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Spartan Football End of Year Report: Part Three

When you look back at how far Mark Dantonio has brought Michigan State since his arrival, it is a remarkable thing. The previous athletic director had made a bad hire in a politically charged environment and crashed the program. Politics had doomed the previous Bobby Williams era before it had even started. Things were bad.

Dantonio has steadied and repaired the ship. Coming off of back-to-back 11 win campaigns, expectations were not only high among the fans, but inside the Duffy as well. We all know that it wasn’t the year anyone expected and the warning signs were there, just frankly missed (by me included).

Since these articles have started, my inbox is full of mail from people calling me out.  Most of the messages are for not mentioning a person's particular pet-peeve.  I would like to suggest something novel. I have repeatedly said that this is a series of articles.  How about you wait until after the series before accusing me of leaving things out?

In part three we start with another warning sign: budget for football coaches’ pay.

Michigan State has consistently tried to run their largest money producer, football, as financially tight as possible. I have harped for two years about the salaries of our coaches. In our class envy culture it is hard for some to look at a person making $150,000+ and ask why is that salary a deterrent?  I get that, but at Spartan Nation we deal in realville.  In the real world, people every day, in every field try to improve themselves.Â

Whether it is a teenager who leaves McDonald’s and receives an 80 cent per hour pay raise at Wendy's or the businessman looking for more benefits and an additional $20,000. It happens; people are just trying improve their financial position.  The best move is receiving more money because your business is making more money.  This is the point and tt is the American way, at least for now.

Spartan football wages were frozen for the 2010 and 2011 seasons. During that time I continued to mention it because it has plagued MSU for decades. One of Nick Saban’s biggest frustrations while the coach at MSU was that he wanted and needed to be able to pay guys better to stay and to replace underperforming staff with people who could do the job.  Better people and better producers cost more money. It has gone on around here for a long time. Saban lost coaches every single year.  These were guys he wanted to keep.  Other coaches have had the same problem while at MSU.

John L. Smith suffered the same fate early when he had great assistants that he couldn’t pay to keep them or didn’t come with him from Louisville because MSU couldn’t afford to pay. Some even left for in-conference jobs at Michigan and Ohio State after brief stints at MSU simply for pay raises. Let me prove it.

Doug Nussmeier is currently the OC at Alabama and just won the national title this year. He was the QB Coach at MSU for three seasons. Jim McElwain won two national titles at Alabama as a coordinator. He was at MSU three seasons. He is now a head coach. Paul Haynes was at MSU two seasons before leaving to join Jim Tressel at Ohio State for the same job. He is now a head coach. Steve Stripling left MSU for Michigan after two years. It was the exact same job, but for a major pay increase. He is now at Tennessee.

Like it or not, at the top of the Big Ten and at the top of the national power structure, football is about the staff. Football is like poker, every year you have to ante up.Â

For those of you that think the head coaches who make so much should help look at this. Mark Richt the head coach at Georgia is given a great pool of resources to pay his assistants. He uses it, but when he wanted to dip into his own checkbook to thank his staff for their great work the NCAA hit him hard. READ ABOUT IT HERE.

Because there was a hiring freeze at the University, President Simon had passed that edict down to the athletic department and Mark Hollis that they had to freeze wages. Despite the fact that the athletic department is the #1 paying customer of the University, paying millions of dollars to the school for the student athletes’ tuition didn’t matter. Add to that athletics is a STAND ALONE COMPANY owned by the University certainly, but still stand alone. Athletics takes NO MONEY from the school. MSU athletics generates millions for the school.

While freezing wages over those two seasons Michigan State had dropped to 11th in assistant pay. Forget embarrassing, it put the program in trouble.Â

I do not doubt the sincerity of President Simon. With having to oversee more than just a major BCS athletics program and all of the different areas of a major University it can’t be easy. That doesn’t change that the decision was nearly crippling to football. While I disagree with her on the handling of the athletic department, it is far from personal, I like her very much. I find her to be both incredibly intelligent, but also very warm.

