EAST LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan State University head football coach Mark Dantonio Tuesday spoke to the media for the first time since three of his players and one staff member were suspended amid a sexual assault investigation.
Dantonio focused the half-hour news conference on the investigation.
“I think to stand up here and talk about who’s going to be our quarterback right now is trivial compared to what we’re dealing with. That’s why I’ve not wanted to do that. I didn’t want to come up and talk about spring practice, or talk about depth charts or those type of things because I thought it was unfair to the investigation as a whole. And so we refrain from doing that,” said Dantonio.
The coach’s anger was palpable when a reporter took Dantonio’s comment as an opportunity to fish for answers as to who is suspended.
“You also made mention that it would be trivial right now to ask who’s playing quarterback next season. Does that insinuate that your quarterback is involved in these allegations?” The unidentified reporter asked.
“Really, you’re going to ask that?” Dantonio said, staring hard at the reporter for several silent seconds. “Next question,” he answered, with a turn of his head.
On Feb. 9, MSU announced the three unnamed athletes were suspended from team activities and removed from on-campus housing as police investigated the sex assault complaint made in late January. The university also said it was conducting a Title IX investigation to determine if the school’s policy was violated, and an independent investigation to determine if football program staff followed university policy.
Tuesday, Dantonio acknowledged that other players have been suspended for other reasons, but he did not release any names. He said players will be wearing their respective numbers during Saturday’s spring game, and cautioned media members about concluding who has been suspended in the sex assault investigation.
“I would be careful to paint a brush over our entire program. I think that’s your responsibility, not mine.”
Tuesday marked day 12 of practice for MSU’s team, according to Dantonio. He said the decision to start practicing football was made in December or early January, after MSU missed “bowl practice opportunities.” Dantonio said he wanted to start playing football again as soon as possible to give his young team opportunities.
However, MSU’s football practices this year have been closed to the press for the first time since Dantonio took over the program, according to our Lansing sister station, WLNS. Dantonio acknowledged everything has been affected since the investigation was launched, including media access.
“(It’s) been an extremely challenging time for all of us. I don’t think there’s a question that it’s impacted our program,” said Dantonio.
He said the program “only slightly” considered postponing or closing the Spartan’s spring football game to the public. MSU said Monday night the game at Spartan Stadium will be open to the public.
Dantonio said Tuesday he has waited to comment on the sexual assault investigation because the MSU’s athletic director and president had already addressed the incident and he wanted to follow a “level of command” and “respect the process.”
“To come out here and have our players be interviewed and act like there’s nothing going on, I just think it’s inappropriate and that’s why I haven’t done it,” he said.
Although the investigation has not concluded, Dantonio said he wanted to “sort of step out (into) the light a little bit” given the community impact of the upcoming spring game.
“I’ve stood up here in the highs and the lows. I’ve stood up here after winning a Rose Bowl or a Big Ten championship, also stood up here at very difficult times before. That’s never going to change… that’s the hat I wear,” Dantonio said.
“To me, this is part of the deal. This is part of the reason that I was chosen as a head football coach here. It was to lead in difficult times, not to lead, not to put a hat on and walk around the Rose Bowl and say, ‘Hey we won the Rose Bowl.’ That’s not the time. You know, you find out who you are, you define yourself when things fall around you. You’re defined as a leader. You know this, and next season, these will be challenging moments but why I was hired,” he later added.
While player talk was limited, MSU’s coach said Drake Martinez has decided to transfer, Thiyo Lukusa, who reportedly quit the program, “wasn’t enjoying football,” and linebacker Jon Reschke’s situation has been “pretty much detailed in papers as well.”
Dantonio said he couldn’t comment on staff member Curtis’ Blackwell’s suspension because of the sex assault investigation, but he said the program has “closed ranks” in his absence and recruiting has gone “very, very well.”
“Obviously these are difficult times. But I also think this is an opportunity to re-center ourselves as a program, as people, and take direction from whether it’s myself or anybody else in that capacity, and move forward,” Dantonio said.
Coach Dantonio said he has no idea how much longer the investigation will take but he plans to continue to cooperate fully.
“I hope everyone understands how serious we are taking this, relative to our football program and what we’re trying to do. I hope everyone understands that it’s not business as usual,” he added.
Dantonio said despite the incident, morale is as strong as it has ever been.
“Human nature tells you that people will bind together in tough situations and they will go forward more unified,” he added.
His message to Spartan fans: “Go green.”