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Opinion: Assault Cases Cast Cloud on Michigan State

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USA TODAY

 

The recruiting class that was supposed to take Michigan State's football program to the next level has instead driven it into the gutter.

Four of the 10 four-star players in Michigan State's acclaimed 2016 recruiting class are facing criminal sexual assault charges.

A judge Tuesday signed arrest warrants for defensive end Josh King, receiver Donnie Corley and safety Demetric Vance after a 41/2-month investigation. Defensive end Auston Robertson was arraigned April 25 in a separate incident.

King, Corley and Vance were swiftly dismissed from the football program Tuesday.

Don't for one second think Michigan State football is the most important part of this story. There are two young women who should probably be forefront in our minds, even if we don't know their names.

Michigan State's football program, though, is at the center of this. And that's a significant part of the story, too.

The timing is adding to the drama.

The Michigan State board of trustees was convened in April when the Robertson news dropped.

Monday, just before the charges against the other three players were authorized by the Ingham County prosecutor, the board brought in football coach Mark Dantonio and athletics director Mark Hollis to address the program's worrisome off-the-field issues.

It all looks really bad for Michigan State's football program.

What has to be determined, though, is whether the optics of this week and the past few months point to something true and damning about the state of the program and Dantonio's ability to lead it.

Or did these situations happen despite the culture inside the football building and not, in some way, because of it?

Dantonio and Hollis did their best to assure it's the latter during a candid, emotional and seemingly sincere news conference Tuesday.

We're about to learn a ton about Michigan State's leadership -- from President Lou Anna Simon all the way down to the 14 remaining players from the 2016 recruiting class. And, of course, about Dantonio and his staff.

Heads shouldn't roll for the sake of appearances. That's weak leadership.

Heads should roll if Michigan State's leaders have lost faith in Dantonio. I'm told the school isn't close to that point, that Dantonio has the collective support of the board, despite recent grumbling. Dantonio left Monday's board meeting with a vote of confidence, a perilous phrase in the world of college athletics. However, a legitimate one for now.

Monday's meeting was a chance for Dantonio to explain his program — the discipline structure, organization, etc. — to board members who are less familiar with the inner workings of a major-college football program.

Three of the eight board members are former Spartans football players. One of those, George Perles, is a former head coach and athletics director.

The administration and board members should ask themselves this: If Michigan State had gone 9-3 last season, instead of 3-9, and if Larry Nassar didn't exist, would they feel the same way about the overall condition of the football program?

Nassar is facing 28 criminal charges and seven lawsuits involving sexual assault claims from at least 95 women and girls. That situation heightens everything.

Dantonio and Co., against all odds, built Michigan State into a nationally relevant football program and did so relatively free of off-the-field turmoil. During the rise, the program's coaches became known for uncovering talent others had missed and developing unheralded prospects into elite college players.

Michigan State won big -- three Big Ten Conference titles, a Rose Bowl win and a College Football Playoff berth in 2015. New doors in recruiting opened. And Michigan State's coaches plowed through them. The 2016 class was their crowning achievement in the talent-acquisition game, a sign that perhaps the Spartans could sustain their new place among college football's upper crust.

We all know what followed. A stunning 2016 season made it clear the foundation wasn't as stable as it appeared.

Dantonio and his staff have the burden of proving they can reset the program. That begins with revisiting recruiting priorities. You can't win without your share of four-star recruits. You can't win with all choir boys. Check out some of the recruits during the Nick Saban era at Michigan State.

Michigan State football rose to Wisconsin's level and then tried to be Ohio State. It bit them.

"We were probably on the cusp of being exactly what you want from a major-college football program," Dantonio said Tuesday. "One year has changed some of that, a lot of that. ... We have to change it back."

The question is whether there's any going back. And whether Dantonio, long term, is the guy to try to lead that effort. Football might not be what decides that. The program desperately needs a clean summer.

If Dantonio overcomes this, heals his program's reputation and gets it rolling again on the field, it will be a greater feat than the original rise.

It's probably a lot less likely.

Couch is a columnist for the Lansing State Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.

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June 7, 2017
 
 
 

 

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