 I spoke for this article with former faculty representative to the athletic counsel, Randall Schaetzl, who is a Professor in the Department of Geography. I asked him as a highly respected man on campus and most certainly a man of academia if he would have issues or if he thought the body of academia at MSU would have issues with MSU athletics spending more to increase being competitive and compete for titles. “Absolutely not! The athletic department brings more money in than it spends. It also brings in student applications and visibility both nationally and across the world to the University as a whole. The athletic department brings in more in real dollars and not just applications to the University. Actual real dollar revenue is what it brings in for the department and the school. A bunch of that money that they bring in gets syphoned off to the University. If it brings in the money and the Athletic Director feels like he needs to spend more to make more money that would be a business model I fully support. I think his (Mark Hollis) hands don’t need to be tied. He should have all the autonomy he needs to run his department.”Â

So many people want Mark Dantonio to hire new staff when a position struggles or when a coach leaves and make bigger splashes. I am not one who cares about the “Splash,” I want the substance, but I know of great coaches, nationally recognized men, who are considered elite that MSU simply doesn’t have the budget to hire. They want to be here.

Do you remember the NFL executive in part one who said, “Nick Saban never won anywhere like he did at LSU and Bama. Why? He never had a school commit to letting him hire a great staff and give him a recruiting budget like he has had. Even in the NFL, because of parity, he couldn’t do what he has done at Alabama and LSU. I think there are a lot of coaches who could have his success with his resources. I am not saying he isn’t a good coach, but I am saying there are a lot of good coaches who don’t have what a select group of schools do. I think Dantonio would do just as good as Nick. He is doing better at MSU than Nick did. Nick wasn’t exactly the world’s greatest coach in the MAC. He was a good coach, but became the legend he is now because of places that shared his commitment. He could have done this at MSU and I have no doubt so can Dantonio. The bigger question is if the school and by school I mean administration want to.”

MSU, after the raises that came at the end of the 2011 season, was fifth in the Big Ten in total assistant salary pool for the Big Ten conference in 2012. CLICK HERE TO SEE FOR YOURSELF. Certainly not as bad as 2011, but not in the top third competing for Big Ten titles and anywhere near where it needs to be to compete for national titles.

A warning sign for 2012 should have been that even if Dantonio wanted to make changes, he can’t just go and identify whom he wants; he has to identify who he wants and who can stay in his budget. In 2012 the Spartans were let down in a lot of areas, one of them was staff. A staff that Dantonio hired because they fit the budget, or didn’t replace because he holds a commitment to continuity that serves him with limited resources. Why change if you don’t know what you will get?

If anything Dantonio is not dumb. Continuity benefits him with a limited salary pool. He sees coaches who have great success while making changes. He knows that, but he has to weigh every hire by a prism of dollars.

Let me explain one game, just one that MSU lost and staff budgets were critical to it.

Go back with me to October 1, 2011, at the Horseshoe in Columbus. Michigan State went into Ohio State that day with a dominating defense and beat the Buckeyes 10-7. Now fast forward to this season. You may remember that OSU was rated #14 in the nation and Michigan State was 20th as they battled on September 29, 2012, in East Lansing. The Spartans lost that game 17-16.

You may say, “Hondo of course you are going to point to Urban Meyer.” WRONG. I am not pointing to Meyer. I am going to go deeper than that and prove my point.

Reid Fragel is a big kid from Gross Pointe, Michigan. Michigan State and Mark Dantonio wanted him badly coming out of high school. I believe that if Lloyd Carr had not left Michigan he would have ended up in Ann Arbor.

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In that 2011 win by MSU, Fragel was the 2nd string TE for the Buckeyes. That was the third year he had played that spot for the Buckeyes, but a funny thing happened between 2011 and 2012.Â

When Urban Meyer was hired, one of his biggest sticking points was that Ohio State would have to increase the pay for assistants and support staff. Meyer is very smart like Saban and understands to win you have to have the coaches and staff. It can’t all rest on him.

Meyer spent big money to get one of the best to run his OL. That was Ed Warinner. Warinner was paid $357,000 to do that job. He also shares the title of Co-OC, but according to people at the school he has the title, but his job IS the OL coach. MSU, in case you are wondering, paid their OL Coach $202,000 in 2012.

I have many friends who work at Ohio State and I have great respect for their commitment to winning.  They have an understanding that the money follows the commitment to winning. Warinner, shortly after arriving at Ohio State, began to look at the film. He knew the OL was going to be trouble for the 2012 Buckeyes.

According to someone inside the program he watched film of Fragel for “Less than seven minutes.” My friend who was there said, “It was the most amazing thing I have seen. Coach Warinner says, ‘Why is that kid at tight end? He is an NFL tackle.’  That guy has the most amazing eye for talent.” Fragel made the move for his senior year and is part of the 2013 NFL combine going on now. He is about to be drafted in this year’s draft as a RT.

