People call Michigan State's football program a "sleeping giant." But what kind of giant sleeps for four decades?
Relative to expectations, MSU might be the toughest job in the Big Ten. Everybody knows it is easier to win at Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. But it is also easier at Wisconsin and Iowa - schools with rabid fan bases, a recent history of winning and the undisputed title of most popular team in their states.
Folks at Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois are more understanding when their team goes 6-6. Indiana is hopeless, but at least Hoosier fans don't expect to beat Notre Dame.
"Can we have a successful program at Michigan State? Absolutely," said Merritt Norvell , the MSU athletic director from 1995 to 1999. "But you have to define what success is. Does success mean having a top-10 program year after year? Probably not. Can we be ranked in the top 25 year after year? Yeah, that's possible."
As Michigan State searches to replace John L. Smith, it should start there. Try to build a solid, consistent program.
Face it: That would be a huge improvement. Why hasn't it happened? Well, if Michigan State was any more backward, the school's nickname would be the Snatraps.
At most schools, the athletic director hires the football coach. Not at MSU. The Spartans will hire a coach in the next few weeks, then look for another athletic director in a year or two, when current AD Ron Mason retires.
Of course, if you have followed Michigan State sports for long enough, you chuckle when you see Mason listed as "athletic director." To many, the de facto AD is trustee Joel Ferguson.
Ferguson has accumulated a remarkable amount of power at Michigan State, and the school hasn't quite figured out how to deal with it. Mason boxed him out of the process when Smith was hired - Ferguson said he found out about the hiring from a reporter from the Lansing State Journal.
Ferguson was never in Smith's corner after that. Oh, Ferguson said before the season that he supported Smith, but I suspect that was mostly so that when Smith got canned, Ferguson could tell everybody his hands were clean.
Smith improved the team GPA from 2.46 to 2.62, and most of Smith's players are on track to graduate, to which Ferguson says: So what?
"Let's get really real," Ferguson said Wednesday. "People don't get fired for off-the-field incidents. That's the excuse, but never the reason. People lose their jobs based on wins and losses."
"And the other thing, let's get real, too. People talk about grade-point (averages). Anytime you hear people talking about grade points, you know they're not winning. We can dance around all these things, but just be real."
Of course, when Bobby Williams was fired during his third season, Ferguson immediately started talking about grade-point averages. He implied race was a factor in the firing. And he said, "Recent history indicated that it takes at least five years to build a successful program in our conference."
Smith got less than four years. What happened to the five-year grace period?
I'm not here to defend Smith. He made his share of mistakes, and in any event, his time is done. The point is that there are too many agendas at Michigan State.