The Michigan State football coaching job is open, which is both surprising and not surprising at all.
Mark Dantonio spent parts of the last four seasons spiraling in alternating tailspins of scandal and offensive ineptitude. The coach who led Michigan State to some of the program’s highest moments in school history – Rose Bowl win in 2013, College Football Playoff in 2015 and three Big Ten titles – ended up trudging to the finish line.
Whether it was an inability to fix an ailing offense or an unwillingness, we’ll likely never fully know. But the combination of Dantonio’s teams finishing No. 95 and No. 116 in total offense the past two years and a pedestrian 14-12 record led, in part, to Dantonio’s awkward exit on Tuesday. His departure comes the day before National Signing Day and just weeks after a retention bonus of $4.3 million. (What a nice farewell to his assistants, getting them chucked on the street in mid-February.)
The specter of scandal also followed Dantonio out the door. There were multiple sexual assault charges against Michigan State players in 2017, which resulted in four dismissals from the program. Earlier in the day on Tuesday, The Detroit News reported that a former Michigan State staff member is accusing Dantonio of committing multiple NCAA violations. (Dantonio’s lawyers vigorously denied these allegations to The Detroit News.)
All season long, Dantonio’s fate appeared tied to the struggles on the field and the tumult off of it. They finally collided on Tuesday.
So what’s next at Michigan State? The school’s clear top choice is Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell. He’d keep the best parts of the DNA Dantonio left on the program – toughness, player development and defense. He’d also bring things that became missing the past few years – aggressive recruiting, an openness to offensive creativity and the structure of a successful modern football program.
It would be an overstatement to say that it’s Fickell or bust for Michigan State, but there aren’t a ton of other realistic candidates who are both movable and fit. (We’re assuming here that Iowa State’s Matt Campbell waits out a better job — Notre Dame or Michigan in the Midwest footprint or USC next season.)
Glenn Sugiyama from the search firm DHR International has been calling around already on candidates. He fancies himself a “big-game hunter” for bold-faced name candidates. There don’t appear to be many of those on the board.
1. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
He’s the best movable candidate on the board, and the job fits his Midwestern sensibilities. (He’s never lived outside the state of Ohio, other than a cup of coffee in the NFL.) The calculus that Fickell has to determine is whether he should wait out a true blue-blood job – Notre Dame, USC or Texas, for example – or stay in his comfort zone. Michigan State’s poor timing gives Fickell plenty of leverage. This move appears up to him.
2. Pat Shurmur, Denver Broncos OC
This is a live name that’s been vetted internally and discussed as a real candidate. Shurmur is a Michigan State graduate and brings four years of NFL head-coaching experience. The results haven’t been there, but he’d be a safe transition away from Dantonio and be able to sell recruits on a coach who can get them to the NFL.
3. Robert Saleh, San Francisco 49ers DC
He’s the hottest name in the NFL assistant coach rankings right now and his name makes sense. He’s from Dearborn, Michigan, and his family has a prolific football legacy at Fordson High School. (Read Dan Wetzel’s great column from the Super Bowl on his background.) He’s worked at Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia early in his career. The question for Saleh: Does he wait out an NFL opportunity next year? (Hello, Lions.)
4. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
There’s an argument that he’s got a better job in Pittsburgh, as the Panthers play in the worst division in major college football. Slaying UNC, Duke and Georgia Tech is a lot easier than Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Another potential stumbling block here is Narduzzi’s buyout, which is substantial but not untenable.
5. Matt Campbell, Iowa State
He’s better positioned to win now, and with a good team coming back he’s unlikely to make a move that’s slightly above lateral. His buyout dropped to $5 million on Feb. 1, which the school could afford. He’d be a good fit, but the timing isn’t quite right. Michigan State has already put out feelers, but don’t expect it to happen.
6. Chris Klieman, Kansas State
He’d be a perfect cultural fit, with his outlandish success at North Dakota State and a strong debut at Kansas State this season. It’d be hard to imagine him leaving his wingman, Kansas State AD Gene Taylor, after one year. But in terms of fit, there’s not much better.
7. Mike Tressel, Michigan State interim coach and DC
Don’t be surprised if Tressel gets a shot if the Spartans whiff on some high-profile names. He’s been one of the Big Ten’s top assistant coaches and can provide a burst of energy that Dantonio clearly lacked during the past few seasons. Figuring out the offensive side of the ball would be the issue, but a staff carryover on defense would be wise regardless of who is hired.
8. Jason Candle, Toledo
If this job opened two years ago, he’d be a frontrunner. But Toledo has sputtered in the two seasons since Candle’s MAC title. The sell here is the championship pedigree from his time at Mount Union and a history of offensive success as an OC and play-calling head coach that ranks among the best minds in major college football. If MSU suits craved offense, he’d be an answer.
9. Mel Tucker, Colorado
His defensive background, NFL experience and recruiting success at Georgia and Alabama would make him an attractive candidate. He’d be difficult to move at this point, but his extensive Ohio ties and time with Nick Saban at MSU make him a solid name to consider.
10. Todd Grantham, Florida DC
He’s got experience at Michigan State with three seasons under Saban in the late 1990s. If Michigan State wanted another old-guard defensive coach, he’d be a solid choice. He was in the mix at Mississippi State during this past cycle and has strong NFL experience.
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