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Impact 89FM | WDBM-FM

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Goodbye, MSU | Adam Steinhauer
Goodbye, MSU | Adam Steinhauer
Adam Steinhauer, Marketing Director • May 10, 2024
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Goodbye, MSU | Adam Steinhauer
Goodbye, MSU | Adam Steinhauer
Adam Steinhauer, Marketing Director • May 10, 2024
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Eagle Spirit dancer Migizii Kwe dances with the audience at this years East Lansing Art Festival. Photo credit: Samantha Ku/WDBM
2024 East Lansing Art Festival Q&A
Samantha Ku, Writer/Volunteer • May 18, 2024

Heather Majano is the Art Festival & Arts Initiative Coordinator under the East Lansing Parks, Recreation & Arts department, she...

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The State – 04/19/24
April 19, 2024
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Goodbye, MSU | Adam Steinhauer
Goodbye, MSU | Adam Steinhauer
Adam Steinhauer, Marketing Director • May 10, 2024
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Eagle Spirit dancer Migizii Kwe dances with the audience at this years East Lansing Art Festival. Photo credit: Samantha Ku/WDBM
2024 East Lansing Art Festival Q&A
Samantha Ku, Writer/Volunteer • May 18, 2024

Heather Majano is the Art Festival & Arts Initiative Coordinator under the East Lansing Parks, Recreation & Arts department, she...

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The State – 04/19/24
April 19, 2024

OPINION: Grading Alan Haller’s head coaching hires after the 2023-24 MSU athletics season

MSUs+new+head+football+coach+Johnathan+Smith+%28left%29+shakes+hands+with+MSU+Vice+President+and+Athletic+Director+Alan+Haller+at+his+introductory+press+conference+on+Tuesday%2C+November+28%2C+2023+at+the+Breslin+Center.
Jack Moreland
MSU’s new head football coach Johnathan Smith (left) shakes hands with MSU Vice President and Athletic Director Alan Haller at his introductory press conference on Tuesday, November 28, 2023 at the Breslin Center.

EAST LANSING- With Ozan Baris’ run in the NCAA Singles Tournament ending after reaching the semifinals, it ends the 2023-24 year of MSU sports. In a year with many ups and downs and highs and lows, there is one man who sees it and is in charge of it all. Alan Haller.   

Alan Haller was hired as the 20th MSU athletic director on September 1, 2021. During that time Haller had no shortage of opportunities to make an impact. In his nearly three years as Athletic Director, he has been responsible for six head coaching hires.   

In this article, we will dive into those head coaching hires and grade the decisions Haller has made so far. We will be taking in three different criteria.   

  1. On-field results  
  2. Recruitment/transfer talent success  
  3. Program standing relative to expectations  

Through a fine balance of these three things, I believe I can provide an accurate grade for the head coach hire as of summer 2024.  Let’s take a dive into those hires and see which head coaches are on a little bit of a hot seat and others that Haller knocked out of the park.   

  

Adam Nightingale- Head coach, MSU hockey 

Hired May 2022  

Grade- A+  

  

When Nightingale was hired the news right off the bat was how much money he was going to make. His very first headline was that he was making more than the previous head coach of MSU, Dalton Cole, but also more than some other Big Ten Hockey coaches including Michigan’s head coach at the time, Mel Pearson. Nightingale had big expectations set and a program to restore.   

He was taking over an MSU hockey team that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2012. A team highlighted by last place finished in the Big Ten Conference. This once powerful iconic hockey school, known for 3 national championships and countless classic moments seemed to be dwindling. 

Nightingale needed to reestablish a program, and many knew it would take some time. He had 5 years on his contract after all.   

In his first season, during the 2022-23 season, Michigan State finished 5th in the Big Ten with an 18-18-2 record. Their first time being .500 or above since the 2014-2015 season. 

MSU then went on the road to the Big Ten Tournament and defeated Notre Dame in a 3-game series to advance to the Big Ten Quarterfinals before losing to Big Ten Champion Minnesota.   

Many called it a successful first season but there was still work to be done. Fifth place in the Big Ten was great but not when you consider there are only seven teams. 

Also, no Big Ten Championships or NCAA appearances. Nightingale knew he wasn’t hired to still be in the bottom half of the Big Ten, so he went to work. 

Bringing in a remarkable freshman class- highlighted by Gavin O’Connell (tied for 2nd in goals on the team in the 2023-24 season), Trey Augustine (All-Big Ten Freshman Team, 2nd Team All-Big Ten), and Artyom Levshunov (1st Team All-Big Ten, All-Big Ten Freshman Team). 

It also includes the talented freshmen from the year before like Isaac Howard, Karsen Dorwart, and Daniel Russell, and transfers like Joey Larson and Red Savage.

