CHICAGO — Spartans coach Mark Dantonio vowed Monday to re-establish a program rocked by tragedy and beset by disciplinary issues last season by using the same “inch by inch” philosophy that made Michigan State a championship contender.
“Sometimes you’re measured a little bit by how you handle the problems not just in all the good times,” Dantonio said at the Big Ten Conference media days. “We’ve had some good times and those are easy to stand up there and sing the fight song and put a hat on.
“Not as easy when you are going through these type of things,” he added, referring to last season. “But at the end of the day that’s why I was hired. I was hired to solve problems and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The season began under a cloud after former punter Mike Sadler died in a car crash a year ago that also took the life of Nebraska punter Sam Foltz . After wins versus Furman and at Notre Dame to open the season, the Spartans lost their next seven.
The team couldn’t overcome the losses of quarterback Connor Cook, as well as Aaron Burbridge, Jack Conklin and Shilique Calhoun. The offense also became predictable under coordinator Dave Warner, a favorite target of critics.
The turmoil took its toll and Michigan State finished 3-9 last year after three conference titles, six straight winning seasons, a playoff appearance and two New Year’s Day bowl games under Dantonio. Six times the defense allowed 30-or-more points in a game. Eight defensive linemen did not return from the previous season.
The offseason wasn’t much better: In June, three players were charged with criminal sexual conduct after a woman said she was raped and forced to perform oral sex in the bathroom of an on-campus apartment during a party in January. They were immediately dismissed and Dantonio joined athletic director Mark Hollis for an emotional news conference on a campus already reeling from allegations of sexual assault against Larry Nassar, a former MSU doctor who also worked for USA Gymnastics.
Players-only meetings became a regular feature after practices earlier this year. They were spurred, in part, by senior linebacker Jon Reschke’s decision to leave the team after what he termed “insensitive and totally regrettable” remarks about a teammate.
Members of the Spartans so-called “Eagle Council,” a rotating group of a dozen players selected by teammates to assume the leadership mantle, also began stressing individual accountability.
“We wanted guys to be able to speak their minds on any issue affecting the team,” said linebacker Chris Frey. “There’s always been a divide between offense and defense, but even there we’re trying to get guys to communicate.”
At the spring Green-White scrimmage, Dantonio addressed one of the team’s biggest questions, naming Brian Lewerke as his starting quarterback. In and in Monday’s session, he strengthened that commitment. He also compared Lewerke favorably with former QB and current Oakland Raider Connor Cook.
“He’s got game experience. He’s almost up to 220 pounds, he’s got a great arm, he’s very cool under pressure. I think he understands our players,” Dantonio said. “I think he’s a very quick learner.”
“We’ve got four good quarterbacks. Four guys that are big, four guys that have Big Ten abilities,” he added a moment later. “I’ve been impressed with all of them at one point in time. But right now I think Brian Lewerke, I think is a little bit of a cut above and we’re looking forward to his progress.”
But even more than that crucial position is how the Spartans rebound from the tough issues that plagued the program last year.
“There will be challenges along the way. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But we established ourselves as a championship program inch by inch,” Dantonio said. “There was nothing ever given to us. And that’s how we’ve handled it. That’s how we’ve taken it. We have to go back to that mindset, understand that things don’t come easy.”
This story has been corrected to show Spartans made playoffs once, not three times.