Well, they’re running, all right. Only they’re headed in the opposite direction.
And nearly a week into Michigan State’s search for a new football coach, it’s going to be difficult to run away and hide from the embarrassment now, as the Spartans’ top candidate — Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell — declined the school’s overtures and announced he’s staying put in the American Athletic Conference.
All of which surely adds to an undeniable feeling of frustration in East Lansing, where Mark Dantonio’s abrupt retirement announcement put the administration in a bind that now has tied them all up in knots.
Not that it should be a huge surprise, really, given the circumstances, from the blindsided board of trustees to the curious timing of this whole thing.
Dantonio’s only real fiery moment in a rather somber farewell “celebration” last Tuesday was in response to a question about whether a late start would limit the options for athletic director Bill Beekman in the search for his replacement.
“Are you kidding me?” Dantonio said then. “People will run here, they'll crawl here. Michigan State will get an outstanding football coach.”
They may yet: Fate can be fickle, I suppose. It won't be Fickell, who seemed ideally suited for this job, but there are other coaches out there who may have some interest. Bret Bielema, for one. He might even jump at the chance. Maybe Michigan State circles back to someone they've already interviewed. Jim McElwain or Chris Creighton here in Michigan State's backyard might get a call, too.
But whatever sense of momentum Michigan State fans might’ve been feeling around the program as Beekman and a search committee that includes one of the leading headhunters in college athletics — MSU alum Glenn Sugiyama — zeroed in on Fickell, it slowed to a crawl Sunday when no news broke. Then it came crashing to a halt when Cincinnati’s coach stunned the Spartans on Monday morning.
Now he joins a no-knock list that reportedly began with Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and continued with Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi, Colorado’s Mel Tucker and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
And while each has their own reasons for declining Michigan State’s overtures — however serious they really were, given MSU's well-publicized feelings for Fickell — the collective message they sent may have a chilling effect on whatever pool of candidates Beekman and the committee might have left.
Whether it’s the program’s downturn at the end of Dantonio’s tenure, or continued fallout from Curtis Blackwell’s federal lawsuit — with perhaps more damaging revelations or even NCAA interrogatories to come — or simply the fact that we’re already six weeks into a new year, with spring practice right around the corner, nobody’s running to the rescue here.
Particularly if the trustees — some fuming about the way Dantonio’s retirement was handled, others about the search commencing without their involvement — start making more noise. Remember, the board approves the hiring of the head coach at Michigan State, not the athletic department. And a briefing for the board scheduled for Monday night with the search committee figures to be a bit contentious.
If Fickell was the clear-cut choice, Michigan State could’ve — and probably should’ve — flown there first. If it had, or if the committee had full autonomy, the athletic department might’ve been planning a press conference right now. Instead, they flew home Sunday ahead of a winter storm, still seemingly confident but empty-handed.
Now the hand-wringing begins, though. And this latest loss ultimately may force Beekman’s hand to pick interim head coach Mike Tressel, Dantonio’s longtime assistant and defensive coordinator. There was speculation that was Dantonio’s preferred choice all along, and it may be the only one in the end, much as it was nearly a decade ago when Ohio State fired Tressel's uncle, Jim, and played the 2011 season with an interim head coach named … Luke Fickell.
That only lasted a year, of course. And then Urban Meyer came to the rescue in Columbus the following November.
Michigan State doesn’t have that kind of cachet, obviously. They also don't have much experience at this, as everyone noted. Beekman joked last week that he has only made one coaching hire — a rowing coach — in two years on the job. And the last time Michigan State hired a football coach, Twitter was only a few months old.
This one's not even a week old yet, but already it feels like it can't end soon enough.