by | Nov 5, 2002 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The biggest problem at Michigan State isn’t that it just fired the football coach, or that its star quarterback has a substance abuse problem, or that its star tailback got charged with drunken driving, or that the team has twice as many losses as victories.

The biggest problem is, nobody knows which thing led to the other.

This much we do know: Bobby Williams is gone. Fired. Out. The season isn’t over, but the coach is. You can take your pick of reasons. Some will say when your team leaders are breaking all the rules you don’t have leaders and you don’t have a team. Some will say losing 49-3 to Michigan is a one-way ticket.

Ron Mason, the MSU athletic director who actually fired Williams on Monday night, said this: “After the Michigan game, one of you people asked Bobby whether he thought he had control of the team or not. He said he wasn’t sure. At that point, I really felt, if he wasn’t sure, who was?”

Good question.

Still waiting on an answer.

Who is in control here? MSU didn’t solve all its problems by letting Williams go. On the contrary, it suggested the mess could run deeper than we know — or deeper than MSU is admitting. All you have to do is go to the Internet to see wild accusations against this team, everything from harboring a drug cartel to soap opera-like love affairs. And while the Internet and 10 cents won’t buy you a shred of truth, for MSU to stick its head in the sand and hope everything will go away with Williams is folly.

But for those fans who care only about football, the axing of Williams will be welcome news. There were few who believed this program was getting any better with him in charge. His lack of previous head coaching experience, his 16-17 record, and the Spartans’ underachievement this season — a year in which a Big Ten title was predicted by many — pretty much sealed his fate.

And that was before Jeff Smoker went south.

Start with the QB

Smoker’s problems were the kiss of death. Let’s be fair. MSU is hardly the first team to have a kid with a substance abuse problem. But some teams are fortunate enough not to have them with their star player. When it’s your quarterback who is getting wasted, you’re cooked. The temptation to overlook things or to give him second chances is so great you are bound to make mistakes. And you are bound to cause dissension.

We still don’t know how deep Smoker was into his abuse. But here’s an example of how deep the problem goes for MSU: There’s this story out there, you hear it everywhere, that claims Smoker partied so hard the day before the Iowa game that he missed the team charter, so the university hired a private plane to fly him in.

This would be bad on a million levels. Bad enough the quarterback was blotto. Bad enough he missed the trip. Bad enough the school made special provisions for a rule-buster.

But the worst part of the story is that it isn’t true. Or at least the university says it isn’t true, although it certainly is a rumor and school officials certainly heard it. And if it turned out actually to be true, well
— whoa, Nellie — the school would be in even deeper trouble.

So you start to understand how much quicksand the Spartans and MSU are in here. Damned if they speak, damned if they don’t, dependent for jobs, money, athletic futures and reputation on the whims of young men who are barely out of high school and who sometimes — more often than anyone admits — indulge in trouble. How would you like your job to hang on the shenanigans your kids got into during the party years?

Go ask Bobby Williams.

“It became clear to me that the direction of the football program required this decision,” Mason said of Williams’ firing. “There was no one incident, event, episode or game that determined my conclusion.”

In other words, it could have been the players’ troubles that led to the losing. It could have been the losing that led to the lack of control. It could have been the lack of control that led to the players’ troubles, including Smoker’s indulgences or Dawan Moss’ allegedly crashing into a police car while dragging a cop along in his window.

Wait. Is not having one incident to blame the good news, or the bad?

Turn to the AD

There is something you can say about Mason. He pulled the lever. Firing a coach at midseason is hardly common in college football. That means one of three things: 1) Mason is strong and decisive and won’t tolerate an out-of-control team; 2) he took an opportunity to fire a liability, or 3) there’s way more trouble to come.

Let’s assume it’s at least partly No. 3. A word of advice to Michigan State: Come clean. Don’t sugar-coat. Everyone knows the program is in disarray. Don’t compound it by trying to glaze us. The rumors about Smoker and others are so out of hand that the university needs to address some of them, if only to offer a comeback for MSU supporters. Pulling the blanket over your head — under the guise of “protecting our student-athletes” — might be understandable. It’s also hypocritical.

The truth is, universities use football stars — especially starting quarterbacks — to make money for the school, to hype up recruiting, to draw attention to the program and, of course, to sell tickets. But heaven forbid you should ask whether that quarterback was on drugs while he played a game, they’ll say you should be ashamed of yourself.

You can’t have it both ways. High profile brings a big spotlight, good and bad. It’s true a student’s privacy is protected, to large degree, by law. But it’s also true that the public has the right to know certain things about a state university, which is funded by state dollars, some of which are given to athletes on scholarship. What deserves to be known?

1) What did the school do about the problem and how fast?

2) Were any of the games tainted — by gambling issues or covered-up drug tests?

3) Was any special treatment given one athlete over another?

4) Did players play while under the influence of substances?

This is not prying. It’s what the school owes its supporters. And whatever MSU knows on such matters, it should admit right away. One way or another, just as sure as coaches eventually take the fall in football, it will come out anyhow.

Fired coach. Arrested tailback. Suspended quarterback. Losing season. There are an awful lot of dominoes in East Lansing. Eventually, we’ll get around to which fell first.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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