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TOC’s Conversation with Michigan State Athletic Director Bill Beekman

TOC sat down with MSU’s AD and asked him about student safety, MSU’s public image, game day attendance, beer/wine at Spartan Stadium, what life after Dantonio/Izzo looks like, his thoughts on paying players/transfer eligibility — and what’s with all the neon?

Michigan State v Indiana
Bill Beekman, Mark Dantonio

Several weeks ago, we requested some time with Michigan State Athletic Director Bill Beekman — and today he agreed to chat with us. We made our way to the AD’s office this morning — it’s a pretty great view from the 4th floor of 1855 Place, across from the Breslin Center — and peppered Beekman with questions we thought you might want to ask him if you had the chance. This might be longer than our usual posts, but we wanted to include all of the thoughts directly from the man in charge of MSU Athletics. Our conversation was edited slightly for clarity.

THE ONLY COLORS: What actions have you taken and what actions are planned to keep your student-athletes safe?

BILL BEEKMAN: When you’re the new Athletic Director, everyone wants to hear your perspective. Over the last year, I’ve been travelling around the state talking to Rotary Clubs, and Kiwanis Clubs, and Alumni Clubs and I start every speech the same way. From the top, we have two overarching priorities: one is that our students come first – we’re a student-first organization – and two is health, safety, and wellness. If our students aren’t healthy, safe, and well, than really nothing else matters.

A good education, a great athletic team – none of that’s really relevant if you’re not well. I try and set that tone externally, internally, wherever I’m at.

Beyond setting that tone and keeping that front of mind, what are nuts and bolts things that we are doing? There is a fairly long list. We’ve taken a look at every procedure we can find to make sure that those things we had in place, we’re actually doing. That we’re following our rules. In a lot of cases, we’ve had good rules in place and there’s just a lot of double checking and tweaking and things like that.

We’ve implemented a chaperone policy so that every student-athlete has the opportunity to have another person in the room sort of as their person in the room, their second set of eyes. So, if the field hockey player from Kentucky gets injured and her parents take eight hours to get up here, if she needs something done, there’s another person that is there.

One of the important things was to not only have that person there but to make sure that they’re well-trained. It wouldn’t be good to have a chaperone policy but have somebody there who doesn’t know what they’re doing. So we make sure those people are properly trained.

We’ve added a female primary care physician in sports medicine so that our female athletes have as an option the ability to see a female physician. That is something that we had on and off but because folks come and go – and our group of physicians is fairly small – but certainly as a priority we’ll work very hard to always have a female physician on staff and accessible to our female athletes – well to any athlete – but really most importantly to our female athletes.

We’ve hired Dr. Tony Avellino to serve as our chief medical officer. He’s the chief medical officer for MSU Healthcare and all of our athletic trainers, all of our physicians, report to Dr. Avellino who reports to the dean of the College of Human Medicine who reports to the Provost. So, all of those folks that provide medical care don’t report through me, don’t report through coaches, so that they – hopefully they feel empowered anyway – but so there could be no issue that “if I tell a coach that this athlete can’t play because their knee isn’t well enough” for example, that there would be no repercussions because they totally report up a different line of the university.

Also, we have the QMAC, the Quality Medical Oversight Committee, we started to explore and analyze any medical issue we might have. For example, a kid is in the weight room, a weight falls on his foot and he breaks a toe. Why did that happen? How could we prevent it? What went wrong? Are there rules that weren’t in place? Sometimes it’s just a freak accident but really going through and doing a deep dive into any medical issue that comes up – is there a way we could have prevented it or made it better?

We’ve taken it really, really seriously. It’s a journey, not a destination. You’re never going to wipe your brow and say “we’re good” – it’s an every-day, every-week kind of thing. So we keep working on it. I meet regularly with Dr. Avellino and we think hard about how we can make it better.

THE ONLY COLORS: Outside of the medical aspect, has there been any extra focus on student-athletes being taught and shown and mentored to make sure that they are following the rules, make sure they are following the laws, make sure they’re not the ones doing the perpetrating of any crimes? Is there any extra focus on that?

BILL BEEKMAN: Absolutely. We’ve, over the years, had a very extensive training program where every one of our student-athletes, every coach, assistant coach, every member of our staff – from the athletic director to the intern in the ticket office and points in between – goes through training. Multiple trainings per year. So we’ve continued that.

I’d say that what we’ve done differently is taking a hard look at the subject matter. Is it fresh? Is it interesting? Are you working extra hard to convey the right material in a way that connects with our students? That isn’t the drudgery of “go in this room, sit there for an hour, check the box, and move on” but that conveys meaningful material in an interesting way that connects with people. We’ve worked pretty hard to take a look at the content and continue to work on making the content fresh and interesting such that it’s impactful. It’s another thing that’s never really “done” but something that we’ve taken a harder look at over the last couple years.

