EAST LANSING – This is what losing does to a college football program.
Forget the other noise for a minute: What Michigan State’s football program is going through right now is, first and foremost, about winning and losing.
It’s why the vultures are circling and the faithful are doubting. It’s why a sexual assault investigation into three of MSU’s players is seen as walls crumbling and why an MSU doctor charged with serial abuse, none of it having anything to do with football, is contributing to the cloud over football.
If anything sinks Mark Dantonio’s tenure at MSU, it’ll be losing.
And for that reason, the Spartans are beginning the most pivotal and determining eight-month stretch of the Dantonio era. Spring practice for the 2017 season began Saturday, silently and behind closed doors.
Dantonio hasn’t said a word publicly since he signed his latest recruiting class on Feb. 1. His voice has been absent since word broke of the sexual assault investigation and the related suspension of recruiting director Curtis Blackwell. Dantonio hasn’t issued so much as a statement reciting the program’s core values or an acknowledging of the seriousness of the situation. It’s a bad look. Not the way I would have played it. But, if he wins next year, it won’t matter. If he wins.
Neither will any other defections, suspensions or expulsions. If he wins.
The noise surrounding the program isn’t necessarily unrelated to what’s transpired on the field, even if the correlation between cause and effect isn’t a straight line.
Dantonio’s program is in this predicament, in part, because it tried to take winning to another level. And, in doing so, lost its footing. The narrative about Dantonio building his program with unheralded, motivated recruits is sometimes overplayed. There’s also something to it. Lose that player as your foundation and you have a different program, different culture and whatever comes with it.
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Taking the next step in college football is hard. It requires luring blue-chip talent in waves, year after year. It demands being able to manage that talent, motivate it, coach it and hold it accountable. It means a willingness to blur the lines in recruiting and be comfortable existing in gray areas. If this isn’t who you are — I’m not sure it fits Dantonio — you shouldn’t go there.
Most new-money college football powers ultimately return to being something less. Consider the state of the programs at Oregon, Ole Miss and Baylor. Oregon just finished 4-8 and fired its coach. Ole Miss is self-imposing sanctions after its sudden ability to recruit to top talent — it turns out, to no one’s surprise — wasn’t on the up and up. Baylor, meanwhile, has become the poster child for a college football program run rampant, with a lawsuit alleging 52 acts of rape in the last four years. Again, winning and losing is at the forefront of all of this. Baylor sold its soul to win and then wound up a long way down a dark path because no one wanted to interrupt winning. No one ever does.
No one on signing day ever decides to take a deep analytical dive into the character of a program’s recruiting class. The number of stars next to a prospect’s name never has anything to do with being too coddled or entitled or potentially a cancer to a program.
MSU celebrated landing Malik McDowell in 2014, for example. He was a dynamic and coveted talent at a position that separates programs. It worked when he had the right leadership next to him on the defensive line in the classes ahead of him. He was part of 21 wins in his first two seasons, a Big Ten championship and a berth in the college football playoff. Maybe he was worth it. Maybe not. No one’s heart broke at MSU when the unruly McDowell left after his junior season for the NFL Draft.
MSU reveled in the acclaim given to its 2016 recruiting class, a class “born on third base,” as Dantonio would regularly say. Perhaps there’s no fixing that. Perhaps with a different player comes a different kid, a different parent, a different program. Not one that works at MSU.
Character, leadership and humility are virtues that must be parts of the puzzle. College football programs need some of their best players to be their best leaders. They need some of those leaders to be seniors. And they need coaches willing to put culture and accountability above everything else. Because that’s how you sustain winning.
MSU had this going for a while. It had veteran leaders who could put the most entitled freshman in his place, perpetuating a healthy cycle. Opportunities were earned, not given. MSU doesn’t have that culture right now.
This is a look-in-the-mirror moment in time for Dantonio and his program. They’ve had to do so before — in 2009 after the Rather Hall brawl that led to suspensions, prosecutions and players being removed from the program. The next season, under a no-BS approach from its head coach, MSU won a share of its first Big Ten title in the Dantonio era.
This again is time for a reset. Not a purge. There are tons of good kids in the program — young men unfairly associated with the alleged transgressions of a few. But good kids in the wrong culture won’t flourish, they won’t win.
If they do win again, this tumultuous season and offseason will be no more a part of MSU’s football history than many of its other low points. That’s how this works. Consider Western Michigan’s charmed 2016 football season — the unbeaten regular season, the Cotton Bowl, the magic of P.J. Fleck. No one remembers that two freshman players were charged with armed robbery a week before the season-opener. WMU kept rowing the boat to the most celebrated season in program history. Fleck parlayed the on-field success into a new job, head coach at Minnesota, where he plans to change the culture. Meanwhile, Bryson White and Ron George are likely to stand trial this spring.
There are more important things in college football than winning. We just don’t value them as much.
Contact Graham Couch at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.