coach for the duration of their college careers. Not at this stage of his career, a month shy of his 64th birthday and with his first grandchild due in July.
“And that's tough when you can't answer, when you can't say, ‘I'm going to be there for your time,’” Dantonio said.
Big HR swing
So now it’s time for Beekman’s toughest test yet, stepping into the spotlight he’s largely avoided to date. This week marks the second anniversary of his surprising appointment as interim AD after Mark Hollis resigned — two days after then-President Lou Anna Simon did the same — amid the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal. It was 18 months ago that he was named the permanent AD, a decision that Dantonio and Tom Izzo both played an outsized role in.
And in a moment of self-deprecation Tuesday, Beekman admitted he’s carried out just one coaching search in the last two years, hiring a new women’s rowing coach last fall.
“I’d challenge most of you to name the rowing coach,” he joked.
Her name is Kim Chavers, for what it’s worth. But Beekman’s larger point was that every AD is always “scanning the horizon” and making contingency plans when it comes to coaches. And as Dantonio’s future grew a bit cloudier the last several weeks, “we’ve gotten more into the weeds,” he said.
MSU football coach Mark Dantonio during his press conference on retiring The Detroit News
“But I think it’s something that if you’re doing your job, you’ve always got in the back of your mind,” he added, “and you’ve always got the flavor of a list or a set of ideas or at the very least a set of criteria.”
He rattled off a few of those Tuesday. The list starts with “character and integrity,” Beekman said. But after that he mostly echoed some of what Dantonio talked about in his farewell remarks, highlighting the same traits Michigan State searched for — and found — the last time around.
“Michigan State has been most successful when it has looked at somebody that knows the territory,” Beekman said. “There’s the old line from the first song in “The Music Man”: You gotta know the territory. And I think that’s true in a lot of things in life.”
To hear the AD talk, that means someone that knows the Big Ten and Michigan State’s traditional recruiting backyard and, yes, the university itself.
“I think fit is very important,” Beekman said. “It doesn’t mean it has to be an alum, but somebody that gets the flavor of who we are as an institution.”
So just as Dantonio often talked metaphorically about “completing circles,” there’s a very strong chance that’s exactly what’ll happen here.
Back in November 2006, it was Hollis leading a small delegation to Cincinnati to interview Dantonio for the vacancy at Michigan State following John L. Smith’s dismissal. Now it’s another Bearcats coach with an Ohio State background that may be Michigan State’s No. 1 target.
Luke Fickell, fresh off consecutive 11-win seasons at Cincinnati, makes plenty of sense. And not simply for the sake of expedience, though hiring Fickell probably would allow for some staff continuity, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
Michigan State’s entire offensive staff was working last season on revised contracts that expire in March. But defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, who first joined Dantonio’s staff in Cincinnati in 2004, is serving as the interim head coach at the moment, and he’d surely stay on if Fickell is indeed the hire.
Fickell, of course, was an assistant coach at Ohio State under Tressel’s uncle, Jim, and actually served as the Buckeyes’ interim head coach for a season when Tressel — one of Dantonio’s coaching mentors — was forced to resign amid allegations of NCAA violations in 2011. Dantonio’s endorsement also helped Fickell land the Cincinnati job, and it might here as well, though the Spartans would have to pony up — more than doubling Fickell’s current $2.3 million salary and paying his $2 million buyout. Beyond that, there better be a solid Plan B and C.
Ultimately, it’s MSU’s Board of Trustees that has to sign off on a coaching hire like this, and Beekman — the former board secretary — said he’d already spoken with chairperson Dianne Byrum. Also of note, Brian Mosallam, a former MSU football player and influential board member, was in the back of the room for Dantonio’s news conference Tuesday. Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr., who took over as Michigan State’s president in August, will have his say as well, obviously. Beekman indicated Alan Haller, the deputy AD who also was in the middle of that ‘06 search, will be an integral part this time around, too.
That said, Beekman is aware all eyes are on him at the moment, with Dantonio exiting stage right. Or wrong, depending on your perspective.
"I understand very deeply how important this is to the Spartan community, to our now 550,000-plus living alumni, to our former players who built this tradition, and to the other 24 sports who rely on the revenue generated by this program," Beekman said. "So on the one hand, I think one could feel the absolute weight of the earth upon them with a critical decision like this. But on the other hand, I think you have to do your job and find the best person. There’s a process and we’ve got good people and we’ve been working this and we’re ready for it."
Just how ready, though, we're about to find out.