The true story behind MSU SID John Lewandowski, and his involvement and responsibility during the JLS tenure as MSU head football coach.

Hondo S. Carpenter

The true story behind MSU SID John Lewandowski, and his involvement and responsibility during the JLS tenure as MSU head football coach.


Most of us would love to forget the last several years that John L. Smith was the head coach at MSU. One name that is synonymous in almost any conversation about those times however is MSU SID John Lewandowski. Lewandowski worked with Smith while they both were at Utah State and the perception was (I also had it) that he was personally responsible for Ron Mason choosing Smith as the head coach. Now the perception just didn’t appear out of nowhere, many people around MSU have “credited” him for that.


This article shall leave no stone unturned and I want to personally thank the immense amount of people that helped me dig and piece together Lewandowski’s involvement and responsibility.


I need to simply take one paragraph, however, in order to clarify for any of you that are unaware what an SID is at a major university. That is an acronym that stands for Sports Information Director. They are the conduits from the University to the media, thus to the people. Lewandowski heads up that entire department and oversees all of the sports for MSU. Now, they work with the media in order to help facilitate both MSU getting coverage and helping us essentially to do what we do. They are also the PR people that help to get the most positive message out to the masses.


I, like so many people, was shocked, and to be brutally honest angry when JLS got the job. I, too, heard from several people close to MSU about Lewandowski and how he had, “pushed Mason” in his direction the moment that Bobby Williams was fired. I can tell you that after 34 interviews and over 100 phone calls that I conducted for this story, that simply is not the truth. In fact, here are some very interesting details about what went on during that time.


 

The hiring of John L. Smith


Ron Mason was promoted to AD in July of 2002. Part of his mandate from then President McPherson was that McPherson was wanted to remove the politics and by that he meant the influence of the Board of Trustees from the area of athletics. In fact, it is still today MSU board policy that they are the ones that hire and fire both the men’s head basketball coach and the football coach. It is a policy that I not only feel is very detrimental to MSU, but also is one that needs to be changed. McPherson, in fact, was able to convince the Board of Trustees when Mason was hired, that when he took office in 2002, he would have unprecedented chain of command in that he would actually report to the President rather than the board.


The board should pick the President who will then select an AD in my opinion. They certainly shouldn’t be dealing with who the head coaches are with their two most important revenue sports. Now please don’t think that I believe that they are out of place to monitor that. They are elected guardians of the school by the people, and are placed in those places to guard the public trust. Howevever, it is my opinion that they best serve the school by holding the President accountable for athletic performance, not doing so themselves. If the coaches fail then the onus of responsibility of the BOT is to select a knowledgeable President is even more clear and focused about what he or she is doing when selecting an AD. It is called Presidential control.


Mason adhered to McPherson mandate and according to one Trustee at the time that Mason was hired, Mason was encouraged, “not to include board members. You can’t really blame Ron, Peter had made it clear to him what he wanted and Ron complied.” I don’t think that they should have a final say, but they were literally ignored according to multiple people who were part of the board at the time. How could you not at least recognize and acknowledge their ideas? Even if you went in a completely different direction this was a critical error that McPherson made in his directions to Mason, and he followed the President’s wishes like Moses coming off the mountain with some fresh new stone tablets.Â


According to multiple sources, Mason sat down with the executive staff of the athletic department after he fired Bobby Williams and made it clear to them that they were encouraged and welcomed to pursue and talk to any candidate to judge interest and to bring, “any name to me that you think could be a fit,” according to two sources privy to that conversation. According to those same two people that were directly involved in the meetings that day, those that would fit would have no ties to MSU’s past (more specifically George Perles in any way) and would favor a “wide open” type offense that Mason felt the fans wanted in order to move away from the perceived, three run plays in a row of the Perles era. They also were told that the person “had to have a track record as a head coach.”


The funny thing is that Mason followed the mandate that McPherson gave him to a T. The Board of Trustees was essentially ignored and Mason wanted anybody who would listen when he finally hired Smith to know that it was his choice. Although Mason was right that it was his choice, there was an incredible senior athletic staff that had worked to try to save the day. In fact, when a member of the Board of Trustees was pressed at a press conference on November 1, 2006 (to announce Smith’s firing) to tell the Spartan Nation why the administration could be trusted to get the hiring right this time, Trustee Joel Ferguson told the media, “We recognize mistakes we’ve made in the past, and we are not stupid. We learn from those mistakes and we are not going to make the same mistakes again,” referring to the administration and Trustees being left out of the loop.