Fragel’s play was key to not only OSU beating MSU, but going undefeated. Fragel’s burst on the scene was due to one thing: OSU gave the coach the budget to hire the best that he needed to win.

I will give you another player from that game.Â

Meyer went out and spent over $226,000 MORE for a better QB coach. He brought in Tom Herman. Meyer gets a ton of credit, but it was Herman behind the scenes who worked with Braxton Miller. Miller’s jump from what the Spartans played against in 2011 and beat, and what they played against and lost to in 2012 was nothing shy of amazing.

You instantly saw technique and changes to Braxton’s game that were astonishing. Dantonio praised the new Miller before the OSU game. Dantonio said, “You've seen immense growth in a year. He's a very exciting player, dynamic player, and he makes them go.” I agree.

Braxton Miller benefited greatly from Meyer’s new assistant that he was able to lure away from Iowa State. Tom Herman is a bona fide MENSA member and he saw that the $75,000 pay increase to go to Ohio State was a golden opportunity.

That is just two players and there are more from not just this game, but others that having the budget to hire the coaches you need immediately produces wins. Forget head coach salary, Ohio State increased their assistant coaches’ salary pay pool a whopping 33% from 2011 to 2012.  They hired a winner in Urban Meyer and they were smart enough to understand that the man had to be able to pay a staff. Football is not driven by one man. It can’t be. It’s isn’t.Â

 Ohio State reaped big rewards by spending 50% more than MSU on assistants in 2012. While MSU paid $2.2 million, OSU spent $3.3 million.

Trust me. In this series of articles we will get real specific about MSU. We will look at players, coaches, and plenty more. This may not be “SEXY,” but when Mark Dantonio has to hire a new staff member or is considering making a change he looks closely at pay. He has to.Â

Professor Schaetzl said it brilliantly. He isn’t in athletics; he is a highly intelligent professor that understands business. He is academia. There isn't a battle between both worlds. They can exist and thrive off of each other.

In 2012 the Spartans were coming off of back-to-back 11 win seasons and while other programs in the conference were upgrading coaching, MSU was thrilled to be able to give raises to their existing staff that took them from 11th in pay (start of 2011 season) to 5th in pay (start of 2012 season) in the Big Ten conference.

I have been told that as many as four Big Ten schools in spending for assistants this off season leap frogged MSU’s 2012 pay of $2.2 million. Will MSU stay in the hunt? Mark Dantonio is making serious hires. Will Mark Hollis be able to empower him to say, “Go get whoever you want that produces immediate wins?”

Please remember this big key point in all of these articles. It is the MSU coaches and the administration that continually tells the fans that they expect MSU football to win Big Ten titles and compete for national titles. Saying it is easy, making it happen isn’t.

The purpose of these articles IS NOT to say what paradigm is right or wrong. It is to say MSU has an identity crisis. This University can win. MSU has won national titles and can do it again. It has been nearly 25 years since they went to a Rose Bowl. Isn’t the definition of stupidity doing the same things and expecting different results?

If MSU doesn’t want to do what it takes to win like OSU and UM, or Alabama in the SEC, that is the choice of the powers that be and the citizens of the state that vote them in.

If they want to take on more of a Northwestern model, again that is their choice and the people of Michigan who vote for the leadership. What isn’t fair is to claim it, fire up the fans, and not deliver a true chance.   MSU needs to look in the mirror and decide. Coach Dantonio can win at the level the fans want. Does the administration want to go back to the days of John Hannah and make it happen?  Do they see athletics as a way to grow the University and not as simple a cog?

Bret Bielema recently left Wisconsin for what was not a major raise to go from near the top of the Big Ten to middle of the road SEC. He left over the salary pool structure. He said, "When I began to have more and more success at Wisconsin, I stayed but a lot of my coaches left." Frustrated he added, "I just wasn't able to compensate them in the way other coaches were. I know I'm hiring the right guys, because everybody keeps taking them from me."

MSU lost games in 2012 because the salary pool allowed other schools to improve and they did. Tomorrow we look at scholarship numbers. With all schools according to NCAA mandate getting the same number of scholarships, why do some take 25 or more every year while some like MSU take considerably less? The answer will shock you, but played a big impact in 2012.

*Author’s note. There are numerous links to articles that support this column. Please take the time to run your cursor over the article as you read to get the most out of this series. Thank you. *

 2012 Spartan Football End Of Year Report Part One

2012 Spartan Football End of Year Report Part Two