Spartan Football is at a “tipping point”

After winning 3 Big Ten titles between 2010 and 2015 including a trip to the College Football Playoff at the conclusion of the 2015 season, Spartan Football has posted a middling record of 24-22 overall, including an upside down Big Ten record of 15-17.

This season alone the Spartans have posted a dismal Big Ten record of 2-3, rank #9 in the Big Ten overall and hopes for a turnaround are fading fast as problems surface almost daily. Joe Bachie team Captain was suspended just this week for failing a drug test; and of course, Mark Dantonio has become an embattled Head Coach: he is being subpoenaed in a pending legal case regarding the dismissal of former staffer Curtis Blackwell, and now Mark Dantonio’s coaching record over the past 4 seasons is being dissected under intense scrutiny.

The coach is still the coach, but where does the coach go for trusted guidance and advice when the landscape slips from under his feet?

Does the coach go to the AD? The President? Trusted members of the Board of Trustees? Or where? Executives at every level need trusted guidance and advice, but for Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, the options aren’t clear, and that’s a problem.

In the perfect world, Mark Dantonio would go to his trusted friend Mark Hollis to discuss organizational issues and find resolutions, but Mark Hollis, the man most instrumental for hiring Mark Dantonio in 2007 is gone. Or Mark Dantonio may have gone to President Lou Anna Simon a trusted confidant for guidance and advice, but Simon is gone as well;  Or Mark Dantonio may have sought out former Coach, former AD and former Trustee George Perles for guidance and advice…yet George Perles is gone too, in fact most of Mark Dantonio’s trusted confidants are gone.

So, where does an embattled coach go to seek guidance and advice with hopes of saving a ship that is taking on water? That should be an easy answer at most institutions, but seeking advice at Michigan State is difficult because the entire institution seems to be at a Tipping Point!

The fallout:

It is well documented that the University has been under prolonged and intense scrutiny due to the Larry Nassar scandal.

The residual fallout is dramatic: Lou Anna Simon, University President since 2005, stepped down in 2018 as a repercussion of the Nassar scandal and as a result she will go to trial next year (she of course is innocent until proven guilty, but the PR fallout is immense). Then Mark Hollis, the Spartans imaginatively gifted Athletic Director since 2008 unexpectedly stepped down in 2018 due to intense scrutiny from the Nassar scandal as well.

Moreover, the Board of Trustees is in turmoil inasmuch as George Perles a long standing Trustee officially stepped down due to health issues in 2018, but Perles informally stepped down due to allegations regarding a perceived coverup in the Nassar scandal, and meanwhile Perles replacement upon the Board, and its newest member, Nancy Schlichting, a member of the Board for less than 12 months submitted her resignation just this past week due to the Board’s “…recent decision to not go forward with (an) independent review…” of the Nassar case.

How helpful can the Board of Trustees be to Mark Dantonio if they are still fighting amongst themselves?

The President:

Then we have Michigan State’s newest President, Dr. Samuel Stanley, a brilliant academician and medical researcher who received degrees from University of Chicago and Harvard.

Prior to becoming President at Michigan State, Dr. Stanley was President of Stony Brook University a public university founded on Long Island in 1957. Dr. Stanley officially assumed office at Michigan State on August 1, 2019, just 3 months ago, and while I want to be respectful, Dr. Stanley probably can’t find Spartan Stadium without a campus map.

Dr. Stanley is on a tall learning curve. To put that into perspective, the entire endowment of Stonybrook University was just a tick above $300 million, while the operating budget for Michigan State Athletics alone is approximately $130 Million, the majority of course being allocated to Spartan Football. So how much guidance can Dr. Stanley provide to Mark Dantonio regarding the intricacies of football operations after just 3 months on campus?

The AD:

The most important executive in the equation is AD, Bill Beekman.

I want to make this clear, I have met Bill Beekman and I have profound respect for his impeccable academic credentials, but Bill Beekman’s resume is conspicuously absent of athletic credentials.

Bill Beekman was originally assigned as an Interim AD…a “placeholder” if you will…until a search for a permanent AD could be conducted. After all, there was an urgency to fill the AD chair inasmuch as Mark Hollis unexpectedly stepped down due to the Nassar investigation, yet in lieu of conducting a nationwide search for an experienced AD, a decision was rendered to install Bill Beekman as permanent AD.

Yet, prior to becoming AD, Bill Beekman was Secretary to the Board of Trustees, and by his own admission he had no athletic experience, and while he is a man of great academic qualifications including an MBA and a Juris Doctorate, yet to be fair, we have to ask the question: is Bill Beekman the best steward to oversee Michigan State Football in an hour of need?

We all have strengths and weaknesses, yet as we watch Spartan Football decline in an eye glazing free fall, is Bill Beekman the best steward and does he have the experience and skill set to offer best guidance and advice to Mark Dantonio?