After Mason made it clear that the staff was to go out and begin the search process, they were also given a short time later a list of candidates that head hunter Jed Hughes had provided of potential candidates. That was a list that I do not have in my possession presently, but I was allowed to view for this story. Ironically, Smith’s name was on that list, at it had been on a previous list when Nick Saban had left according to at least two sources that were directly involved with MSU football after Saban left, and with direct knowledge of that list.


Lewandowski had worked with John L. Smith before and mentioned it to Mason, but that was the end of the discussion when Lewandowski informed Mason that he “liked” Smith (something most people who dealt with him, myself included agreed with) but that he felt MSU could do better. In fact Urban Meyer, the national championship winning coach from the University of Florida who was the coach at BGSU at the time, wanted the MSU job badly. Lou Holtz spoke to MSU on “multiple occasions” according to several sources about Meyer, and in fact Lewandowski spearheaded the effort to land Meyer and had two of the multiple conversations with Holtz himself. Multiple football people called to advise MSU that Meyer was a Midwest guy and that although Notre Dame or Ohio State were a dream job, that he would come to MSU, which was in the Big Ten, and that he wanted the job. Meyer is a great coach that grew up loving the Big Ten so much that he would have not asked for an out clause from an MSU contract to leave for either school, Notre Dame or Ohio State according to a source in Ashtabula, Ohio (his hometown that we went to speak to for this article that has direct knowledge of that time frame).


Mason never even let the discussion with Meyer, “gain any legs” according to MSU officials and told several people that he felt he was too young and not ready. A fact that Meyer proved Mason wrong on. In fact, Mason made a comment to at least two people at MSU after Meyer won the national championship this past season, “Well wait until he has to play with his own players and break in a new QB.” Sadly Lewandowski never got the credit from me or anyone else for not pushing his friend Smith that was already on the easy list as far as Hughes had put it on the table, when he wanted Meyer and pushed hard for Mason to go after him.


As the search went on and it was clear to everyone that Mason would not go towards Meyer, the search progressed. ESPN college game day analyst Kirk Herbstreit called MSU and strongly encouraged the Spartans to take a look at Mike Stoops, the now current head coach at UA. Herbstreit felt Stoops was a good and solid choice. According again to current and former MSU officials, “Stoops had some off field issues that concerned us, especially coming off of a less than, shall we say, disciplined off field Bobby Williams era. Stoops was never given serious consideration.” The fact still remains however that again before Lewandowski went towards Smith, he at least brought the name of Stoops to Mason after Herbstreit had spoken to both he and (soon to be named MSU AD) Mark Hollis.Â


 Rick Minter, the head coach at Cincinnati let it be known that he was willing to be a candidate but MSU had very little interest. However one name that I had never heard mention of before was Norv Turner. Turner is the current San Diego Chargers head coach and was very interested in coming to MSU. In fact according to two people that were keenly aware of the intricate details of the search, “He let MSU know that he was very willing to come to East Lansing.” His brother Ron Turner was the head coach at the University of Illinois.


However when Meyer was rejected, Lewandowski again didn’t go back to the “ Hughes easy list” and pick his old friend to pursue next. He began to look at then current Oklahoma State head football coach Les Miles. Miles was a former coach on Bo Schembechler’s staff, and former UM player who had done a fantastic job at OSU. So good, in fact, that he took over LSU when former coach Nick Saban left and he has put together two 11 win seasons his first two years in Baton Rouge.


Lewandowski was a strong supporter of MSU hiring Miles and MSU had so much interest that a contract had been, according to two sources at MSU and one not from MSU but closely connected to the situation, “floated” for Miles and his people to look at. Floated is a term used instead of negotiating so that both parties can protect themselves from being embarrassed if either party pulls out. How many times have you known people were negotiating but one of the parties will say that the job was never offered? It is simply a semantic argument but Miles (whom Lewandowski supported strongly) was willing to come to MSU. In fact contrary to reports that former UM head coach, the late Bo Schembechler, called Miles and ripped him for considering the job (a call that never happened) it was only after Miles met with Mason that he decided MSU was not a good fit for him and pulled out. Again, Miles was the second person that Lewandowski had promoted heavily to Mason, and the third name that he had brought to his boss.


