Time for MSU to do it right, and fix the football program

Hondo S. Carpenter

Time for MSU to do it right, and fix the football program.

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We all know it! It isn’t a secret; we just don’t like to talk about it. The MSU football program is broken, and we need to fix it. Now don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve and act like a child. I am not saying that all the problems in the world were in any way John L. Smith’s fault, but now is in my opinion the last chance MSU has to fix a systemic problem. One of the largest donors to MSU sent me an email recently in which part of it said: “Hondo, my generation remembers with fondness the national championships and the success of the past. We pay the tickets and give the money each year with those pleasant memories. Your generation (45 and under) does not remember those days and other then a few fans like you, they are not raising their children as sold out Spartans. Their kids don’t care. If MSU does not fix it and get some championship teams in here now, when I die and my age group is gone, there will not be the donor base as there is now and MSU will be in sad shape. I will no longer give any money to the Ralph Young fund or football. I would only donate if I was assured it would only go to basketball, until I am convinced that this crap is fixed.” Now that email was sent to me the day after the OSU fiasco and I know for a FACT that it was sent to many MSU officials and one told me flatly “it wasn’t the only one I got with that tone Hondo and I certainly had to think about that in my decision about the future.”

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President Simon and the Board of Trustees

I hear often from people that the board is what is wrong with MSU, or that the politics of the President’s office has killed the momentum that the athletic program has gained (such as when DiBiaggio had issues with Perles and McPherson had a gripe with Saban) over the last 40 years. I don’t think that anyone presently on the board (or in the President’s office) has an agenda to hurt MSU or in anyway has malice towards the University, but the egos and politics of this group, that many claim have hurt MSU in the past (and I would agree), can now be what propels MSU forward and back to where it needs to be. In fairness the indication is that they are moving in that direction this time. The members of this group are all highly intelligent and all are people who care for MSU. Rather than try to follow the cat fighting politics that have doomed it from yester year, they seem to have collectively made a quality decision to set aside ego and select a head coach that is not necessarily anyone’s “GUY,” but rather a person that they all can endorse and allow to move this program forward. You can use the “unifier” term if you like, but one has to understand the complexities of the University as well as the pitfalls. Some would say that the politics of this group has killed us. I would rally and say that this group can be our strongest asset. Like any group or organization, the strongest liability can be turned to our greatest strength. John Hannah, the greatest President in the history of MSU and a legend, saw the huge value that a University's successful athletic program can bring to the table both in recognition, prestige and finances, and it is time for this group to set aside petty differences and problems and do what they were hired for and elected to: govern MSU. This group of men and women must step up and do what is often required of leaders: be women and men that view statesmanship above politics. I, for one, believe that they can, and now want to see them do it. Here is a layout of what I think is going to be done. I obviously have no vote, but as a man that passionately loves MSU, I am tired of people harping on this great school's problems without offering solutions.

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Athletic Director

Ron Mason is one of the best hockey coaches of all time. His contribution both to the game of hockey and MSU is unquestioned and his legacy is cemented forever on those terms. His job performance as athletic director has, in my opinion, been less than stellar (I am trying to be nice) and the Mason hiring of John L. Smith was nothing short of a circus act that brought humiliation nationally and will cost the University millions of dollars and untold hardship trying to fix the mess (remember: my opinion). There are varying thoughts of opinion on whether Mason truly hired Smith or if he was a “puppet” of then President McPherson. Since Mason wanted to vehemently insist that it was his choice I will side with him, however he must then take full responsibility. Not only did MSU way over pay (an average of $1.6 million a year for 6-years) to John L. Smith, but the length of six years and with the contract being back loaded (bulk of money at the end) it will cost MSU reportedly over $4 million dollars to terminate Smith. Forget that he has one of the best business schools in the nation to rely on, Mason wanted his guy his way and he got it with a negotiation that made us look like fools by the terms of the deal and how the entire process went down. He then had to go to the people and sell them on higher ticket prices and PSL (personal seat licenses) so that a tapped-out fan base took the school at its word that this is what was required to make the school competitive. The Spartan Nation did what it always does, it wants to win so bad that they drank the green kool aid and it hasn’t worked. Guess what? We are not more competitive and to steal political sayings are we better off now?  Now that fans, as you saw with the OSU game, are beyond angry; they are apathetic and this, my friends, is serious and dangerous ground for this school. In fairness to Mason the board new that he was an inexperienced administrator when they hired him and he performed like on in my opinion with the hiring process of JLS. MSU is not like many other schools. MSU’s athletic program is totally self sufficient and when I made the statement on my TV show last year that Ron Mason should refund the PSL’s to the people after an abysmal 2005 season, I was quickly called by an MSU official who said to me on the condition of anonymity that “Hondo, you have pissed off a lot of people with talk like that. They can’t afford to give that money back they would go bankrupt.” Now the fans are tapped-out and people are beginning to cry out the emperor has no clothes. It was once said by a founding father that a little revolution is good and that is what I believe the MSU fan base is on its way to doing. The fan base spoke and according to one high-ranking MSU official “that was the proof I needed that a change had to happen when they stayed home for the OSU game.”  