This team was ready to rock n’ roll in two short years and they proceeded to take the Big Ten and the college hockey world by storm.

They finished 1st in the Big Ten with a 16-6-2 record, their first Big Ten Title ever. Then three weeks after that, they won their first Big Ten Tournament Title ever and earned a one seed in the NCAA Tournament; their first appearance since 2012. 

They would end up defeating their first-round opponent Western Michigan but lose to Michigan with a chance to go to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2007.   

Nightingale was awarded 2023-24 Coach of the Year. Although they didn’t ultimately live up to their top-seed aspiration in the NCAA Tournament, it was still a fantastic season.

It showed the rebuild was way ahead of schedule and that Nightingale is the right guy to bring MSU Hockey back. He was rewarded with a new five-year contract to stay with MSU after his success in the 2023-24. With still an incredibly young team he has them on the right track to continue to do big things.  

For his outstanding recruitment and unreal success in year two of where this team was and had been for the past decade earns Nightingale an A+. Haller hit an absolute bomb to center field with this hire.  

  

Robyn Fralick- Women’s Basketball Head Coach  

Hired March 2023  

Grade- B+  

 

Robyn Fralick was hired by Michigan State in the Spring of 2023 where she left her current position of being the Head Women’s basketball coach of Bowling Green to join the Spartans. 

She had big shoes to fill after legendary coach Suzy Merchant, the previous head coach for MSU, had to step down due to health concerns. 

Merchant collected over 500 wins as head coach including over 300 with MSU—and 10 NCAA tournament appearances in her 16 seasons as MSU head coach including 2 Big Ten titles. However, in Merchants’ last two seasons with the Spartans, they failed to make the tournament both seasons.   

When Fralick was hired by MSU her job was simple. To get MSU basketball back consistently in the NCAA tournament. She was hired because of her great work and resume which included rebuilding a Bowling Green Team.

In her five seasons there she went 88-73 record (including 69-31 over the last three seasons). Making the postseason with the Falcons in three of those seasons.

A big part of her success was how well she could coach good defensive and full-court press which translated right away in her first season with Michigan State  

In her first season with the Spartans Fralick coached a defense that ranked sixth in points allowed per game in the Big Ten and perhaps even more surprising and impressive 2nd in points per game. 

She also coached the Spartans up to play clean basketball, ranking the lowest in turnovers per game in the Big Ten.  This helped Michigan State to a 22-9 record including a 12-6 conference record. 

Although MSU did not earn a ranked win in this span, they still showed they could play with the best, taking powerhouses like Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio State to the last minutes and even seconds in close games on the road. It was a tough, physical, but well-earned regular season success for Fralick.  

However, the ending to her first season was a little disappointing. After winning five straight games to end the year and storming into fourth place in the Big Ten Conference, the Spartans were bounced in their first game in the Big Ten Tournament with a 12-point loss to Nebraska. 

After earning a nine seed in the NCAA Tournament and getting to the big dance for the first time since 2021, they lost in the first round to eight-seed North Carolina.   

Even though the postseason was dull for MSU, it didn’t mean the first season under Fralick wasn’t successful. 

Fralick became the first-ever first-year head coach in program history to make the NCAA tournament in her first year. It was also the first time since the 2015-2016 season MSU eclipsed over 10 wins in Big Ten play.   

After the season Fralick didn’t stop. Slated right now to bring in the 15th-ranked recruiting class in the nation in 2024. Including two four-star recruits, Juliann Woodard and Sinai Douglas.   

All in all, Fralick exceeded expectations for MSU in her first season for MSU. Although they couldn’t continue it into the postseason, the Spartans are in good hands. 

Fralick’s leadership and basketball knowledge have rubbed off on her team. Her recruiting class also shows great promise for a good stable future for MSU. We also must remember this was just her first season. 

Another great hire by Haller that time will tell if it turns into a legendary one. The grade for now is a B+ but could very well go into the A range with another season of improvement.   

  

Harry Jadun- Head Coach, Men’s Tennis  

Hired June 2022  

Grade- A+  

 

Another newly hired head coach with a tall task, Harry Jadun had his work cut out for him. He had to follow up on the retirement of Gene Orlando who was at the helm for 31 years.   

Jadun himself was an All-American athlete for Michigan State and played for the Spartans from 2011-2015. He was only 28 years old when he was hired and was considered by many to be a rising star in the tennis coaching field.   

Jadun’s first season was anything but a disappointment. He led the Spartans to an 11-14 record in duals and a 3-6 record in conference for the most Big Ten wins since 2015. 

He helped lead freshman Ozan Baris to Big Ten Freshman of the Year, All-Big Ten First Team, as well as the NCAA Singles Championship Round of 32. The first Spartan to get there since 2007. While also coaching Baris and his doubles partner Max Sheldon to the NCAA Doubles Championship Sweet 16.   

