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Michigan State and Division I Lacrosse and Weasel Words from an Athletic Director

I really don't think that men's lacrosse is high on Michigan State's agenda.

Dave Reginek

Maybe I'm wrong about this (I'm wrong about lots of things, including, at times, everything), but I have a feeling that if the Big Ten sees a current member pursue Division I lacrosse, Michigan State isn't going to be the school that charges out of the gate first. I'm not exactly sure why I feel like the Spartans, a former Division I lacrosse sponsor, are going to fall behind another trailblazer, but recent comments from Michigan State's athletic director seem to indicate that I'm not totally bonkers.

The Detroit Free Press -- that's the newspaper that Mitch Albom frequently ruins! -- recently published a few pieces looking at Michigan State's athletic offerings while trying to create an illustration of the current climate in which Division I programs operate. Among the pieces is a thread that somewhat frequently recurs -- the disposal of men's lacrosse from the Spartans' athletic offerings after the 1995-96 season. When asked about the potential return of men's lacrosse to the school's roster of sports, Mark Hollis -- Michigan State's athletic director -- did what athletic administrators do best: Meandered from nothing to a new plane of nothingness. The words:

MSU cut men’s lacrosse after the 1995-96 season and added women’s rowing the following school year under then-athletic director Merritt Norvell. His successor, Clarence Underwood, eliminated men’s gymnastics following the 2000-2001 school year after a one-year reprieve.

Rumors have swirled over the years about MSU potentially adding women’s ice hockey. Conference schools Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State all sponsor Division I women’s programs along with their men’s teams. And the Big Ten’s announcement this spring of forming a lacrosse league, coupled with its growth regionally at the high school level, has sparked talk that the sport could return for the Spartans — possibly for both genders or potentially just a women’s team.

But talk of cutting or adding sports remains purely speculative, Hollis said.

“You have to go through that resource allocation and what’s our best fit,” said Hollis, who is in his sixth year as AD athletic director. “Right now, we believe not attempting a generational change but making things work the way they are is probably our best strategy.”

So, basically, Michigan State plans on having a plan to eventually discuss having a plan. I think I've heard this before. You can see why I'm skeptical about Michigan State rediscovering its men's lacrosse heritage before a school like, say, Minnesota joins the fun.

This obviously doesn't sit well with Michigan State's lacrosse alumni. In fact, some are still smarting over the decision to throw the program overboard almost 20 years ago:

Lacrosse, conversely, is a sport on the rise, but its departure at MSU was the beginning part of school’s gender equity plan that later included the removal of gymnastics.

* * * * *

Richard Kimball, now the athletic director at Lansing Catholic, coached MSU men’s lacrosse at the time it was cut and thought he had his best team.

Several members of his final team went on to excel at other schools.

“It very much so (still stings today),” said Kimball, who guided the Spartans to NCAA tournament appearances in 1987, 1989 and 1991. “I have the utmost respect for the people at Michigan State these days, and they weren’t really part of it. Back when it happened in 1997 it was not handled well. The players weren’t handled well, the situation was not handled well.

“ … They were the kids who were part of the program, they were the ones who put themselves on the line every day for the university, representing Michigan State, and they were the last to be told what was going on.”

MSU has a men’s club lacrosse team that has carried on the program’s legacy. With the Big Ten adding lacrosse last month, Kimball and alums of the program are hopeful that it could someday return to MSU’s varsity lineup.

“We were beating the likes of Ohio State and Rutgers while I played,” said Aquinas lacrosse coach Luke Greimsman, who was a member of the final MSU team.

“The things I hear from those alums today still carry an even more bitter tone as they realize what has recently formed, and we all think what could have been."

It's easy for me to spend a university's money and magically keep the school in compliance with federal law, but if Michigan State were to pursue Division I men's lacrosse, there's no time better than right now: The game is growing strongly in the state; its league is entering the Division I fray in 2015 with a membership roster that should provide sustaining support as the Spartans find their momentum; with Michigan and Detroit as in-state opponents, Michigan State can build on the foundations that these two programs have been laying in the state since the Spartans' program was cut; there is inherent opportunity in participation due to the growing exposure of the game nationwide; and Michigan State, unlike two decades ago, can sit on the leading edge of the game instead of being isolated in a desolate place without many other peers. This is the strongest moment for potential success for the Spartans; delay potentially erodes these desirable circumstances and makes Michigan State's foray back into the game -- if it ever makes it -- more difficult. And yet, the school's athletic department doesn't seem all enthusiastic about pursuing something that makes a lot of sense.