Spartan Football is the lifeblood of the School:

Spartan Football isn’t simply a fun campus activity that takes place in the fall, it is “the most” visible symbol of Michigan State University and amongst the greatest sources of charitable donations.

It is essentially the very lifeblood of the university, directly and indirectly. It’s a touchstone for 500,000 Alumni.

Let’ be clear, the lifeblood of Public Institutions is charitable donations, and so the mantra amongst most public universities is “win on Saturday” and figuratively collect donations on Monday. Or said another way, lose on the football field and donations shrivel and dry.

Due to its complexities, Football operations require skillful leadership. In fact, the landscape of college football is changing at lightning speed.

It is by every measure an unprecedented “Arms Race” and not for the inexperienced or the faint of heart as it relates to staying competitive. And given the myriad of problems and ancillary challenges facing football programs today including but not limited to academics, eligibility, recruiting, transfer portals, social media, and player compensation to name just a few, yet those are simply the side issues because “winning on the football field” is the prime activity that enables institutions such as Michigan State to generate a bounty of charitable donations.

So, I ask again, where does an embattled coach such as Mark Dantonio go for guidance and advice in a time of need? At Michigan State the answer isn’t clear, and that’s a problem. Or does the University intend to sit and watch as the ship continues to take on water?

The landscape of athletic leadership:

Let’s put athletic leadership into perspective.

Let’s look at four highly regarded AD’s, including two who are currently presiding over programs and two from an historical perspective, and let’s start with Ohio State.

When Urban Meyer had challenges at Ohio State, whatever those problems may have been, he turned to the steady hand of Gene Smith the current Athletic Director for guidance and advice.

Gene Smith also carries the title of Vice President and he has been AD at Ohio State for nearly 15 years. But Smith got his start as a college football player whereby he was a member of Notre Dame’s 1973 National Championship team. After graduation in 1977, Smith became an Assistant Coach at Notre Dame whereby the Irish won an undisputed National Title in 1977. Thereafter, Smith carried the title of AD at 3 schools including Eastern Michigan, Iowa State and Arizona State until 2005, at which time Smith assumed the highly esteemed role of AD at Ohio State.

Gene Smith has an abundance of experience and expertise and is highly qualified to offer guidance and support to his legion of coaches in a myriad of sports. Yet, in football alone, Gene Smith was responsible for overseeing the resignation of Jim Tressel and he was overseer in hiring both Urban Meyer as well as Ryan Day.

Who would have thought that in less than 8 games, Ryan Day would make everyone forget about Urban Meyer at Ohio State? But he did. Excellence replaced by excellence, and Ohio State can thank Gene Smith! Moreover, Gene Smith’s administration has brought multiple Big Ten titles across the athletic spectrum to Ohio State.

At Wisconsin, when Paul Chryst encounters problems, whatever those problems may be, he turns to a wise sage named Barry Alvarez the AD at Wisconsin who has more than 50 years of experience in college athletics.

Alvarez played football at Nebraska and graduated in 1967; he was an Assistant Coach from 1971 to 1989 including stops at Iowa and Notre Dame. Thereafter Alvarez became Head Coach at Wisconsin from 1990 to 2005 whereby he saved a moribund program and led UW to unprecedented success in football before becoming AD from 2004 to present. Since his arrival in Madison, UW has excelled in athletics across the athletic spectrum. Moreover, Barry Alvarez was responsible for hiring Head Coaches Bret Bielema, Gary Andersen and Paul Chryst, all of whom have won Big Ten Divisional Titles just since 2010.

So athletic leadership, requires athletic expertise gained from athletic experience…

Looking back…

When Michigan State built their athletic dynasties of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the man who guided the way was Clarence “Biggie” Munn.

He was the man President John Hannah handpicked to build a Championship football team. After winning “back to back” National titles in 1951 & 1952 and thereby putting Michigan State Football on the football map, Munn became AD in 1954 and in addition to football, he built championship programs where none existed before including: Basketball, Track & Field, Cross Country; Wrestling; Gymnastics and more. Although Duffy Daugherty followed Munn as football coach, it is well documented that Daugherty and Munn did not exactly enjoy a dream relationship, nevertheless Munn was a trusted confidant who provided guidance and advice before both stepped down in 1972. The record shows, Biggie Munn was overseer in Michigan State winning or sharing 6 National Titles in football.

When University of Michigan determined they needed administrative guidance to turn around their floundering football fortunes in the late 1960’s, they turned to Don Canham.

Canham was a former Michigan Track star who became Michigan’s most successful Track Coach from 1950-1968. A successful businessman in his own regard, Canham conceived the idea of Brand Licensing for collegiate gear which later spilled over into licensing of Pro gear as well, all of which was unheard of when Canham became AD in 1968. Today, if you wear a branded and licensed ball cap or apparel of any kind, you can thank Don Canham. Moreover, Canham hired Bo Schembechler as Head Football Coach and guided Michigan Athletics to unprecedented success as AD from 1968 until his retirement in 1988. Canham also reinvented the gameday experience.