THE ONLY COLORS: Have you seen any progress?

BILL BEEKMAN: It’s hard to measure. I think that every day you hope that your student-athletes leave practice and that your employees leave work and that everyone goes home and behaves themselves and is a model citizen of our community. I think the vast majority of the people that work here are. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned, a bad egg amongst tens of thousands of people can cause an extraordinary amount of damage. So it’s always a worry but I think when you try and set the right culture, you try and set the right tone, you try and do all the right things – hopefully it’s impactful. Yet, at the same time, one bad actor in the system can wreak havoc.

THE ONLY COLORS: Where do you think MSU’s public image is, athletics-wise, right now? Do you think more recovery is necessary, if you think it’s still negative? In the same line, what measures are you taking to continue to repair that image if you think it needs repairing?

BILL BEEKMAN: I think it’s hard to separate out MSU Athletics from MSU Engineering from MSU whatever. I think most people look at MSU as one great big thing that is MSU. So, if part of us is struggling, then all of us is struggling. We’re all in it together. I think, obviously, with the OCR and the Clery Report coming out yesterday, it’s troubling and there’s a lot of work for us to do.

From my perspective, I try and come in every morning and do the right thing. It sounds sort of hokey and schmaltzy but if you come in every day and do right by the university and do right by your student-athletes, do right by your employees – then hopefully one day builds on the next which builds on the next and if you encourage and support other people that come in every day and try to do the right thing – then hopefully over time, that takes hold and moves the needle. To me, it’s kind of as simple as that. I’m not planning on taking out ads or giving speeches that are unique – to me, you become a place that is good by being a place that does good. And if you try to do that every day, eventually, you move the ball up the hill.

THE ONLY COLORS: You’ve been with the university for a while, in many different positions. Do you regret anything that happened while you weren’t in this position? When you were Secretary of the Board of Trustees? Whether it be the perceived insular actions of the board or the inadequate response by the university? You had a role in that – do you regret anything that happened in that aspect?

BILL BEEKMAN: In terms of non-athletic stuff, given the fact that there are still ongoing investigations, there is not a lot I’m able to say publicly.

THE ONLY COLORS: Have you had any discussions about the Athletic Department with the new president yet?

BILL BEEKMAN: Yes. I’ve had a number of opportunities to spend time with President Stanley. I’m very excited about his leadership, generally, and as it relates to athletics, in particular. President Stanley is an avid exerciser, tennis player, swimmer, and is a great fan of athletics. We’ll be getting him out to see some of our teams in action.

His leadership will be very positive for the institution. I think he’s very interested in understanding athletics and what we do. He’s served some time on the NCAA board so he’s got a very rich knowledge of that angle of college athletics. We’re excited to see him engage with us. Good things are ahead.

THE ONLY COLORS: Student attendance – and attendance in general – is down, nationwide. What strategies are you using to address that?

BILL BEEKMAN: There are short-term things we’re trying to do and long-term things we’re trying to think about. As you said, attendance is down nationally, it’s down everywhere from Alabama to Appalachian State and points in between. It’s no different here. It’s not aided by the fact that we’ve gotten into this sort of funky scheduling thing where we have Michigan and Ohio State one year – you have sort of a feast year and a famine year. It’s like a roller coaster that goes up and down. And we’re in the famine year.

Certainly, there are things we’ve tried to do with the student section to get the students enthusiastic. Coach Dantonio and the team have been very helpful and engaging with our student population and encouraging them to come and participate. I think that we had a pretty good showing last Saturday for the opener, given that it was the holiday weekend and some students weren’t here yet and others had gone home.

I think we’ll have a good student showing. We continue to sell tickets. The head of our ticket office canceled her weekly meeting with me this week because they were so busy moving tickets. She apologized and I said “no, no, that’s ok, if you’re busy moving tickets, that’s more important than meeting with me.” They are continuing to sell. It was a little late this year. Our numbers are a little down.

But we continue to try and think about the fan experience. This year, it was some subtle things. We have some new food vendors in the concourses. We have televisions at most of the concession stands, something that fans have asked for for many years – that we have in place this year. We’ve tried to do some modest things to make the stadium a bit more attractive, in terms of signage and banners and things like that. We’re always working on flow through and how to get fans into the stadium more efficiently. It may be hard to notice, but we’re working on it. So, there are a lot of little things that we’re doing that hopefully add up to a better fan experience.

