The Michigan State football coaching search has been such a muddled, rudderless and public mess that it’s difficult to pinpoint where it all went wrong. But thanks to the delicious bit of administrative anarchy that overtook the MSU coaching search on Tuesday, it’s easy to pinpoint the moment it devolved from a searing mess to a coast-to-coast laughingstock.
Take a bow, Michigan State trustee Brian Mosallam. By going on the radio today and ripping Luke Fickell and addressing “Spartan Nation” like some self-anointed savant, you officially turned a mess of a coaching search into a full-fledged debacle. Nothing sets the collegiate sports laugh track to a deafening volume like a clueless rich booster going on sports radio to pander to the message board crowd.
Mosallam took it upon himself to go on WXYT and declare the school doesn’t want a “waffling flake” as a head coach. Even notorious camera hog and University of Houston billionaire egomaniac Tilman Fertitta would likely find that gambit outlandish and narcissistic.
Mosallam is a very wealthy man who played football at Michigan State. None of those things make him qualified to speak publicly about a coaching search. Insulting a qualified candidate isn’t exactly a way to lure others, especially when this search has already exposed the glaring MSU athletic leadership void.
Folks like Mosallam who run wealth management companies don’t get told no a lot. And that’s why ego overtook decorum as he perpetuated the notion that Michigan State is auditioning for the Ringling Brothers. The only positive thing that’s come out of this Michigan State search so far, for anyone who doesn’t bleed Spartan green anyway, is that it has been a lot more entertaining than watching their offense the past two years.
How has Michigan State bungled the past week? Let’s count the ways.
There’s an unqualified academic suit, Bill Beekman, moonlighting as athletic director and showcasing why he shouldn’t have gotten the job. There’s an overmatched search firm executive, Glenn Sugiyama, who has done such a poor job keeping things quiet that he may as well have streamed the whole search on Apple TV.
Then there’s Mark Dantonio, the perpetually complicated former coach who wants to remain part of the athletic department. Dantonio’s poor timing stepping down handicapped this search from the start. And his presence has been met with mixed reviews, as he has an inflated view of his own place at the school, unaware that the program’s precipitous dip since the College Football Playoff bid in 2015 has prompted some leadership at the school to want to head in a different philosophical direction. (By that, they mean an occasional forward pass and not punting from the opposing 38-yard line.)
The desire to shift away from punt-to-win football has caused some consternation, especially after Dantonio’s preferred candidate, Luke Fickell, declined the job. (It will be fun to see the next interaction between Dantonio and Mosallam after the board member publicly insulted Dantonio’s close friend.)
A coaching search is the rare collegiate exercise that tests a school’s preparedness from the locker room to the president’s office. And one week after Dantonio stepped down, Michigan State has been publicly turned down by three candidates – Colorado’s Mel Tucker, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and Fickell. (There are also reports that Iowa State’s Matt Campbell declined initial interest.) They’ve had their flights tracked, been filmed getting off multiple planes and appear to have no plan now that they’ve whiffed on their “A” selections.
There are really two options left for Michigan State. The first is backing up a Brinks truck to a candidate that it’s already courted. Fickell definitively isn’t coming – and that was the case before the public insults. That would make Tucker, the only other head coach known to sit down with MSU, the most viable and susceptible to an offer.
Colorado is handcuffed by the lack of Pac-12 revenue, which would allow Michigan State to use all the Big Ten network dollars to throw money at this problem. (Sources told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday there was a lot of momentum to lure an experienced candidate like Tucker with a big contract to help end the embarrassment of this search.)
If they can’t throw money at a candidate to cover their ineptitude, perhaps the other reasonable option here is to allow accomplished defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, the current interim coach, to retain the job. He could hire a new offensive staff in an attempt to bring some excitement to the program and it would allow a new athletic director to run a professional search under a better timeline next fall.
Where did it all go wrong? We can start with the athletic department leadership void, which first exposed itself following Michigan State’s lackluster 2018 season. The Spartans finished No. 116 in total offense and Beekman didn’t have the clout to force Dantonio to make offensive changes. After Dantonio shuffled a few titles and fed Michigan State fans some useless rhetoric about change, Michigan State finished No. 95 this year.
Beekman still couldn’t muster the clout to force immediate changes. And when he finally did, Dantonio whiffed on a handful of coordinator candidates — including some awkward talks about a coach-in-waiting — and then eventually stepped down. That was, of course, after collecting his $4.3 million retention bonus. Some ability to stand up and have a hard conversation with Dantonio to force changes earlier — both this year and last — could have drastically changed the outcome.
So now Dantonio is lingering around with a vague job description, Beekman has bumbled himself into a lame duck, essentially earning back the interim title as he’s run the worst coaching search since John Currie lost his job at Tennessee.
After Beekman came over to settle things down, it wasn’t nearly as clear why he was kept there and made permanent. A university drowning in scandal and lacking leadership often makes lazy decisions like this because they’re easy. And the embarrassment of this week is a reminder that easy decisions to keep unqualified people in roles they weren’t meant to have will eventually backfire with long-term consequences.
There’s a long road back, as the leadership void, Mosallam’s arrogance and the flailing search have backed MSU into a corner. “At the end of the day, we can’t make somebody come here,” Mosallam said on the radio, according to the Detroit Free Press.
On Tuesday, he unknowingly put on a clinic of how to scare a high-end coach away.
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