Lewandowski was so convinced in Miles that before Mason made the decision to meet with Miles, Lewandowski told him, according to more than one source privy to the conversation, “Ron, this is not only a good coach that has built something, he has no ties to MSU (something that Mason wanted as stated previous) and a lot of people think he could be the next coach when Carr retires at UM. His wife is from here and he has ties to the state having played for Bo, and you can effectively hinder your most bitter rival from having the chance to get the coach that they possibly want next.” His sales job worked because the contract was floated and Miles and Mason met. Unfortunately for MSU, Mason was not as good of a salesman convincing Miles to take the job as Lewandowski had been selling him that Miles was the right choice. After being told no by Miles, MSU’s future was sent spiraling out of control.


At this point in the search the athletic department was full of people very frustrated with appeared to be MSU’s inability to pull the trigger and get a coach. In fact, several people that had initially been energized to help Mason had completely backed off. One of them told me for this report, “It was just frustrating. Good candidates came and went and either we had no interest at all like Urban, or in the case of Miles and Marvin Lewis (now the Bengals head coach) or Jim Leavitt (USF head coach) we couldn’t get them. It would be fair to say that morale was not at an all time high in the athletic department at the time. We were getting ripped by the fans and we certainly couldn’t tell them what was going on but we agreed with them.”


A conversation took place shortly after Miles had told MSU no, in which Mason literally asked, “Who’s left?” Running out of candidates, Lewandowski mentioned that his former colleague at Utah State John L. Smith was still out there and was a name on Hughes list. Mason was concerned that his buyout was going to be too big, but told Lewandowski to, “contact him and feel him out, and find out about the buyout,” according to sources close to the entire process.


Lewandowski did just that and Smith was chomping at the bit to get to a BCS school. In fact, Smith’s Heisman trophy runner up QB nephew (now 49ers QB Alex Smith) once told me he “didn’t go to Louisville because my Uncle told me he was going to leave for a BCS school when he got the chance and he didn’t want me stuck there.” JLS himself confirmed that story to me after I asked him about it. Smith informed Lewandowski that he loved MSU in their hey day and that he really wanted the job. Smith told Lewandowski, according to sources close to MSU and JLS, that “The buyout ain’t much, just get me an interview John.” Granting an interview was not something Lewandowski could do but he did let Mason know that there was “great” interest on the part of Smith and Mason got his number and called him immediately.


Time was running out and MSU was losing recruits every day that they were without a coach. What really hurt MSU was that the perception among the Spartan Nation was that there was no direction with the search. Sadly, the national perception where people will talk more, who know, was that MSU was clueless. One national television personality told me, “We all knew that they had been turned down and people knew that MSU was really in trouble. I think that to say Mason had to move quickly was a strong understatement. In fact, we had kind of laughed that MSU maybe had a one-man committee making the decision (something different than the past) but they still couldn’t get it right. Let’s be honest however, you saw what they did this last time with getting Dantonio and even though the process was far from flawless, they are at least getting the idea, Dantonio is a hell of a football coach.”


MSU had put a large contract on the table to Marvin Lewis as well as the same deal to Miles, MSU contemplated lowering their offer to Smith but decided against it because as Mason has said many times there was concern that Smith was going to get a call from another school.Â


That other school was Washington State where Mike Price had recently left to coach at Alabama. In fact Smith would have been the choice for WSU, but political reasons inside the University, according to sources close the WSU program, pressured them to pick Bill Doba the long time assistant to Price. Both sources went on to tell me, “We love John, he is one of ours. I don’t think there was any reason to let MSU know we weren’t going in John’s direction. He was able to leverage what was perceived to be our interest in order to get that big fat deal from you Spartans. Ya’ll over paid for someone you thought people were hot and heavy for, when in all actuality, there wasn’t anyone else a looking.” Â


MSU got a coach, but little did that coach know what he was really getting into. Again, Smith was the fourth name Lewandowski took to Mason and his third choice, far from what many of us were led to believe. Sadly I must confess that at the time it wasn’t something I thought, but it is the truth. A sad truth, but the truth nonetheless. It was also a fact that Lewandowski gave Mason JLS’s number, but he certainly didn’t have an agenda to get Smith from day one, in fact his “friend” was only offered as a viable candidate when Mason asked, “Who’s left?” What a sad statement about how far MSU had fallen.