Over the long term, you’re going to see colleges and universities think a little more creatively about the fan experience. I’m a big fan of minor league baseball. If you go to the Lugnuts or any of the minor league teams across the country – or even if you go to Comerica Park – you’ll see many, many different kinds of seating areas. From the indoor restaurant in right field in Comerica to the outdoor bar where you can literally sit at a bar and watch the game – not sure we’re going to go there at Spartan Stadium. Amenities that are fun for kids – carousels and that sort of thing – to seats behind home plate that basically it’s a lazy boy at a very high price point.

Historically – when I was a kid – you came to Spartan Stadium, you got your 18 inches of aluminum, and that was your seat, and you were happy to have it. I think we are going to have to think more creatively about the fan experience, how people want to watch the game. Some people want to watch the game. Other people – particularly young people – want to mingle a bit more. So can we create areas where maybe its not a fixed seat but an area where people can mingle? We’re exploring those from a long-term perspective.

We have a very strong fan base. We’ve got an extraordinary football team. The defense is the best in the country, and I think the offense will come along – it’s a bit of a work in progress. I think it will come together this season, a little slower maybe than we hoped from the sales perspective. At the same time, I do think we need to think more long term about how we create that fan experience for people that aren’t interested in the same experience that maybe their parents or grandparents had.

THE ONLY COLORS: Will there ever be beer or wine for the general population at Spartan Stadium?

BILL BEEKMAN: Hard to know. Questions like “will there ever” or “never” – I would hesitate to say never. At the moment, state law precludes it, so we would have to ask for a change in the law. More and more Big Ten schools are exploring it. We’re somewhere in the neighborhood of half the schools have beer or wine sales in some part of their public areas. We’ve sold it in the suite areas for a number of years – well, I think since the suites opened. And I would never say never. I think we may explore it in other venues because the only venue where it is illegal by state law is at the stadium. So we may sort of dip our toe in the water with pilot projects in other venues. We’re thinking about that. But –

THE ONLY COLORS: Would that be like the Breslin Center, or… ?

BILL BEEKMAN: – perhaps one of our other venues. We’re still thinking about it. But I don’t see it in the immediate future at the stadium — but one never knows.

THE ONLY COLORS: How would you handle life post-Izzo and post-Dantonio and what would that search look like?

BILL BEEKMAN: The first goal is to keep them forever. I’m not willing to concede that we can’t keep them forever at this point. But, no, I think that when the university did the search for Coach Dantonio it really was an example of a pretty model search. It’s by definition kept fairly small and you look really hard for a person who is not only an exceptional coach but – as you look back at some of the coaches who have really thrived in their environments and coaches who have struggled in their environments both at Michigan State and elsewhere – I think you discover that fit is also really important.

I think one of the wonderful things about Coach Dantonio and Coach Izzo is that they fit the culture of MSU really perfectly. And it shows. They are both obviously extraordinary coaches. But they also fit. And having the great coach who fits in your culture and your program and the style of how your university works is really important. I’m hopeful that I retire before they do — but in the unfortunate event that they don’t stay forever, we’ll take that day as it comes.

THE ONLY COLORS: There’s no secret that your predecessor was considered one of the most innovative ADs when it came to creative events. Is that important to you? If so, can you hint at anything coming down the pipeline? If it’s not important to you, what is important to you?

BILL BEEKMAN: Absolutely, Mark was an extraordinary visionary and when you look at the face of college athletics there are things that are different because of his vision. The fact that the NCAA basketball tournament is played in a football stadium and now, 70,000 to 80,000 people have the opportunity to be in the building instead of 15,000 or 20,000 people – those extra 50,000 people have Mark Hollis to thank.

I will be the first to say I am not the creative visionary in that same kind of way that Mark is. I do think there are some things that Mark had been thinking about that might still be in the hopper – although nothing imminently. One of the things I want to spend some time thinking about is how we could do some creative things that will impact our supporters in the state of Michigan. The Carrier game and the game we played in the Ramstein Airbase in Germany gave us fabulous national and international exposure. I’d like to try and bring some of that back home and see if there are things we can do with the stadium or around the state of Michigan that could continue to give us some great exposure but also tie in our local supporters who maybe didn’t get to have those experiences.

I’d say that in terms of what my priorities are, they do tend to be behind the scenes. We’ve worked very, very hard to work with our coaches to develop a strategic plan to develop departmental budgets that are as efficient as possible to figure out how to stretch our dollar. Some of those things aren’t particularly sexy or exciting but hopefully they give a bit more of an edge to some of our programs that maybe haven’t had that edge historically.

