Bill Beekman became Michigan State athletic director during a turbulent period in the school’s history, taking the job two years ago with minimal experience in athletics.
Now he faces one of the most important tasks for any Big Ten AD — hiring a new football coach.
“In my two years, we’ve only had one coaching search — for a rowing coach,” Beekman told reporters this week. “I’d challenge most of you to name the rowing coach.”
Rowing won’t be foremost on the minds of most Michigan State fans in the days to come. For the first time in over a decade, the Spartans need a football coach after Mark Dantonio announced his retirement Tuesday. That puts Beekman, who took over in 2018 in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, on the spot.
Michigan State’s previous athletic director, Mark Hollis, retired early in 2018 amid the fallout from the sex abuse scandal involving Nassar, a former Michigan State sports doctor who also worked for USA Gymnastics. Around the time of Hollis’ departure, ESPN reported allegations of sexual assault and violence against women involving Michigan State football and basketball players. The report questioned how the athletic department handled those cases.
Into that turmoil stepped Beekman, who had been executive director of the MSU Alumni Association, as well as a vice president of the school and secretary of its board. He did not have experience running a major athletic department.
Dantonio’s departure, which came a few weeks after the usual college football hiring season, puts Beekman to the test, but this coaching change didn’t come totally out of nowhere. The Spartans were one of the Big Ten’s best teams from 2010-15 but have struggled since then. And Dantonio is 63. At some point, his tenure was going to end.
“You’re constantly sort of scanning the horizon and thinking what you’d do, and certainly in the last number of weeks, as conversations with Mark have begun to think about this as a possibility, we’ve gotten more into the weeds,” Beekman said. “I think it’s something that, if you’re doing your job, you’ve always got in the back of your mind, and you’ve always got some flavor of a list or a set of ideas, or at the very least, a set of criteria.”
Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi, who was previously the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, downplayed the possibility of returning to the Spartans. There’s been speculation about Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, which would bring some symmetry to the hire after Dantonio’s exit. Dantonio, like Fickell, was a defensive coordinator at Ohio State and the head coach at Cincinnati before taking over the Spartans.
“I think Michigan State has been most successful when it’s looked at somebody that knows the territory,” Beekman said. “Doesn’t mean it has to be an alum, but somebody who gets the flavor of who we are as an institution.”
Five years ago, Michigan State might have seemed like a top-level job. The Spartans won Big Ten titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015. Dantonio had changed the perception of what was possible for the program.
But now, Michigan State faces some familiar challenges. Michigan has regained the upper hand in its in-state rivalry with the Spartans, and Ohio State is as tough as ever. Penn State is also in Michigan State’s division.
And the off-field concerns haven’t gone away. Curtis Blackwell, a former Michigan State football employee, filed a lawsuit claiming his employment agreement was violated when he was disciplined while the school addressed sexual assault allegations against players in 2017. A recent filing in that case from Blackwell’s lawyer suggested that deposition testimony by Dantonio may have revealed NCAA violations.
“To the best of our knowledge, as I understand the allegations, they’re patently false,” Beekman said. “We’ll be happy to defend that in a court of law.”
Beekman said he’d consider Dantonio’s input on the coaching search. Ultimately, this next hire could define his tenure as AD.
“On the one hand, I think one could feel the absolute weight of the earth upon them with a critical decision like this,” Beekman said. “On the other hand, I think you have to do your job and find the best person, and there’s a process. We’ve got good people, and we’ve been working this, and we’re ready for it.”