The leashes are out in East Lansing. They’re incredibly short.
When Mark Dantonio restructured his staff this offseason following one of the worst offensive seasons during his career, Michigan State was doing a little restructuring itself. According to a recent report from the Lansing State Journal, five assistant coaches signed reconfigured contracts back in March.
Offensive coordinator Brad Salem, quarterbacks coach Dave Warner, offensive line coach Jim Bollman, tight ends coach Mark Staten and assistant defensive backs assistant coach Terrence Samuel all had two-year rollover deals shortened to one-year rollover deals. Michigan State and Dantonio will have from the end of the season until March 15 to make a decision on whether or not it will retain each coach. The university has no financial obligations past the one-year deal.
Motivational tool or disaster waiting to happen? Give Dantonio and MSU some credit, the stakes of a high-risk, high-reward move like this doesn’t seem to faze them. And that’s exactly what this is.
Dantonio had to do something after last year’s catastrophe. The Spartans ranked 13th in the B1G in scoring (18.7 ppg), rush offense (124.9 ypg) and total offense (342.1 ypg). Dantonio couldn’t exactly face those numbers, shrug his shoulders and say “Welp, we’ll get it fixed,” without having a plan of action.
Rather than spring for a fresh new carton of playing cards, Dantonio decided to shuffle the deck. It was a minimalistic move at best, but something is better than nothing.
Now, we’re finding out that more was done behind the scenes. Five members of Dantonio’s staff will be coaching this season with their future uncertain until the end of the year at the earliest. Suddenly, those minimal moves Michigan State made in the offseason actually feel like they’re a step too far.
Far be it from me to determine the best way for Dantonio to motivate his staff. Some of those individuals have been by his side for a very long time. I can’t imagine, though, that the uncertainty that comes with a one-year rollover deal is good for business. Particularly when that business is competing for a B1G East title this fall.
A now-or-never approach doesn’t always produce the best results. And when you look at the early portion of Michigan State’s schedule, the first sign of doubt could send things off the rails in a heartbeat.
Take a look at what the Spartans face in the first seven weeks:
- vs. Tulsa
- vs. Western Michigan
- vs. Arizona State
- at Northwestern
- vs. Indiana
- at Ohio State
- at Wisconsin
There’s a really good chance that Michigan State is a lot better than it was a year ago, but still comes in at 4-2 after the game against Ohio State — the Spartans have lost three straight to Northwestern, after all. If MSU sits at 1-2 in B1G play heading into Madison, it’s not mathematically eliminated from the division race, but it’s a longshot at that point.
It would be understandable for that doubt to start to creep in for those five assistant coaches. Things could get really ugly if the Spartans drop that road contest to Wisconsin, and fall to 1-3 in the B1G and 4-3 overall.
The Indeed app may be downloaded at high speed in East Lansing with those assistants starting to peruse other potential openings. Who would blame them?
Remember how quickly things went haywire in 2016? Michigan State started 2-0 with wins over Furman and Notre Dame before losing seven straight. The Spartans ended the year 3-9, the lowest win total in Dantonio’s career as a head coach.
A year that bad probably won’t be in store for Michigan State in 2019, even if the situation does get a little tumultuous. But a 6-6 season isn’t inconceivable. After last year, it’s hard to imagine that kind of performance would be enough to secure another year on those roll-over contracts for those five assistants.
If Michigan State starts the year hot and is still in the B1G East race at the beginning of November, there probably isn’t a need for worry. Lose a game or two too early and the coaching situation gets a little more turbulent.
Yes, Dantonio and Michigan State had to do something this offseason in order to get the Spartans back near the top where they belong. Putting five assistants on what appears to be a public hot seat may not have been the best answer.
So, I’ll ask again: motivational tool or disaster waiting to happen? We won’t have to wait terribly long before we find out the answer to that question.