Sometimes the simple call, the sensible solution, is the hardest to accept.
Mark Dantonio two months ago should have handed Michigan State football to a new head coach. MSU’s execs should have acted when he didn’t, all after the 2019 season exposed how far a program had slid in recruiting, performance, and overall profile from Dantonio’s extraordinary run from 2013-15.
Any doctor’s exam of the Spartans as 2019 dissolved made clear life in East Lansing wasn’t getting better with Dantonio remaining through what probably will be a rugged 2020 autumn, no matter who’s in charge, no matter how Dantonio’s assistants might be rearranged.
But the parties resisted. Until Tuesday, when Dantonio resigned, clearing the way for what could be a reasonable, achievable revival, especially if MSU opts for some of that same sound judgment practiced Tuesday and hires a man waiting to be the next excellent coach forwarded by the University of Cincinnati: Luke Fickell.
The reasons Dantonio had to go were self-evident.
The team had become a poor imitation of the high-caliber football Dantonio delivered when his energy level probably was higher and his team’s overall hunger unleashed fury on the Big Ten. The crunch no longer was there — on the field, nor on the recruiting trails. Dantonio would take exception here, for sure, but his team’s steady fade the past three years could be critiqued as something quite human. Dantonio, like most coaches, had a shelf life. In any manner you looked at MSU football these last years, a coach and his program had hit its expiration date.
Any thought this was going to change in 2020 is closer to fantasy. Dantonio loses much of what was supposed to have been fuel for a big 2019: a great defense that wasn’t by any means great, as well as a graybeard senior quarterback in Brian Lewerke who during his time in East Lansing was more average than distinguished.
MSU football coach Mark Dantonio answers questions from the media during his retirement press conferene The Detroit News
The replacement parts a few weeks from spring practice are neither exciting nor reassuring. MSU’s depth is another problem, all because that trendy new exit ramp, the transfer portal, has become quite the thoroughfare for Spartans who want greener grass than Spartan Stadium was growing.
What all of this meant should be obvious to anyone who follows Michigan State. The 2020 season was going to be all about Dantonio. Every storyline, every season preview, every radio talk show and every Internet podcast focused on Michigan State, was going to be about Dantonio’s life expectancy as head coach.
Not about the team, mind you. But about the coach.
The end likely wouldn’t be pretty with a tough schedule, a new quarterback and, from all evidence, a thinner team headed 2020’s way. And if this departure wasn’t the way Dantonio would have scripted his goodbye, the possibility of 2020 turning downright ugly should make everyone feel better about Tuesday’s overdue call.
It does not lessen an iota what Dantonio accomplished at Michigan State. He wrapped his arms around a rag-tag team when he bounced into town at the end of 2006. He pumped character and football mettle into a Michigan State culture that lacked both traits. He recruited shrewdly, got maximum performance from his kids, and had an astonishing run that makes him every bit the football deity MSU knew in Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty, and, yes, George Perles before, as with Daugherty and Perles, things began to unravel for Perles.
Time to strike
MSU should take advantage of the timing and celebrate new blood that’s about to change the Spartans’ football physiology. Fickell makes the most sense, absolutely. He has done a masterly job at Cincinnati. He is the right age, 46. He worked at Ohio State under Urban Meyer.
And most critically — by far, most important — Fickell knows Michigan State’s recruiting radius.
There is how you restore MSU football. It’s about getting players. You can rhapsodize all day about assistants, or schemes, or “coaching up” three-star prep kids, or whatever magic bean supposedly can win football games. But it’s all balderdash if you don’t place Big Ten championship talent on your roster.
MSU football coach Mark Dantonio during his press conference on retiring The Detroit News
Getting that talent at East Lansing only happens if you have at the helm a head coach who knows the back yard. Fickell does.
MSU can go other routes, of course: Stay internal and leave the reins in Mike Tressel’s hands. That could, in fact, work. And while Matt Campbell’s buyout at Iowa State is probably too stiff, he, too, would be the kind of coach who could make the Spartans exceptional.
Butch Jones, the onetime Central Michigan and Tennessee head man, has credentials. But there’s a reason he was fired at Tennessee. And at age 52, he’s frankly a bit more seasoned than MSU should consider when 10 years from now there would be guesses about retirement, even if he excels.
Fickell’s the easy choice.
He can reasonably be expected, based on track record and credentials, to do with MSU’s resources a steady job of getting State to bowl games that matter. He can, above all, throw jumper cables onto the Spartans’ alarmingly low-voltage fan battery. That latter point has to be unsettling to MSU’s accountants, all because season tickets — based on chatter and all available evidence — were heading for a serious dip in 2020.
And that’s because Michigan State football last autumn had descended into not so much a game or event as an ordeal.
The tenor, the disposition, all changes — if MSU does the easily manageable and hires the right man.
The new man (Fickell, folks) has enough time now to hire a staff, reassure recruits, revamp spring football’s script, and make 2020 a year the Spartans fans even 24 hours ago never saw coming.
He can also tap into that transfer portal and, instead of watching MSU players help turn it into your basic bumper crop in 2020, the new general can sales pitch any number of free-agent players on East Lansing’s merits.
Dantonio did his job, splendidly, for so long at Michigan State. No one will lose perspective there.
Now it’s another man’s turn.
That’s the best way, the proper way, for MSU to consider Tuesday’s afternoon news bulletin.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.