These are anxious times in East Lansing, Mich.
On the basketball court, preseason No. 1 Michigan State stumbled out of the Top 25 this week with back-to-back losses to Penn State and rival Michigan.
But without a head coach, Michigan State’s football program is in even more dire straits.
The unexpected resignation of Mark Dantonio last week left the Spartans without a clear leader of the program heading into February’s National Signing Day. Dantonio “retired” after taking a $4.5 million retention bonus in January, and though he claimed it had nothing to do with a Detroit News report last week regarding the program committing potential NCAA violations, the timing appeared dubious.
Five years ago, Dantonio led Michigan State to a Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff berth, but since the semifinal loss to Alabama that season, Michigan State has been a pedestrian 27-24. In 2018, an ESPN report detailed evidence Dantonio may not have handled sexual assault allegations involving his players properly.
The Spartans have struggled offensively each of the last two seasons, and Dantonio’s stubbornness not to make wholesale changes to his offensive coaching staff this past offseason created some grumbling from even the most ardent supporters of the Green and White. So after 13 seasons, Dantonio’s parting with Michigan State may have been more of a mutual split.
Michigan State set its sights on Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell to take the job, but Fickell turned down the offer Monday. Fickell, a former Ohio State defensive coordinator and interim coach of the Buckeyes, understands the grind of the Big Ten East and that restoring Michigan State to division title contention won’t be easy.
Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan appear poised to remain as national powers. Indiana is improving under Tom Allen. Second-year coach Mike Locksley is recruiting well at Maryland, and even Rutgers has injected some new life into its program with the return of prodigal son Greg Schiano.
The Spartans could go the safe route and elevate interim coach Mike Tressel, the nephew of former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, to the head coaching job. Reports surfaced Monday that former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who recently took an assistant coaching job with the New York Giants, has “definite” interest in the job, but whether that interest is reciprocated remains to be seen. Bielema had success with the Badgers, going 68-24 with three Rose Bowl appearances, but flamed out in the SEC, going 29-34 in five seasons at Arkansas before being fired in 2017.
Two more SEC castoffs with Michigan ties are potential darkhorse candidates as well — current Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain, who went 22-12 and won two SEC East division titles at Florida before wearing out his welcome with the fanbase, and former Central Michigan coach Butch Jones, who went 34-27 in five seasons at Tennessee and is now an offensive analyst at Alabama.
Regardless of who takes the job, it’s going to be tough sledding ahead.
FEAR THE TURTLE
Michigan State’s unexpected struggles this basketball season have led to Maryland as the leading contender to win the league title heading into the backstretch of the season.
The Terrapins sit alone atop the conference standings at 9-3, a game ahead of both Penn State and Illinois.
Earlier this season, Maryland had issues winning on the road in conference play, but last Friday night, the Terrapins gutted out a 75-66 win at Illinois behind another terrific performance from senior point guard Anthony Cowan, who had 20 points and six assists to just two turnovers.
Maryland must still face Michigan State twice, including Saturday in East Lansing. A split of the two games still would put the Terrapins in good shape to win the league crown, considering Maryland also has conference bottom dwellers Nebraska and Northwestern left on its schedule.
There was plenty of emotion for Indiana on Saturday with the return of Bob Knight to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, but the Hoosiers were unable to harness it in a 74-62 loss to rival Purdue.
But for Purdue 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms, there was added motivation to spoil IU’s big day. Haarms didn’t want to let down former Purdue coach Gene Keady, who sat behind the team bench during the game to provide support.
“That’s the guy I care about,” Haarms said. “That’s the guy I want behind my bench every time.”
Purdue (14-10, 7-6) is hitting its stride at the right time. The Boilermakers have won three in a row, a streak that started when they rallied from down eight points in the final three minutes to beat Northwestern on the road. Of late, Purdue has been hot from the perimeter, shooting 54 percent from 3-point range (27-of-50) over its last two games.
With the win, Purdue improved to 9-1 in February over the last two seasons, continuing the trend of the Boilermakers getting better as the season progresses under 15th-year coach Matt Painter. Without a go-to scorer like Carsen Edwards was for the Boilermakers last season, Painter said Purdue has adapted by getting contributions up and down its roster.
“You look at our team, nine people played, the lowest scorer was five, the highest scorer was 12,” Painter said following the Indiana win. “It’s really good balance. What does the other team have to key on?”