Dantonio needs to think like a CEO, not a coach

Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio is facing a classic (and critical) leadership dilemma — balancing the needs of the present versus planning for the future. It’s a vexing problem that has faced titans of industry for ages. Get it wrong — like Atlantic City casinos and the music industry that valued maximizing revenue more than avoiding obsolescence — and you’ll find a program on the decline. Get it wrong — like Twitter or Dropbox which have transformed the world but struggle to generate profits — and you’ll find a program constantly swimming upstream. Get it right, like Apple — remember when they “just made computers” — or Amazon and you have a program that’s constantly innovating and adapting to stay relevant and dominant.

In football, wins are revenue. So the question for Dantonio is does he want to maximize wins now for his 2–3 Spartans knowing it might slow future growth? Or does he want to sacrifice wins this year for potentially huge win totals — and college football playoff runs — in future seasons?

For most fans, the answer is simple — play for next year. For Dantonio, who said Sunday night the Spartans are playing to win now, and most CEOs, the decision is far more complicated.

Dantonio, and the Spartans, are in this position because the team’s seniors are good supporting actors, but can’t carry a team. And the team’s freshmen have the talent to carry a team, but they lack the experience and skills necessary to contribute in more than spot duty. Injuries and unexpected transfers/retirements have further exacerbated the problems.

If Dantonio sticks with his veterans, who are definitively better players at the moment, the Spartans are headed for a 6-win season. The offensive and defensive lines are not good (or deep) enough to compete with the better teams in the Big Ten.

Or Dantonio could start playing extremely talented, but raw, underclassmen and risk a four or five-win season in 2016 to avoid growing pains — and another 7-win or worse season — in 2017.

Both choices carry significant risk.

If Dantonio sticks with his veterans, his talented freshmen won’t gain the game repetitions they need to become better and more polished players. That means they’ll be learning on the job next season. When young players are learning on the job, their performance is uneven. And that points to and up-and-down 2017 season and one fewer season of really good play from a talented class.

If Dantonio plays his underclassmen, he risks tearing apart the fabric of the team and the program. The best coaches, and Dantonio belongs in that category, have a simple rule — the player that performs the best plays. Talent doesn’t matter. Potential doesn’t matter. Recruiting stars don’t matter. The only thing that matters is how the player performs — in practices and in games.

This philosophy keeps players honest and hungry. Players work hard because they know their efforts will be rewarded with playing time. They fight for inches in practice because it can lead to playing time. They fight for inches in games to keep their jobs. And those inches are what lead to victory.

Coaches also preach that players need to do everything possible to win every week. If Dantonio starts coaching and playing for next year, he undermines the fundamental building blocks of his program. And even worse, he damages his integrity. Players will know his word and his promises, are meaningless. And the sense of family that he has worked so hard to build into the Spartan football program will disappear in a cloud of resentment.

So which option will Dantonio choose? Both. He’ll try to thread the needle by focusing on winning now and rebuilding for next year at the same time.

Does trying to win now and rebuild for next year actually work? It’s a tricky balancing act that has seen more failures than successes in the business world. Microsoft couldn’t do it. Neither could the newspaper industry. Best Buy started late and then failed miserably.

If Dantonio is going to be successful, he should look to Legos. Just over ten years ago, Lego was on the verge of bankruptcy. Now it’s a multi-billion dollar toy juggernaut that dominates the industry.

How did Legos reinvent itself? Well, first it stopped dabbling in action figures and letting customers design their own Lego sets. Then it remembered that Legos are just a series of interlocking blocks, and that simplicity provides an amazing creative canvas. And it got creative, creating all sorts of Lego sets that people were actually interested in building.

Dantonio can apply those lessons to turning the Spartans around for this year and next. First, stop conservative play calling inside your own territory and the Damion Terry wildcat packages — the Lego equivalents of toys that don’t work. Everyone knows Terry is going to run the ball. Stop putting out a product that doesn’t work.

Shorten the leash on players that are struggling in games. Emphasize production over “playing well.” Remember, this team is now a series of interlocking blocks. If one block isn’t working, you have to move on to the next. Tyler O’Connor has to put points on the board, or he’ll be replaced by Terry. If Darian Hicks or Tyson Smith is getting beat in the secondary, Justin Layne will replace them.

Injuries have forced Dantonio’s hand on the defensive line. Freshmen Mike Panasiuk and Auston Robertson will start seeing more time on the field. Sophomore Gerald Owens and redshirt freshman Kyonta Stallworth could be added to the mix as well.

Freshmen wide receivers Donnie Corley and Trishton Jackson will get more snaps for a receiving corps struggling to get separation from defenders. But the youth movement, for the most part, ends there.

Outside of redshirt freshmen Tyler Higby on the offensive line, no freshman has proven he belongs on the field. So don’t force any pieces into slots where they don’t fit. But get creative and design a new canvas. Change the schemes and the play calling to suit the personnel that’s on the field.

Michigan State isn’t going to be very good this season. It has a chance to be very good next season. Whether this tears apart the program depends on Dantonio’s skill as a CEO.