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So, now when the University will have to pony up over $4 million to Smith and pay Mason’s extension for doing what, in my opinion, has been a less than stellar job I can take some pleasure that Mason is not the sole decision maker and he is being regulated according to one source as “more of a figurehead” and not the one responsible to fix the mess he helped create.Â

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Like it or not and I am sure EVERY coach on the campus would agree, football is the big dog. If you screw up football then your job is on the line. No offense, but if you make a bad hire in an Olympic non-revenue sport, oh gee sorry. Screw up in football and you kill the golden calf. All other sports except men’s basketball use football to exist, and a smart coaching family would understand that and push football. No offense, but Izzo is the most successful coach on campus and he gets it, the others need to also.

Sacrificing one recruiting class to get the right man is something I believe all Spartans are willing to do, but it isn’t necessary. Use the power of a unified board to search quietly (no leaks is powerful when the board is part of the solution not allowed to be a problem) and find a guy that can lead MSU forward. I hate the argument that he must be a man with MSU ties. Biggie and Duffy were not at first. Also, though if he does have MSU ties then great. I also despise the argument that he has to be young and not willing to leave. Folks, Izzo is one of the most sought after coaches in the Universe and he has stayed. Heck yes I want a coach that others want, that means we got the right guy. As far as age, I don’t care if he can lay a foundation for the future. A young man could get in a car accident or have a brain tumor, as did Terry Hoeppner at IU. Let’s be emboldened by the unity of a board that can put aside Democrat and Republican and more importantly personality issues, and can say “We are Spartans” and make that decision after a criteria is set as to what they want and as a group. Any coach hired at MSU after JLS that this board does not unify behind and select is doomed whoever he may be. The MSU problem is more than a coach; it is systemic. The board needs to make the choice to work together not against one another, have a full blown press conference with ALL of the board and President on the stage at the Smith Center, and show that this is our man and we accept that in the past things may not have been handled well, but we are moving forward: Unified! The exact thing that they did yesterday, they should do again on that day. Let’s be honest Spartan Nation: JLS made some less than smart choices, but his failure is also the fault of the Spartan Nation. This fact I am not proud of, but it is true.

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Head football coach

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The MSU football coach is, in my opinion, one of the most complicated jobs, but good jobs that there is. With a rich history and past one can look with great admiration at the accomplishments of other men that have had the title. One can also quickly see that it is also a job that has had much failure and dissension. The next coach must be selected not as just another hire; he must be selected as a program guy. The decision to hire JLS (the entire process) was handled terribly, but it also was not made in a way that gave JLS the most optimal chance to succeed. The next coach chosen must be put in every position in a way that allows him to succeed. Let me be frank: JLS hurt himself, but in total honesty MSU put him in a position to be doomed from the start and that was of no choice of his own. When key members of the family learned that he was hired by the scroll that ESPN runs on the bottom of the screen, that is wrong and not only was an embarrassment to the University but a slap in the face of many key elected and hired leaders that set the tone for the future that we are now living in. JLS got bad advice about who to let in his circle and who to trust. That was absurd. When the next coach comes into the family, lets start with a clean slate for all, not the elementary school theatrics of be my friend but not his or hers. I don’t blame Joel Ferguson one bit when JLS was hired for saying “I hope he doesn’t take the job” many felt that way and it wasn’t JLS’s fault, it was Mason and McPherson for the terrible way the process was handled.Â

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I hope the next coach does so well that every NFL team and every major college wants him. I am sure that, just like Bob Stoops who stayed with OU when pursued by Florida, the right choice by the right AD, will be paid very well (as he should be) and will be treated so well by the hungry Spartan Nation and unified leadership that he will be here a long time. I wrote in an article yesterday some great comments about MSU from one of the most visible coaches in the nation. I took a lot of grief because I quoted him verbatim, but the fact remains this is a high profile job and I have personally talked to four nationally prominent coaches that want the job and sources close to two others. This is a great job. That coach needs to be given a five-year contract and told: fix it. We will be back at the end to talk then and he must with full support of the institution be allowed to rebuild and fix this mess. Introduce him at a press conference, similar to what happened when JLS was canned, and let people see that collectively this is the man for MSU. 

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Making the playing field fair

For any coach to succeed they must be on a level playing field. The next AD must have the ability to look at both entrance requirements and academic requirements once enrolled at our big three rivals (UM, Notre Dame and Ohio State), and make sure that our standards are not higher over those schools thus having us lose recruits that cannot come to MSU because of an academic stringency that makes our rivals more attractive. A degree for every student athlete should not be the goal; it should be the expectation of the Spartan Nation. Making an athlete, and more importantly a coach, have to compete on an unfair level is not realistic. I would suggest that as soon as the next coach is hired, MSU set out on a search to see that our coaches in all sports not only have the facilities that they need, but also that the playing field is equal. That is something that must be addressed. If we want Northwestern academic requirements then we should lower prices, expectations and join the Ivy League. If we want to be a big time school, then our academic requirements should be at the same level. No one is perpetuating that we allow kids with a zero grade point in. I am however saying that we must be competitive. Our competitors use independent study courses and many have significantly lower credit hours for graduation requirements and I can tell you from talking to recruits that it is used against us daily.