How far had our beloved MSU fallen? When members of the administration, the BOT, and the Spartan Nation watched stunned when Louisville, while playing in a bowl game, and players cell phones on the Cardinals team started getting calls telling that their coach was leaving after the game.Â


One high ranking MSU official called me moments after the announcers mentioned it on air, he was screaming before I could even say hello, “Who the F*** is John L. F****** Smith?” Another well-known member of the Spartan Nation reflected back on that night when he told me, “I just shook my head. I had no idea who John was. This wasn’t about him. It was about how humiliated we were as a University and how terrible we looked. I can honestly tell you that I have been frustrated, but it literally was the first time I had been embarrassed to be a Spartan.”Â


The enormity of the JLS hire, during a bowl game, was further deepened into the psyche of the Spartan Nation when Mark Dantonio risked not getting the MSU job this past off season by telling MSU that he wasn’t available for an interview while the regular season was going on. MSU had bought the “hype” that JLS has being chased, and made a public relations blunder that will go down in history as one of the immense embarrassments in Spartan Nation history.


 

The JLS years


One cannot argue that before coming to MSU, JLS had success as a college football coach. However, with an athletic director that didn’t know a lot about football, MSU hired a coach that had hands-off approach to his staff. He let those that he trusted run their programs. In fact, it was that trust that probably cost JLS at MSU when he refused to fire his DC Chris Smeland and his OC Dave Baldwin after abysmal performances, in my opinion.


Smith lost his main assistant when he left Louisville to come to East Lansing and had a mass exodus of remaining staff when he was at MSU after only a short time. JLS struggled when people he trusted were gone and was clearly overwhelmed at the Big Ten level. In fact JLS had become so distant from some of his staff (mainly those that were not with him from the start at MSU) that one former assistant told me, “I tried to talk to him about us pathetically keeping our depleted CB group ten yards off the ball.” I asked him about JLS’s response and he told me Smith said, “I don’t want to hear it. It is a race to 40 to win. If you have issues talk to Chris. So I tried to talk to Chris, but I was told if they wanted my input they would ask.”Â


Staff fled like rats off of a burning ocean liner on a regular basis while JLS was here. Staff strife got so bad that one player told me one night when I was out to dinner with my family, “It is really bad. You can tell that coach Baldwin and Smeland aren’t liking each other, and they are all so busy trying to blame each other for losses that this thing is just really f***** up.” Sadly at the time, Lewandowski had to balance the media’s need for access and answers and his bosses’ tendency toward avoidance and passing the blame, alledgedly.Â


Here is one incident that has never left me with JLS. I was talking in a parking lot with JLS. I told him that it was my opinion that he had to fix some things. I am not ashamed of it. I love MSU and I liked Smith. When I mentioned to him that being angry with some of the media for reporting practice secrets was not a reason to punish the vast majority of the MSU press group that are both hard working and honest. I also told him that his feud with the Lansing State Journal and the way that he treated their beat reporters was ignorant. He told on that day, and I believed him, “I want to do more. I really think we should have more access and let the people see what we are doing, but Lewandowski has warned me about this group and doesn’t want me to. I am simply trying to win games and trusting Lewandowski to advise me on handling the media.” Sadly, I found out from former coaches, this was not Lewandowski’s advice but John L.’s decision that he blamed on Lewandowski.


