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Michigan State’s Rowing Coach Just Got Fired

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The MSU Rowing Team, on the Grand River in Lansing, MI. June 2015
David Harns

Athletic Directors fire coaches hundreds of times every year, all over the country. It’s not an atypical thing for universities and colleges, small to large, to have coaching turnover, but at MSU — with the mishandling of so many issues over the last several years still hanging over the university — the move of MSU Athletic Director Bill Beekman to fire MSU’s Rowing coach Matt Weise created some controversy last weekend.

A Lansing State Journal article was published Friday afternoon and included some details about a meeting that occurred approximately 18 months earlier:

Weise’s firing comes about a year and a half after dozens of varsity women rowers confronted MSU officials at the Hannah Administration Building about their handling of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal.

The article included speculation from a member of the Lansing Rowing Club, Deb Traxinger, that Beekman removed Weise due to the meeting in January 2018:

Traxinger said she believes Weise lost his job at MSU because he didn’t discourage rowers from confronting officials.

Social media immediately picked up the scent and took it from there. Was this a retaliatory move? Was Beekman upset that Weise didn’t stop his team from complaining to university leadership 18 months earlier about how it handled Nassar? Is MSU covering something up here?

To be fair, Michigan State – as a whole – has brought this upon itself with its handling of the Larry Nassar fallout — and Beekman has made himself a target of criticism by deleting an email in December 2017 in order to prevent information (including then-President Simon’s new salary) from being made public through FOIA requests before it was announced publicly. [Beekman was the secretary of the Board of Trustees at the time.] Even though the email in question didn’t discuss Nassar, the idea of deleting an email to avoid public scrutiny didn’t sit well with the Spartan community – understandably so – when it was announced during an update given by outgoing AG Special Prosecutor Bill Forsyth in December 2018.

According to the Lansing State Journal, the members of the rowing team met with Beekman and at least four trustees on January 29, 2018 to “seek answers about MSU officials’ plans to keep students safe after Nassar was sentenced to life in prison.”

According to people who were present when the meeting was being organized — and according to people who attended the meeting — Weise did not organize the meeting, nor did he try to suppress it. Instead, he showed up and participated silently, supporting his team (the men’s crew team and the women’s cross country and track teams also showed up to show their support).

MSU Trustees Diane Byrum, Melanie Foster, Dan Kelly and Brian Mosallam – as well as then-acting MSU President Bill Beekman – met with the 50 varsity women rowers that day, according to the Lansing State Journal.

The rowers compiled a list of expectations, including their belief that any MSU employee who is subject to a criminal investigation should be suspended and kept away from students until the investigation is complete. They also said the school needs to adopt and enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual misconduct “for all members of the Michigan State University community.”

Weise’s actions during those difficult times compared favorably to the actions of another Michigan State coach whose athletes were abused by Larry Nassar.

Kathie Klages — the ex-MSU gymnastics coach who is currently on trial for lying to a peace officer as part of the Nassar investigation — did not support her team members in the same manner. She organized a team meeting and spoke of Nassar in glowing terms, sending mixed messages and sowing confusion in the minds of the members of her gymnastics team. She even asked those who were interested to sign a card of sympathy for Nassar.

According to the Detroit News, then MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis acted swiftly when informed of Klages’ actions in the fall of 2016:

“The conversation with Kathie Klages occurred following the allegation of some comments that were made in a meeting in September of 2016 that pertained to her being extremely vocal in her support for (Nassar) to the point of asking student-athletes to write sympathy cards,” Hollis said. “When I was given that information by our general counsel and as a result of the police investigation, the conversation was very short (when I suspended her).”

In comparison, Weise allowed his rowers to organize and present their thoughts and concerns to university leadership, independent of him or his influence. Not only did he not interfere, but he stood with them during what was, by all accounts, a healthy, productive meeting. He was present at the meeting but allowed his team to speak their concerns to MSU leadership. The rowers left the meeting optimistic that their voices would be heard.

Last week — on the morning of Tuesday, July 16 — Beekman met with Weise and informed him that he would no longer be the rowing coach. Later that afternoon, Beekman sent the following email to the MSU Athletic Department staff:

Earlier today I informed Matt Weise of my decision to take our rowing program in a different direction. Matt will no longer be serving as the program’s head coach, but I want to thank him for his many years of service to Spartan Athletics and we wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors. Samantha Sarff will assume the head coaching duties on an interim basis as we immediately begin a search for a new Spartan rowing coach.

In recent days, a member of the rowing team reached out to The Only Colors and wanted to “give some clarity to the situation and confirm that this has nothing to do with Nassar or our meeting with the trustees.”

She continued:

”The relationship between our team and the administration is a good one at this point. I think the program’s finishes at Big Tens for the past several years can answer why this happened better than anything else at the moment.”

A second rower concurred, saying:

”I’m not salty or mad at Matt or think he should’ve gotten fired. I like Matt as a person and a coach. But it’s not crazy to me that a person gets fired from their job when there are clear metrics that could lead to that firing.”

A look at the recent finishes of the Michigan State rowing team shows that MSU has not performed well in the Big Ten since a second-place finish in 2010:

2019

1. Michigan (186)

2. Ohio State (171)

3. Wisconsin (109)

4. Rutgers (107)

5. Indiana (98)

6. Iowa (78)

7. Michigan State (67)

8. Minnesota (46)

2018

1. Ohio State (192)

2. Michigan (163)

3. Wisconsin (118)

4. Iowa (111)

5. Indiana (92)

6. Minnesota (90)

7. Rutgers (51)

8. Michigan State (47)

2017

1. Ohio State (180)

2. Michigan (179)

3. Wisconsin (126)

4. Iowa (106)

4. Indiana (106)

6. Michigan State (76)

7. Minnesota (54)

8. Rutgers (24)

2016

1. Ohio State (174)

2. Wisconsin (159)

3. Michigan (154)

4. Indiana (115)

5. Iowa (95)

6. Minnesota (86)

7. Michigan State (50)

8. Rutgers (24)

2015

1. Ohio State (186)

2. Michigan (162)

3. Wisconsin (140)

4. Indiana (121)

5. Minnesota (88)

6. Iowa (79)

7. Michigan State (58)

8. Rutgers (24)

2014

1. Ohio State (164)

2. Michigan (140)

3. Wisconsin (109)

4. Indiana (103)

5. Michigan State (60)

6. Minnesota (55)

7. Iowa (39)

2013

1. Ohio State (160)

2. Michigan (135)

3. Wisconsin (134)

4. Michigan State (85)

5. Minnesota (72)

6. Iowa (54)

7. Indiana (28)

2012

1. Michigan (147)

2. Ohio State (145)

3. Wisconsin (122)

4. Michigan State (80)

5. Minnesota (77)

6. Indiana (44)

7. Iowa (29)

2011

1. Ohio State (142)

2. Michigan (124)

3. Wisconsin (121)

4. Michigan State (111)

5. Minnesota (68)

6. Indiana (53)

7. Iowa (25)

2010

1. Wisconsin (148)

2. Michigan State (132)

3. Michigan (111)

4. Ohio State (105)

5. Minnesota (66)

6. Iowa (51)

7. Indiana (30)

The Only Colors will be filing a FOIA request to look further into the situation and will update the story if warranted.

The MSU Rowing team on the Grand River in Lansing, June 2015.
David Harns
The MSU Rowing team travels under a bridge on the Grand River in Lansing, June 2015.
David Harns
The MSU Rowing team on the Grand River in Lansing, June 2015.
David Harns
The MSU Rowing team turns around on the Grand River near downtown Lansing, June 2015.
David Harns