Michigan can’t afford to be wrong in search for athletic director

Michigan State President Samuel Stanley is unlikely to recruit more than he does when choosing MSU’s next athletic director. This move could outlast Stanley and will set the tone and the way for a ministry that cannot afford bad leadership.

MSU Athletics is only five years from its Camelot – a period of unprecedented victories in men’s football and basketball, with a harmony between administration and athletics. But it looks like there are ages.

It will no longer be possible without the right sporting director and without everyone being on the same page. And so, how this rental is made is almost as important as who it is.

The report that Stanley does it largely on his own – with a research firm, but without the contribution of its coaches and board of directors – has merit.

MSU, it seems, has returned to its time of leaks and divisions. And while this is of no use, it is clear that some in the administration feel that they have no choice but to prevent their president, whose judgment they do not trust, from proceeding to this hiring without their contribution.

Understand that the position of athletic director is hired by the president, even if it requires the approval of the board of directors. It will be Stanley who will be judged for this choice and the final appeal should be his.

But if he wants this hire to be widely accepted without acrimony, if he wants this person to succeed in a role that will help define a substantial wing of the university for perhaps the next decade, if he wants to succeed in as president of MSU, he should open up the process just enough that those who also have an interest in this area feel heard.

He should use his resources – people like men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo, who has been at MSU for 38 years, through seven presidents and eight athletic directors, and women’s golf coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll, who thrived in a sport with no income at MSU for almost a quarter of a century.

He should include Izzo and football coach Mel Tucker in the conversation. Because that thing doesn’t work if those two aren’t compatible with the next AD.

Stanley needs to be safe enough to ask for their advice, strong enough not to let them get hired, and savvy enough to do what’s best for MSU.

Where it gets tricky is the pool of candidates and the schedule.

MSU hired Mel Tucker in February 2020. He will soon be working for its second athletic director at MSU.

The timing is horrible, just weeks before the school year and football season. If former AD Bill Beekman were to leave his post and join the president’s office, that was to happen in May. At this point in the calendar, any athletic director who cares about their current school is going to have reservations about leaving. And if they leave now, that says something. It’s not disqualifying, but it’s remarkable.

That said, it must be legitimate national research, as Stanley said it would be. The only way for the emerging candidate to have credibility is to come out of a national pool, even if he is the best internal candidate, Deputy AD Alan Haller. Especially if it’s Haller. Because rigorous research gives any hiring, especially internally, validity and authenticity.

And there is a case for Haller, beyond the significant internal support and former MSU athletes. Not as an interim DA either. It’s hard to lead when people think you are temporary, and if you hope to be the permanent choice, you also wonder what your motivations are. This is the case for Izzo – who board members would have asked to do the work on an interim basis, even if that is not their role. Izzo would have no illusions or desire to be the guy beyond this tentative scenario. He loves college, even when sometimes he doesn’t like what’s going on there. I think he could do the job if he only wanted to do this job. But being an DA is intensely full-time work. Same as being a basketball head coach. There’s no way you can give both of your energy all of your energy. Do the research, find your person and put them in place.

And if that leads you to Haller, get involved. It should not be a matter of ego or name recognition or feeling pushed into a choice by the elders. It should be about what you hear from the candidates in this interview and what those who have worked with the candidates say about their abilities to do the job. If it’s Haller, so be it.

He at least deserved the right to be seriously considered and interviewed. Let the interview do the work with each candidate. Nick Saban’s interview with MSU is legendary. Mark Dantonio had people on the edge of their seats. Mark Hollis knew Dantonio was the guy. It was his location. This search was his audition for the position of athletic director. Haller, who was also part of that 2006 research and in the gym, knew Dantonio was the right coach for MSU as well.

Haller’s case begins with the fact that he hired both Dantonio – as an outsider on the search committee – and Mel Tucker last year. He was instrumental in hiring Tucker. It also includes the university and the athletics department, warts and everything. He cares about the place. He grew up in this community, played football at MSU. And, of everyone I have spoken to about him, he is of high character, someone who doesn’t lie and, in a fiercely political college climate, owes no one anything. This is the kind of person you want to represent your university.

Is he the best choice to be AD? I do not know. I don’t do the research or the interviews. Let the interview process do the work for you. But if the right guy is home, Stanley shouldn’t be afraid to take that step.

If Stanley is recruiting from the outside – someone like Pittsburgh’s Heather Lyke, whose name keeps coming up in conversations – it’s important that he’s a good candidate, that he comes with a vision and not an agenda, that ‘he understands that he will need time to discover the place and its inhabitants.

Because it’s not a rental just right now. She’s someone you want to be able to handle situations and create opportunities that you can’t even envision yet.

MSU needs someone with energy, who holds staff accountable, someone around whom people come together. Someone whose vision for the football program is aligned with Tucker’s and who understands the nuances of the changing world of major varsity athletics. Someone who doesn’t view the crew-team student-athlete as less than the basketball player.

It’s a big job. Massive hiring. In a school where former presidents – pre-Lou Anna Simon – sometimes clashed with athletics. Presidents don’t always survive bad research. It doesn’t have to be one.

Contact Graham Couch at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

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