In fact one former member of JLS’s staff that doesn’t like Lewandowski, told me for this article, “Smith was terrible to him. Had I been Lewie (Lewandowski) I would have belted him. Hey, Lew is a big guy, but he would constantly rip him for his weight and just go at John in a way that to me was inhuman.” Yet another former JLS staff member told me, “I remember John would almost beg Coach Smith to do an interview or talk to someone and he would just make John beg. He, one time, told me that they (media) are really hot under the collar with John; I just tell them that Lew doesn’t want me doing it. I remember that there were times when Lewandowski asked him to do something and he simply didn’t answer him. John (Lewandowski) did nothing but support that guy and he paid for it. I actually heard Coach one time laugh about whether or not he should make Lewie go get his dry cleaning. He was so dedicated that he would have done it. He never said a word about it. He just laughed it off, but it had to hurt.”


Amazingly, the players liked him also. One former MSU player told me, “Last year was so bad. We agreed with the fans. I remember looking up in the stands and this dude had a big MSU shirt on and a sign that asked if anybody knew Mariucci’s number. One of my teammates looked right at the guy then back to me and told me that he wished someone would give it to Mason. All I know is that I was always standoffish from Lewandowski because I had always heard that he had got Bobby Williams fired and that he was Coach’s boy. He was not treated real well but I figured he took it because they were boys. He never told me that I was going to do an interview. He always asked me, he always would grab me a Gatorade or he would always tell me that I had to leave for class. Looking back, he always treated the team and I like men. I really wasn’t close to him at MSU, but he taught me a lot about being a man.”


Another Spartan player said it like this when I asked him about the perception of Lewandowski, “I have nothing but love for John. Yeah he is goofy and he loves to talk about Bo Jackson from when he worked at Auburn, but especially at the end of last season we would all bitch to him and he never took it back to the coach. He was like a sounding board. The staff was so divided you were honestly like not wanting to really say anything to them, he wasn’t really a coach but he was someone. I said a lot and I know others did, and he always was real supportive. He could have ripped coach with us, but he never did. He was loyal.”


Lastly a player that considered leaving MSU after Smith was canned summed it up best, “I don’t know what people think, but if it were not for John Lewandowski I would not be at MSU today. I had every intention of leaving and he told me that if I came to MSU for Coach Smith then I should go. He said if I came to MSU to play for and be a Spartan than I should be a man and stay. He told me that being a man is being loyal and staying to meet the next coach and giving him a chance. In fact, he told me that I couldn’t really live life running when things didn’t work out. That meant a lot to me, especially about being a man. I stayed and I love Dantonio and I couldn’t thank John enough for caring about MSU and me enough to get me to stay.”


JLS made some dumb decisions in my opinion but let’s be honest, MSU was not fair to him. Smith was promised an AD with wide yielding power that would deliver him new facilities and all the toys. In fact, Smith was more than blunt to Mason that he had better facilities at Louisville and he got assurances that MSU would get him new facilities immediately. JLS never got this and I know for a fact that he felt betrayed that MSU never kept their promises to him when they hired him that he would get all the new facilities that he felt he needed, and they had promised. I also know that it was complete shock for him when he came to MSU and realized that the wide yielding all-powerful AD that he thought he was getting here was not reality. He stepped into a place that many didn’t want him, and many did little or nothing to help him. Trust me, I am glad that his tenure is over but you have to be fair in judging it.Â


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Loyal was a word that would best describe Lewandowski. It has been widely reported that when MSU had made the decision to fire Bobby Williams that Williams was considering talking to the media to tell the Spartan Nation what he felt he was doing right so as to try to persuade public support for his staying. Lewandowski went to Mason when he got wind of William’s intentions. Some have been critical of that decision. One MSU official even told me, “I was glad he did it, but you have to wonder if he is a snake in the grass?” The point was that whether or not you agree with that choice he had been instructed to “keep an ear to the ground for any kind of trouble” by his bosses. What was he supposed to do? Let it go? You can’t judge Lewandowski for doing what he has been specifically told to do by those that sign his check.


JLS made himself less and less available and Lewandowski was at times overly defensive about people blaming him, even though that was exactly what his boss JLS was doing. In fact I pressed Lewandowski once after Smith told me that John was keeping him from doing some things with the media. He never once off the record told me that it was JLS.


