After a promising 4-0 start, including being ranked as high as #11, the Spartans have reverted to familar form, falling off the map after a loss to Michigan. Michigan State's head coach John L. Smith has been unable to get his team to play with emotion and purpose. The defense has been shredded by the doormats of the conference and Smith seems all out of answers when the question is asked; "What's wrong with your team?"
Now the question becomes; Should MSU keep John L. Smith as its head coach or should it fire Smith and move in a different direction?
Michigan State is at a critical juncture in its efforts to re-establish itself as a major athletic player. MSU athletic director Ron Mason traveled with the team to Minneapolis, but did not speak to reporters following the crushing loss.
For Mason, the stakes are unbelivably high.
MSU has just stolen away WJR the self-proclaimed "Great Voice of the Great Lakes" from Michigan as the flagship of its broadcast network. Now it's Spartan football and basketball games that will be broadcast across the 50,000-watt powerhouse that reaches deep into the Midwest and some say can be heard as far as California on a clear day. It was an unbelievable coup for the Spartans.
But who's going to want to listen to a 5-7 football team on a Saturday afternoon?
The University just completed a beautiful expansion of Spartan Stadium with a state of the art press facility, club seating and luxury boxes, but they haven't filled any of them, at least not yet.
Who's going to shell out big bucks to watch a sub .500 team on a beautiful fall afternoon?
The alumni are grumbling. Filled again with pride as Michigan State's offense roared through the early part of its schedule including a rowsing upset of Notre Dame, they packed the stadium for the annual backyard brawl, only to be disappointed once again when MSU's special teams couldn't kick a field goal in three tries.
They watched as the "coaching staff screwed it up" in blowing a big lead and eventually losing a game they had won against Ohio State. Smith appears to have lost his team's confidence after that game and the Spartans have not looked the same since.
Since that time, recruiting has also tailed off.
Several prominent prospects who had MSU on their short lists have signed with other teams. MSU isn't in on many top-100 prospects this season that the Michigans and the Ohio States of the world are signing. Instead this coaching staff appears to be choosing to battle Conference USA and MAC schools for the lesser prospects.
Smith's limited success has come largely with players that former coach Bobby Williams recruited and the future beyond next year looks bleak unless they can turn around their recruiting efforts. Smith does not have a nucleus of 15-18 top quality core players that could form the basis for a successful 2007 team and it looks as if he will have to continue his pattern of heavily recruiting junior college players.
While the "spread" offensive scheme has worked well, he needs quality players to execute his defensive scheme. There appear to be very few of those in the locker room and not many top quality recruits are looming on the horizon.
What does Mason do? Does he stick with Smith for one more season in the hopes that he can turn his fortunes? If he doesn't, MSU risks losing millions of dollars in alumni contributions and corporate contributions and takes a big hit to its reputation. Negative recruiting will run rampant against Smith if he's perceived as a lame-duck coach and the recruiting base will be harder to put back together for an incoming coach in 2007.
If he fires Smith now, he has to explain a $5 million buyout to get rid of a coach that he tooks tremendous heat to hire --literally off the field as his team was preparing to play in the Liberty Bowl. Mason must weigh the pros and the cons of this tough decision because his future rests on the success of a man he hired.
IF NOT SMITH, THEN WHO?
Some alumni are beating the drum for former MSU assistant Pat Shurmur, now the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Shurmur is known to want the job and is young enough to beat the bushes and fight the recruting wars. He also knows the landscape at MSU, but some are scared off by his connection to former coach George Perles and fear what a Shurmur as coach and Perles, should he win election as MSU trustee, would do with that kind of authority.
Minnesota coach Glen Mason's contract runs out at the end of the season and some can see Mason, who nearly was hired as coach before the selection of John L. Smith, on the sidelines at MSU. They like the fact that Mason will take his team to their sixth consecutive bowl game this winter.
A small but growing faction are calling for former Michigan State quarterback Charlie Baggett, now the assistant head coach with the Miami Dolphins.
As a player, Baggett, 52, helped engineer and upset of then #1 Ohio State, a landmark win for the Spartans program in 1974. Baggett has since coached collegiately at Bowling Green, Minnesota and twice at Michigan State under Perles and Nick Saban.
At the NFL level, he's had stops in Green Bay, Minnesota, Houston and Miami. Baggett unquestionably knows the landscape and could rebuild the furtile recruting grounds in the Midwest that Saban and Perles mined before him and has the added plus of having a south Florida connection in Miami. He loves Michigan State and would likely jump at the chance to be a head coach in the Big Ten at his alma mater.
The same concerns with Shurmur exist with Baggett, however,even without the Fritz Pollard Alliance watching on, Baggett, an African-American, warrants serious consideration for the position.
It is likely that Smith will be allowed to return for at least one more season, save a total collapse against Penn State in the home and season finale - a real possibility.
Both Mason and Smith have to be hoping for a good showing -if not an upset win - next Saturday. If the Spartans quit as they seemed in Saturday's loss to Minnesota, Smith could find himself in the unemployment line just in time for the holidays.