THE ONLY COLORS: What is your take on paying student-athletes and/or letting them use their likeness? In the same vein, do you think student-athletes should get to transfer once without having to sit out or do you have a better idea?

BILL BEEKMAN: I’m more of a traditionalist, I think. I believe that college athletics should be college athletics. I think if you start paying student-athletes beyond what we’re currently providing, you turn college athletics into professional athletics. And there’s a place for professional athletics. Every summer, my son and I go visit a bunch of minor league baseball parks because I love minor league baseball. There is a great place for professional athletics in this country. I don’t think universities are that place. If we were to develop minor leagues for football or basketball, I think that’s great. If that means that many of those great athletes don’t come to Michigan State, I think that’s ok.

To me, going to college is about going to college and athletics is part of that experience – it’s not the other way around. I think it would be a sad day if we got to the point where we paid athletes and I would be opposed to doing that. Which isn’t to say that athletes don’t deserve to be compensated as professionals if the market bears that. I just don’t think that colleges are the place for that to happen so I’m not enthusiastic about that.

In terms of the transfer rules, I may be in the minorities in some circles, but I would have everybody sit a year. The logic behind – we as a society need to encourage people to stick with what they started. I think we’ve become, to me, an environment where – we’ve made it too easy to change your mind or shift gears or try something new. As I reflect on my life, some of the greatest lessons I learned were the hard ones that really were miserable at the time. In those cases where I stuck it out and fought through it, they caused me to grow as a person and learn far greater lessons than the handful of times where I bailed on something – and think back and regret it.

There are always legitimate exceptions to things but, by and large, I think that students fair better if we have a rule where people have to really think hard before they transfer.

THE ONLY COLORS: There seems to be a new color creeping into the green and white – this neon – like it or not, it’s definitely a topic of conversation around Spartan Nation. Is there a story behind that? How did that come to be? What’s with the alternate football uniforms? Do you love them?

BILL BEEKMAN: (Laughter). I don’t get into the weeds on some of these things so I wasn’t 100% sure that we had determined which game we were going to wear them at. So, I walked into the equipment room the other day – I was over at the football building for a meeting – and I was going to ask our equipment manager, “so, have we settled on a game?” and I opened the door and there were the hundred football helmets that now had the neon green logo on the side, as compared to the white ones. I said, “well, I guess that answers my question.” We’ll see them on Saturday.

To me, I personally am – consistent with the last set of questions you asked me – probably a bit of a traditionalist and probably would, in most cases, prefer our traditional colors. When the basketball team wore the Script State we had from the ’79 season, that was my slice of heaven. I just loved it because it was a memory from my childhood and that great era. I think that, certainly, the neon-ish green uniforms have their detractors – and I understand that.

What I would encourage people to remember – or to be aware of – is that the reason that we do that – or allow it to happen from time to time – is that it’s fun for the student-athletes. If it makes their experience a little more fun, if it’s kind of an interesting change of pace that gets them excited about something that’s a little bit different – then, at some level, we’re in this for them. While the guy who has been a 70-year season ticket holder, who has been coming since he was a youngster – much like me – may think, “oh, really?” — I guess I would encourage them to pause and realize it’s a fun thing the kids like – I say kids, they’re young adults – that our athletes have fun with. In that regard, I think for the rest of us who maybe would stick with the traditional color scheme, we have to remember that. That’s why we’re here. So, from time to time, it’s an ok thing.

THE ONLY COLORS: Just to wrap it up, is there anything on your mind that you’d like to share that we didn’t ask you about?

BILL BEEKMAN: One of the things that we focus on as a department – that we’re really working hard on – is making the student-athlete experience special for all 750, thereabouts, of our student-athletes. The phrase I use is that we have to live in a world of ANDs rather than in a world of ORs. We have to be successful in football and men’s basketball – they’re certainly our marquee programs and they help generate the revenue to pay for all the other sports – but we’ve got to be good at them AND our other 23 other sports not OR our 23 other sports.

I would encourage folks to get out to a volleyball game, to get out to a soccer game. Our men’s soccer team is almost always a top 20 program. I’m not talking behind their backs – I’ve said this to them – I came into this role and I wasn’t exactly the biggest soccer fan on earth. I get out to their games pretty regularly and have learned a lot about the sport and have learned to really enjoy it. Get out to a field hockey game. The rules are a little wacky. I still don’t quite understand them all – they’re trying to teach them to me.

I would just encourage folks that are in the community – most of those events are free or a very minimal charge – and while we all love getting out to a men’s basketball game or football game, I’d encourage folks to explore some of the other sports that MSU has to offer and I think they’d discover there is some pretty exciting action out there.