I have listed just four exceptional AD’s, but wherever you find a school achieving consistent success in football and athletics across the spectrum, you will find a professional AD complemented by a President that provides unmitigated guidance and support.

But where does Mark Dantonio go for trusted professional advice at a time when he needs it most?

A week to reflect…Spartan Football at a crossroads:

This is a bye week, in fact the second “bye” week for Spartan Football since Oct 12, and normally a “bye week” is a time of reflection; a time to reassess and regroup…but this year, it’s a time to humbly reassess the entire program.

In the perfect world, Spartan Football would galvanize their resolve and methodically march through November to achieve 4 consecutive victories to finish the regular season with a record of 8 victories and 4 losses, but sadly that is more fantasy than reality. Summer optimism has been replaced with fall pessimism. Confidence is swooning amongst fans and it would be hard to conceive that players and coaches will find the necessary resolve to win their final 4 games.

Mark Dantonio’s legacy and the fortunes of Michigan State Football are at stake.

The problems within Spartan Football aren’t simply momentary blips on the radar screen, or simply a bad day at the office resulting in a single loss. Rather with a Big Ten record of 15-17 since 2015, including a decidedly dismal Big Ten record of 2-3 this season, and with momentum falling, it is difficult to be optimistic about the future.

It’s hard to believe but Spartan Football is at a crossroads.

The landscape is changing as we speak and this is not “business as usual”. Spartan Football will not be able to implement meaningful fixes without implementing a coherent plan of recovery developed from a full review of football operations.

But who will help Mark Dantonio conduct that review? Who is capable of understanding the complexities and nuances of the changing landscape? let’s take a look.

Coaching changes across the landscape:

I’m not suggesting a coaching change, but since 2010, the football landscape has witnessed an incredible number of coaching changes and the schematics have changed even faster.

Just since 2010, coaching changes have occurred at some of the biggest and most successful programs in the land, including but not limited to Georgia 1…LSU 1…Oklahoma 1…Texas 2…and Florida 3. Meanwhile within the Big Ten alone, top tier programs such as Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin have all had multiple coaching changes since 2010. Here are the numbers: Nebraska 3…Ohio State 4…Penn State 3…and Wisconsin 3. Even Michigan has spun the “wheel of fortune” by deploying 3 different Head Coaches since 2010, and in Michigan’s case, the results have been mixed at best.

Changing coaches is imperfect, otherwise the landscape would remain status quo. Within the Big Ten, coaching changes have resulted in multiple appearances in the Big Ten Championship game for Ohio State and Wisconsin, while Penn State has appeared once: the other programs which have implemented coaching changes have fallen short. For example, Minnesota has implemented 4 coaching changes since 2010, still no Championships, yet they seem to be getting closer.

So, fans are impatient, but coaching changes are not guarantees of success. Changing coaches is not a plan in and of itself. Successful coaching changes such as Ohio State and Wisconsin require the guile of some of the best AD’s in the land to develop coherent plans of change, and that requires experience earned over decades.

If the Spartans hope to correct course, they must implement a full review of football operations, but who will lead the review?

The AD must fulfill his role:

This is where Bill Beekman must stand up and fulfill his role as AD.

But the President and the Board of Trustees have responsibilities in this process as well. They sit in the chairs, and they need to do their jobs. Fixing Michigan State Football isn’t an arbitrary decision, it is a must, and a full review of football operations is needed to see if the Athletic Department can help Mark Dantonio turn around the fortunes of Spartan Football…or does the AD and his committee of confidants make the determination to search for a new coach?

Or, on the other hand, if Mark Dantonio decided to step down, does the AD have a “short list” of excellent candidates in his desk drawer?

Beware of coaching changes for the sake of change. The mark of management excellence is fixing an organization that is already in place, as opposed to scuttling the entire organization as if a magic solution lies elsewhere. In that regard, refer back to the unsuccessful coaching changes I cited above. Or check the Spartans checkered history of imperfect coaching changes: 8 coaches from 1972 thru 2007 with decidedly few Championships.

At the bottom line:

The Board of Trustees may not realize it, but fixing Spartan Football is amongst the most pressing issues within Michigan State University.

Football is the straw that stirs the drink!!!

So, the Board, the President and the AD all have roles to fulfill and they need to let their voices be heard. Are they going to help Mark Dantonio “save the ship” or do they intend to sit and watch the ship take on water?

The Larry Nassar saga should have informed the Board that silence is not an option: they have responsibities; they don’t occupy “ceremonial roles.

They sit in the “chairs” now they need to fulfill their roles.

What is their plan? 500,000 Alumni are waiting to hear!