Could he have done more to try to bridge the gap? Yes, and although I didn’t interview Lewandowski for this article, I can tell you that I truly believe that he would like to have a do over on some things. I remember one exchange that I had with JLS in which he had privately talked to me about his frustration with DC Chris Smeland (after I made it very clear that I thought he had to fix Smeland’s performance) and that he was considering taking over some of the play calling. I pressed Smith at his weekly press conference on several occasions about doing just that, (never letting on to anyone that it was JLS who had informed me that he was considering it) with his background as a DC I think he had no option. He actually on the record told me, “Not yet.” Lewandowski was furious with me for trying to create a divide on the staff. What he didn’t know then was that it was already there. Lewandowski and I had a “heated exchange” in which I never let on that JLS had let me know privately that it was at least something he was thinking after one of those conferences. Lewandowski, however, was always loyal to the school and to Smith. I was right, JLS should have jumped in, but Lewandowski never did anything but stay the course. Even while the ship was tearing apart and a typhoon was on the way.


I talked with a source that had dealings with Lewandowski while he was at Auburn and he was really frank. He told me several stories about him, but one in particular was that someone had made a decision and told John to carry it out. He went on to tell me, “When John was called out about it he never let on that it wasn’t his call. He took all the heat. John sometimes can be loyal to a fault. I would say that if you all up yonder have any doubts, that I could bet that it is because he hasn’t defended himself. I am not as loyal as John and sadly some folk are willing to take a big [bowel movement] and make some old boy roll in it, then tell folks it was that guy’s fault cause he wanted to. Lew’s that way.”


In early January I had an employee at MSU contact me, this person is not a senior official or even one of any mid management level. They informed me that they had over heard that Lewandowski was under a lot of heat and they thought he was going to get fired. I looked into it and his job was truly on the line in the early part of 2007. Lewandowski obviously didn’t get fired. I can tell you this. I came into this buying hook line and sinker that this was his fault. I was wrong. Lewandowski isn’t perfect (and I don’t know anyone that is), but he sure as heck isn’t culpable. If being loyal to a fault, taking the crap that was thrown at him, and never stop loving and caring for the kids gets you fired then he deserves it. I, for one, can tell you that learning the truth I was wrong and so are a lot of people about him.


Now I can’t speak about how he does his job, that doesn’t involve me. I can tell you that there are a lot more people to blame for JLS than John Lewandowski. If he had got his way, Urban Meyer would have been the coach and not JLS.Â


It’s time for the Spartan Nation to accept he isn’t an MSU grad, but he is a proud member of the Spartan Nation. He proved it when all of this was going down and he had a chance to leave MSU to go to Alabama with Saban. How do I know that? I have a close friend that works at Alabama and called to ask me what I thought of him. He stayed folks. Maybe he doesn’t have an MSU degree, but he loves the school, and sides on the side of the school and her players. I can live with that. I was wrong about Lewandowski and lots of research showed me that. Now I hope that Spartan Nation can accept a new AD in Mark Hollis, a new coach in Dantonio, and the same old Lewie. I think they make a good team.


Like one MSU donor told me last week, “I wouldn’t have wanted to be him. He had a coach that treated him in my opinion poorly, a school that had many people that blamed him, and a media that there was plenty lot of folks that hated him. I say that considering all that, he never once did what a lot of the people did and jumped ship. He stayed loyal to the end. I don’t know him personally, but I admire him.”


Some will take this article as an attack on Mason. You’re wrong. In fact this article points out that MSU hurt itself. Mason has told multiple people that he doesn’t know football, but yet he also has told people when pressed about hiring a coach at the time, “If you can coach one sport, than you can coach any sport. Picking a coach will not be difficult.” It was difficult for Mason, but it certainly isn’t the only thing his stellar legacy should be based on.Â


We will cover that on July 30th when I post an article about judging the legacy of Ron Mason. The fact remains that he did what he was hired to do, and MSU let a man that didn’t know a lot about its biggest revenue producing sport hire a coach. Don’t take the low road and blame Lewandowski, blame MSU. This was according to multiple MSU officials, one of whom was on the Board of Trustees at the time, “the reason that we let Peter (McPherson) make the choice to go.” Imagine that the President that wanted so badly to fix the politics (or at least control it to his favor) was eventually allowed to leave or according to some folks: encouraged.


MSU knew what Mason was when they hired him. He did what he was told. Thankfully, President Simon now sits in her office and with the recent changes with Dantonio and Hollis things in the athletic department look much brighter.

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