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Public Relations

Whether or not anyone at MSU likes this next point or even gets it, MSU is the residents of Michigan’s institution. It’s not theirs it is “Ours.” Izzo gets it, and that is why the people love him. MSU basketball is the epitome of how a major athletic program should be run. MSU football needs to move away from only embracing the public when they need cash and endure themselves to the people. Make no doubt that this is a great school, but it does have a problem; a problem that can be and I hope, believe will be, fixed. Listen MSU, the public has been scorned and beaten and still loves you. Embrace and love her back, I beg you! JLS has been allowed to embarrass (in my opinion) the University countless times, the last being yesterday in his ‘news conference’ that was a joke, and ended with a blown kiss to a female reporter that I both respect and admire professionally. Why can’t anyone fix this? Is it JLS’s fault that this team is penalty prone? Well, he was the most penalized in the NCAA while at Louisville, so either Mason didn’t care at best, or didn’t bother to look at least. This job requires that the coach be a high profile public figure as is Izzo. Was it his fault he was less than stellar in public? Again that didn’t change here, and Mason either didn’t care or didn’t check. The point is that slapping yourself or others works if you win, but the next guy can’t turn down chances to speak at the Michigan High School coaches’ convention, or have public speaking fiascos like JLS did in Florida, or miss the communities chance to meet and greet at the mall. All these are terrible blunders that just turned people in masse against him and never gave him any political capital. He and I once had a conversation in which he was very frank that he never had played politics and never would. I respect that, but if you don’t win, you pay and we saw that today. Why the can’t schedule a green and white game with pomp and circumstance is beyond me and it shows at best incompetence in the public relations battle or at worst arrogance of a group that gives no consideration to the fans. I truly don’t believe Simon is part of that and have confidence that she and the board will fix the football department.

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MSU board of trustee Vice-Chairman Joel Ferguson said it best to me yesterday when he said, “If you’re talking about GPA’s, you’re in trouble. Let’s be truthful, it’s all about winning and losing.” Touché’ Joel and that is why he’s gone…LOSING! P.R. has to be looked at in the next hire.

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Recruiting

With the political agendas that have hurt MSU in the past, a unified front and true single vision of purpose can erase and fix that. I do not think that people recognize and see that the infighting of the Spartan Nation has made recruiting an even more difficult job than what it already is. Not only will a unified front, and more importantly action, help the MSU family go forward, it will also allow our rivals to stop using the public politics against us. I know for a fact that the infighting is used against MSU in many ways and sadly it has hurt tremendously not only the MSU family but also the very coaches from getting the athletes they need to win.

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MSU is the greatest institution in the world, and that is how each and every fan of a school should feel. It is now time for the good of MSU that we move forward as a group and not as enemies. A united MSU family does nothing but restore the glory of the Spartan Nation. MSU has many great parts and personalities. We will never change that, so rather then fighting what we have, this next move should be made to embrace that. Put all the board and President together and allow that group, along with all the coaches, to get on one page, speaking with one voice to accomplish great things. Don’t try to outdo the others; try to work together for the greater good of the Spartan Nation.

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Now to the real nuggets you all want. Who are SOME names that MSU is considering? This is not conclusive, but it is a starting point. I am not making a public endorsement, but I do know that each of these have been mentioned to me from power brokers in the decision process, and I am leaving two out because I was asked not to put them on the radar based on some very good reasons that I was told and will hold in confidence. Making this list is not an endorsement by me, but it is saying that they are names being considered.

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  1. Butch Davis: former Miami Hurricane head coach and a national champion.
  2. Brian Kelly: head coach at CMU, National champion that knows Michigan and the Mid West very well, Great success at CMU.
  3. Bill Cubit: head coach at WMU; He has beaten BCS schools at WMU and is on a collision course with Kelly for the MAC crown.
  4. Ty Willingham: former Spartan player, and current coach at Washington.
  5. Nick Saban: I can tell you that he is not as happy in the NFL as you would think, and is close to Izzo. Again, I am not rating probability I am simply stating that power brokers who will be part of the decision have named this person to me.
  6. Ron English current star defensive coordinator who single handedly rescued UM.
  7. Charlie Baggett: former MSU star and current assistant coach with Saban in Miami.
  8. Pat Shurmur: former star player and coach at MSU and QB coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.
  9. Steve Mariucci: is mentioned often by almost all of them.

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I will profile each of them, and let you know as the process goes on. I want to reiterate that I am not saying that any one of these should get it, but they are names being bantered about. Let’s all agree that this is the most crucial hiring since Biggie was brought to MSU, and the decision makers must be held accountable to get this right now. I, for one, think they will, but we shall wait and see.

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