Mark Dantonio stood behind a podium in East Lansing on Tuesday and raised his already serious demeanor to the level that the situation demanded.
Three of his Michigan State football players had been charged with sexual assault and the details were as troubling and gut-wrenching as you’d expect – three men, one woman, all in a bathroom; forced actions, camera videos, a poor cover-up and so on.
One of them, Josh King, 19, faces up to life in prison if convicted. The other two, Donnie Corley, 19, and Demetric Vance, 20, are looking at a minimum of 15 years if found guilty. A fourth Spartan, Auston Robertson, has already been arraigned and is awaiting trial on similar charges in an unrelated incident this spring.
That’s four players, four members of what was once a vaunted 2016 recruiting class that arrived after Dantonio had driven the program to national prominence. That’s four Spartans, all dealing with significant criminal charges.
Dantonio is taking this very seriously, because of the victims involved, because of the brutality of the allegations and because of the implications on the reputations of the rest of the members of the football program, players and coaches alike.
“I’m angry,” Dantonio said.
He should be. Everyone should.
And it’s up to the coach to do something about it.
It probably shouldn’t be notable that by all accounts Michigan State handled these allegations and the criminal investigation into them properly and without interference. This is college football though, where cover-up scandals are all too common.
Dantonio and athletic director Mark Hollis let the police do their job, suspending, but not naming, the players. It came at a cost – unable to offer much of a comment, the specter of the scandal hovered over the program, which never helps recruiting. Dantonio spent months almost underground, unable to do any promotion for the program. The Spartans, who take pride in never backing down, were forced to, at least temporarily.
All this came at a time when chief rivals Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame were racing around assembling talented recruiting classes.
Once the charges were filed, the three players were dismissed. Finally, the coach and athletic director spoke out. This appears to be the un-Baylor approach. For that, Spartan fans can be pleased.
“This is my home,” Hollis said, choking up with emotion. “It’s where my wife and I attended school [plus his children] … I expect my home to be safe.”
That it wasn’t and that two women are dealing directly with that fact clearly weighs on Dantonio (who spoke of “sleepless nights”), Hollis and, here’s guessing, everyone else in the football program. Players will finally be available to speak later this week and Dantonio encouraged the media to ask them their feelings on it too.
Dantonio wants this to be an impetus for the rebirth of the program – “Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring people back to point.”
A year and a half ago, his work in East Lansing hit its peak courtesy of a 22-play, 82-yard, 9:04 game-winning drive over Iowa in the 2015 Big Ten championship game. L.J Scott’s 1-yard run didn’t just send the then-12-1 Spartans to the rarified air of the College Football Playoff; it was viewed as the epitome of Dantonio’s blue-collar, gut-it-out ethos.
It also proved to be about the last good thing to happen to the program.
Alabama humiliated MSU in the playoff, 38-0. The Spartans used their newfound success to ink one of its most decorated recruiting classes ever, but now four of the 10 four-star ranked recruits from that group are waiting trial. It turns out better players didn’t produce better results, because last year’s club was beset by internal issues and collapsed to a 3-9 mark.
Then came the sexual assault investigations and it’s fair to wonder if, despite Dantonio’s famed determination, this can be righted.
First the culture. Then the football.
“[Our] values continue to rise as a source of shared direction,” Hollis said. “Respect. Respect for yourself and respect for others. Positive attitude, continuous improvement [and] accountability, one focus, while [also] being part of a larger team.”
Dantonio said this was new ground for the program. That’s true; it’s been a solid, inspiring climb. It’s also some ugly, ugly real estate to occupy. It takes only a few to ruin the work of many. He brought the players in and now they are facing charges that they were predators. Robertson, for one, had a prior incident in high school that served as a red flag for other programs. Dantonio took him anyway.
This wasn’t boys being boys. This wasn’t some mistake.
This was potentially criminal.
And now Mark Dantonio needs to prove, real fast, that isn’t what Michigan State football has become.