EAST LANSING, Mich. — 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 MSU’s acclaimed 2016 recruiting class are now facing criminal sexual assault charges.
A judge Tuesday morning signed arrest warrants for defensive end Josh King, receiver Donnie Corley and safety Demetric Vance after a four-and-a-half month investigation. Defensive end Auston Robertson was arraigned on April 25 for a separate incident.
King — the former Hinsdale South star — Corley and Vance were swiftly dismissed from the football program Monday.
Don’t for one second think MSU 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.
MSU’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 MSU Board of Trustees was convened in April when the Robertson news dropped.
On 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 athletic director Mark Hollis to address the program’s worrisome off-field issues.
It all looks really bad for MSU’s football program.
What has to be determined, though, is whether the optics of this week and these past few months point to something true and damning about the state of MSU’s 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?
We’re about to learn a ton about MSU’s leadership — from President Lou Anna Simon all the way down to the 14 remaining players from its 2016 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 MSU’s leaders have lost faith in Dantonio. I’m told MSU 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 MSU football players. One of those, George Perles, is a former head coach and athletic director.
The administration and board members should ask themselves this: If MSU 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.
It shares common denominators with the football cases — sexual assault and MSU — but Mark Dantonio isn’t one of them.
Two sexual assault cases in one semester is plenty troubling for MSU football on its own. The coaching staff’s culpability in those two cases is what should be judged here — it’s all that should be judged here.
What changed with this week’s charges is that four young men are now the public faces of MSU’s football decline. They have allegedly committed inexcusable acts of violence. Sexual assault is not a mistake you make. It’s not explained by drunkenness, like peeing on a dumpster or stealing a street sign. This crime speaks to the core of one’s character. Character that Dantonio and his staff recruited.
Dantonio and Co., against all odds, built MSU into a nationally relevant football program and did so relatively free of off-field turmoil. During the rise, MSU’s coaches became known for uncovering talent others had missed and developing unheralded prospects into elite college players.
MSU won big — three Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl and then reached the College Football Playoff in 2015. New doors in recruiting opened. And MSU’s coaches plowed through them. The 2016 class was their crowning achievement in the talent-acquisition game, a sign that perhaps the Spartans could sustained their new place among college football’s upper crust.
We all know what followed. A stunning 2016 season made it clear MSU’s foundation wasn’t a stable as it appeared.
Last year’s freshman class — Corley, King, Vance and Robertson among them — were part of the problem. So was veteran leadership. But this was a tough group to lead. MSU found itself able to land a different kind of kid in recruiting and, in doing so, landed a different kind of kid, noticeable to those who’d been around the program for several years.
There are undoubtedly good kids in that class — humble young men of high-character. They now have the extra burden of showing it.
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 MSU.
MSU signed Robertson despite previous run-ins with the law, including accusations he inappropriately touched a female classmate in high school. A host of other major programs were willing to take the same chance to have the blue-chip defensive lineman in their program.
Same goes for Corley, Vance and King.
MSU football rose to Wisconsin’s level and then tried to be Ohio State. It bit them.
The question now 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’ll be a greater feat than the original rise.
It’s probably a lot less likely.
Graham Couch is a columnist for the Lansing State Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network. Contact Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.