EAST LANSING, Mich. — On the day three Michigan State football players were charged with criminal sexual conduct, coach Mark Dantonio and athletic director Mark Hollis held a somber news conference, befitting a program that has a lot of work to do to repair its reputation.
“I would say last year, if you came up here to talk, we probably were on the cusp of being exactly what you want in major college football,” Dantonio said. “But one year has changed some of that — a lot of that. So now we have to deal with that aspect of our program, and we have to change it back.”
Josh King, Demetric Vance and Donnie Corley Jr. were the three players charged Tuesday , and all three were immediately dismissed from the team. The Spartans previously dismissed another player, Auston Robertson, after a separate criminal sexual conduct charge against him in April.
The charges at Michigan State come after football programs at Baylor and Minnesota have been rocked by sexual assault allegations, and although an external probe into the MSU situation praised Dantonio’s handling of the aftermath, the claims against his players leave the Spartans facing serious challenges as they try to regain the trust and respect of fans and the community.
“My assessment of each of our 25 sports and the coaching staffs that lead them is focused on three general categories — academic success, athletic success and social behavior and engagement,” Hollis said. “With much improvement and success in these areas in football over the previous nine years, 2016 was a difficult year in all three. My expectations are that it will not continue.”
Michigan State is a sobering reminder of how precipitously a program can fall in a short amount of time. Last summer, the Spartans were coming off an appearance in college football’s playoff that capped several years among the Big Ten’s elite. Then Michigan State stumbled to a 3-9 record in 2016, and this offseason has been filled with off-field problems.
Dantonio said he’s “angry” about what’s happened. He dismissed the players charged Tuesday without waiting for the rest of their criminal proceedings to play out, and he made a point of mentioning educational efforts aimed at helping athletes stay out of trouble.
“There’s been numerous amount of education thrown at our players, especially our freshman group, from the time that they’ve gotten here. One week before the episode, we had our Title IX administrator come in and again talk specifically about a case at another university in this country,” Dantonio said. “So the education I felt was there, and they compromised themselves by getting involved in such a situation.”
Dantonio, however, faces questions about his own judgment, given the seriousness of the allegations against players he signed. Robertson had been a defendant in a battery case in Indiana, but the Spartans accepted his letter of intent in 2016, with Dantonio saying he had been accepted into a pretrial diversionary program and needed to continue to satisfy those requirements. That case was officially dismissed this year.
In regards to King, Vance and Corley, Dantonio said he saw only positive signs during their recruitment.
“As a recruiter, you come into contact with these players, with our players, in a controlled environment. One, three, five — somebody lives here close, maybe 15 times. But you don’t live with them,” he said. “You also have to understand that people are going to make mistakes, too. Sometimes these mistakes are life altering. Other times the mistakes are not. But it’s very difficult to predict the future.
“We do our very, very best to vet the process, but as you can see across the country and across the nation — not just sport, but in jobs and everything else — the process doesn’t always work.”
Hollis said he was assigning Jennifer Smith, Alan Haller and Elliott Daniels to oversight roles for the football program. Smith and Haller are senior associate athletic directors, and Daniels has worked at student-athlete support services for well over a decade.
“It does not diminish the coaching staff’s accountability, nor my expectations of them for the recruitment and leadership of our student-athletes,” Hollis said. “Rather, it is to ensure that we have programmatic systems in place that are efficient and effective.”
There may be no easy answers about how the situation at Michigan State reached this point. The Spartans can only hope the problems from this offseason will reinforce a sense of responsibility among players to represent the school in a positive way.
“Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring people back to point, and sometimes it takes a crisis to re-center yourself, to make everybody drive between the lines or to go the speed limit,” Dantonio said. “To me, this is the way I have to take this. I have to look at this and say that we are re-centering ourselves, we are moving forward, and we’re going to do it with direction, and we’re going to do it with strength.”
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