His second season for MSU was even more impressive. Going 23-7 overall with a 7-2 record in the Big Ten. With a drastic improvement from year one to year two, Jadun seemed to have built a top-contending program. 

The team was selected to go to the NCAA tournament for the second time ever in program history. In the tournament, they went against undefeated Denver and won for an amazing upset and the first program NCAA tournament win. Their run, however, would soon end with a regional loss to Harvard.   

On the individual side in the NCAA tournament, Baris and Sheldon made it to the NCAA Doubles Championship for the second year in a row.

Ozan Baris also qualified for the Singles championship in his second straight year and was joined by Ronald Hohmann III. 

This season, Baris made history and made it to the semifinals for the NCAA Singles Championship. 

Something no other female or male MSU tennis player has done. He was also ranked as high as fourth nationally by the ITA, the highest ranking a Spartan has achieved in the history of the program.  

Overall Jadun has been able to recruit some great talent and has done things already in two seasons that have never been done ever in program history. 

The tennis program is about to see new places it has never been to before, all because Jadun is leading the way. 

For Haller, he found another stable head coach who is looking to craft a powerhouse program for years to come. Similar to Nightingale who took over and turned around a program with a powerful second year, the Harry Jadun hire has had a similar effect and has also earned Haller another A+ hire.   

  

Sharonda McDonald-Kelley- Softball Head Coach  

Hired June 2022  

Grade D-   

 

Sharonda McDonald Kelley was the fourth head coach hired by Alan Haller after she was the head coach for Campbell for four seasons. 

She won the Big South with Campbell twice in her last two seasons as head coach. Her Big South Coach of the Year award in 2021 helped put her near the top of MSU’s search for a new softball head coach.  

Out of all the head coaches hired by Haller, you could make a strong argument that McDonald-Kelley had one of the toughest jobs of them all.

In her first season with Michigan State, they finished 4-19 in conference play and 14-32 overall. Some could say that was expected considering she was taking over a program that went 4-16 in conference play and 24-28 overall the year before.

Yes, it was a regression, but considering the senior talent that left the year before, McDonald-Kelley would have her hands full.   

The following season in 2024 the Spartans improved to 7-16 in conference play and 21-30 overall. The top players for MSU were two transfers, Liv Grey and Hannah Hawley. 

Hawley was Michigan State’s best batter and earned 2nd team All-Big Ten Honors. And Grey was the Spartans ace in the circle. But still, mostly that was it for talent for Michigan State’s team. They had the worst team batting average in the Big Ten and the worst ERA if you take out Liv Grey’s starts. Although the Spartans will return Hannah Hawley, next year the Spartans will be without Liv Grey who played her last year of eligibility in 2024.   

The question now comes up of how McDonald-Kelley can continue to move this program forward. 

First off, she will need to address the roster. MSU relied a lot on their senior talent and with most of them gone McDonald-Kelley will have to hope her incoming recruits and young players take the next step up. 

We may see her take a stab at the transfer portal again in which she has been very successful, but that can only improve your team so much. She will instead have to show us the growth of her younger players and prove she recruited the right talent. 

With only a dim mark of freshman talent shining in 2024, McDonald-Kelley has only slightly shown the ability to recruit impactful players so far. 

Although she has had much success in the transfer portal, she cannot rely on that to build back up this program completely. Time will tell if she can really get MSU up and running again, but it can all change with further developments of her recruits. 

Because she has been unable to get MSU out of where they were when she first took over, and the fact that so far recruits have not made an impact as we have seen with other new MSU head coaches and their programs, this hire from Haller of McDonald-Kelley sits at a D-.   

  

Jonathan Smith- Football Head Coach  

Hired December 2023   

Grade- A-  

 

October 30th, 2021 was one of the best days of my life. Why? Undefeated Michigan State had just taken down undefeated Michigan at home in the game of the year. A 16-point comeback victory that was led by the legs of Kenneth Walker. 

After the game, it wasn’t Walker who was ruled number one hero. It was the head coach, Mel Tucker. After that game, and the rest of the MSU faithful were begging the athletic department to sign this man to a massive long-term contract to stay with MSU. They did.  

Most of us know how that turned out sitting here and thinking in 2024. Yes, Mel Tucker didn’t work out, but that still doesn’t change the fact that he was responsible for one of the best moments of my life.  

Now why do I bring that up regarding Jonathan Smith? The reason I bring it up is this. Mel Tucker brought back MSU football. Even for just a moment, a mirrored glimpse in time. A little faint memory even. 

Despite him probably turning it back worse than it was, he brought it back. I felt the feeling of 2013-2015 in the 2020s. I know real MSU football is possible, and it can be done in a shorter amount of time than we think. And what Mel Tucker showed us is that it is possible, which is why I believe Smith has a shot to do the same. 

