Meddling in the athletic departments of Michigan’s colleges is fine sport for state politicians. That’s particularly true at Michigan State University.
MSU is searching for a new athletic director to replace Bill Beekman, who is leaving the post he’s held since 2018.
It is a highly desirable position that carries a lot of weight on campus. And so everyone wants a say in the selection process.
The new director will report to MSU President Samuel Stanley, who should be able to appoint someone with whom he feels comfortable working.
But the MSU board—and others—want to do the president’s job for him.
The board has always been more interested in the football and basketball programs than any other function of the university, and has too often allowed its boosterism to interfere with its oversight responsibilities.
Shades of that have emerged in this search. Some on the board reportedly proposed that head basketball coach Tom Izzo be named interim athletic director while the hunt for a permanent athletic director continues.
History recommends against such a dual role. In 1988, MSU gave then-football coach George Perles the job along with his coaching duties to keep him from going to the NFL after winning the Rose Bowl. The move was a failure that ultimately cost MSU a good president in John DiBiaggio.
Izzo already has a big job, and one whose performance would likely suffer if he had to split his time and energy between winning basketball games and running the athletic department.
Stanley, who is interviewing candidates himself, insists there’s no need for an interim director, since Beekman will stay until his replacement is hired.
He’s getting plenty of unsolicited outside help. This week, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who is running perhaps the most dysfunctional wing of state government, offered her thoughts on how Stanley should conduct the search.
In a letter to Stanley and MSU Board Chair Diane Byrum, Benson opined a “national, open and transparent search brings the chance to recruit and hire one of several of the nation’s leading female athletic directors.”
Citing her role as the chair of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Task Force on Women in Sports, Benson also included this not-so-veiled warning: ”... having personally visited and met with college athletes at several of our state’s public universities, we have seen and will be soon communicating to the Governor the direct distinction between athletic departments that support and invest in women athletes—such as Alma College—and those that do not.”
So Benson wants a woman in the post, while the board and key donors reportedly favor an unnamed African American male already working in the athletic department, setting up a diversity duel.
What should drive Stanley’s decision is getting the most capable person for what is becoming a vital role at major universities such as MSU. Football and basketball have become big businesses, generating considerable revenue for the schools, meaning a successful AD must have solid business skills.
The position also requires a hands-on manager willing to stand up to coaches who too often have been unaccountable. MSU learned during the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal the damage that can come when athletic departments are too loosely managed.
The challenge will become even greater as college sports enter the name, image and likeness era, which will allow individual athletes to profit off their popularity and performance.
MSU needs an athletic director able to navigate the potential land mine of athletes striving for social media fame. The choice must also be prepared to continue the reform of a department with a history of abuses that have endangered student athletes.
Beekman was appointed by interim MSU President John Engler, and, as a member of the MSU inner circle during the Nassar debacle, was not well suited to fixing the operation.
Stanley is moving him out of that position and looking for a replacement who can handle the complex duties that come with the athletic director’s job.
This is what the board hired Stanley to do. His search should proceed without undue interference from a hero-worshipping board or politicians who haven’t done such a swell job in staffing their own operations.