A tad more than 32 years ago, Michigan State, as is its habit, was about to follow some temporary football bliss with what the Spartans cosmos saw as catastrophe.
A few weeks after MSU had taken down Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, it looked as if State’s hero head coach, George Perles, was en route to Green Bay as Packers general.
It ended up not happening. MSU’s bosses gave Perles a sweetheart extension. George lasted six more years.
Why this moment is remembered today is because of MSU’s current straits, this time with an absolute void at head coach and everyone in East Lansing crushed because Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell turned down Monday what seemed like a perfect job for all parties.
But, back to January 1988.
There was a defensive coordinator on Perles’ staff who some of us then thought (and wrote) might make a dandy replacement should Perles be Packers-bound. His name was Nick Saban. He was 36 years old.
But he wasn’t going to get the job. Not then. Not at Michigan State.
Perles’ successor was locked in. It was going to be Hank Bullough, who was a tight Perles friend and an ex-Spartans star. He had coached at MSU as an assistant and had moved onto the NFL, where he ultimately became Buffalo Bills head coach.
Saban decided at that point he would head to the NFL, as well. He signed on as an assistant with the then-Houston Oilers.
A few years later, he was back in East Lansing running MSU football in deft fashion after cleaning up rubble from the Perles years.
Sadly for the Spartans, Saban still wasn’t regarded by his bosses as overly bright, which induced him to move south and win six national championships at LSU and Alabama.
The point to this story is obvious.
Michigan State should quit waiting for someone else to identify a crackerjack head coach.
Do it yourself, MSU.
Do it now.
Forget about Pat Shurmur, and Bret Bielema, and Butch Jones. They’re in their 50s, and in 10 short years, even if they have succeeded, you’re suddenly thinking about a new man.
Likewise, don’t overreact to thumbs-downs from the likes of Fickell, or Mel Tucker, or Matt Campbell, or Robert Saleh, or anyone else who isn’t sold that MSU today is a better job than they presently have.
Stick to your guns. Go young. Go with a firebrand. Go, absolutely, with a guy who can recruit the Midwest, which is the first commandment MSU must follow as this safari continues.
Do your homework on Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard (37 years old, Wisconsin native, 10-year NFL player), who could well be ready for a Big Ten command.
Ponder also an Ohio State assistant, Brian Hartline, who happens to have been named National Recruiter of the Year for 2019. He’s 33 and grew up in Canton, Ohio. He also played in the NFL. He is a receivers coach for the Buckeyes. But if he has head-coaching potential — and that can be ascertained — don’t wait. Hire him now.
Don’t give up on Alex Grinch, an Ohio lad who is Lincoln Riley’s defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. Yes, he probably has other plans, at least immediately, but Grinch ranks as the brand of man MSU should chase, aggressively.
It invites a natural follow-up: What’s wrong with Mike Tressel? Nothing prohibitive, perhaps. But there is no hard evidence that he’s a master recruiter. Also note that the 2019 Spartans defense, which was supposed to be the berries, failed so badly it ranked as neither tribute to Dantonio nor to his coordinator, Tressel.
Tressel has the job today, albeit with an “interim” label that suggests MSU wasn’t wild about immediately handing him the car keys for 2020 and beyond.
Add to a long list of realities another factor as this latest "Days of Our Lives" script unfurls in East Lansing.
The folks want someone fresh. Someone to excite them. Someone to believe in. It means, again, that the new guy should have stripes as a Midwest recruiter, and that he has personal fire and solidity to match his essential knack for luring prep hotshots to East Lansing.
Have a bit of confidence in yourself, MSU. For once, anyway, when it comes to picking a new man, trust that a terrific young coach is working somewhere within the Big Ten radius and needs Michigan State to grab him before another adventuresome school beats the Spartans to it.
That coach is there. No question he is there.
Take your time on this. Simply keep in mind the prerequisites and don’t budge: (1) Excellent regional recruiter. (2) Youth. (3) Solid personal makeup that can project to grow as a head coach.
It all can work. It did for Northwestern when Pat Fitzgerald, at the creaky age of 31, took the Wildcats wheel.
Northwestern hasn’t been gunning for any College Football Playoff spot, but relative to Northwestern’s elevation and potential, Fitzgerald has been excellent.
The Spartans can have the same good fortune. But not if they want another school to prove what they seem reluctant to believe in — that a bright coach is waiting for their invitation, not someone else’s.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.