He is a coach coming from an already established Power Five school that he built up and made a competitor for years in his six-year tenure. 

He took a bottom dweller in the Pac-12 and made them a threat in one of the best conferences you can find in all of college football. 

In his last three seasons with the Beavers, he went 16-2 at home. Spartan fans understand Smith knows how to get you involved and make Spartan Stadium one of the toughest places to play in the country.   

And for those who don’t believe he has what it takes to turn the Spartans around so fast, just watch. The Spartans went 4-8 last year but it can be a little deceiving. Despite how bad they looked at times, they should have been 6-6. 

If MSU hadn’t blown double-digit leads to Iowa and Rutgers in the fourth quarter, they would have been 6-6 and made a bowl game. Even with the roster that they had, I believe an experienced coach could have gotten them to that 6-6 mark and somehow made a bowl game.   

Now keep that in mind and add that on top of all the moves Smith has made in the offseason. Highlighted by grabbing one of the top transfer quarterbacks on the market, Aidan Chiles, to follow Smith from Oregon State to MSU. 

Not to mention many other transfers from Oregon State and a revamped coaching staff. That is another thing you must give Haller and the athletic department credit for was the budget for a new coaching staff as it allowed Smith the chance to get the coaches he wanted.   

I didn’t know who MSU was going to hire. But I knew it was most likely the biggest decision Alan Haller was ever going to have to make. 

So far without even seeing Smith coach a game, you can see the promise he sparks. A new culture revamp that the players all love shows great signs for the teams to come. New coaches, new players, and new environments are all formulas for success. 

Grading is tough for this hire without any game samples of Smith coaching in Green and White. But like I said earlier I think Spartan football will be back sooner than we think. In other words, if this was baseball, Haller hit a bomb with this hire, but we are all waiting to see if it goes foul or stays fair.   

  

Leah Johnson- Volleyball Head Coach   

Hired February 2022  

Grade- B-  

 

Johnson just finished her second season as the head coach of MSU volleyball. She was hired in the spring of 2022 after MSU finished 11-18 and 4-16 in conference play the year before. 

Before her getting hired she was the head coach at Illinois State for five seasons, making the postseason all five years and the NCAA tournament four years in a row. 

Her success earned her 2021 AVAC North Regional Coach of the Year. Her resume was well-balanced and enough for Haller to name her the next head coach of MSU Volleyball.   

In her first season with MSU, it was looking like a lot of the same with another 4-16 conference record and 13-18 overall. 

Those 13 wins were the most by a first-year coach in program history. Despite not having a season over .500 yet, Johnson was already making good history for the Spartans.   

In her second season with Michigan State, the Spartans went 17-14 with a 9-11 conference record. 

The 17 victories were the most by MSU since 2019 and the nine conference wins were the most since 2017, and it was a season highlighted by newcomers.

Taylah Holdem was awarded Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors as well as All-Big Ten Second Team after she led the Spartans in total kills. Graduate student Amani McArthur also earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors in her first season at Michigan State after finishing 8th in the Big Ten in blocks.   

New talent led the way for Michigan State and Johnson looks to do the same next year as she is set to bring in the eighth-ranked recruiting class in the nation according to Prep Volleyball. 

One of the highest recruiting classes in program history. The class is highlighted by Mia Hood who is the sixth-ranked middle blocker in the country coming in. Also joining her are Kayla Foley, Mya Bolton and Carmen Waye.  

It’s an exciting time to be an MSU volleyball fan, as a stable program finally seems to be taking shape which is a big reason why the recruiting classes are getting better and better for Johnson. 

As far as her hire I can’t give her an A yet just because the bar is already so high for what newly hired MSU coaches have been able to do in their second year (look at Nightingale or Jadun). 

With no banners or big awards yet for Johnson that doesn’t mean she can’t get one soon. I like the spot MSU volleyball is at, and the recruiting and young talent development will be fascinating to see. 

Johnson has been able to put the right pieces in place to start becoming a real contender. A B- for now for the hire but I can assure you I’m highly confident I will revisit this grade in a year and have to give the Leah Johnson hire a bump up on the grading scale.  

Overall, I think Haller has made some of the greatest hires in school history in just under three years.

Yes, you will miss a few, but hey time is the best answer to these questions and grades. I believe Michigan State athletics has taken a tremendous jump with Haller in charge and I believe a lot of these programs are set to age like some fine wine.

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About the Contributor
Jack Moreland
Jack Moreland, Sports Photo Editor
Jack (he/him) is a Journalism major focusing in sports reporting and media photography. Growing up in nearby Okemos, Michigan, he has been a lifelong Spartan and is proud to sport the green and white. Jack is a big Baby Keem fan and is known to post on your block with your wishlist on you.

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