Tom Anastos walked into the interview room in a bleary daze. His momentary silence spoke volumes, as did his self-restrained delivery when he started talking. Both the words that came out of his mouth next and the message which they conveyed were measured and forceful.
“Unacceptable” proved to be Anastos’ curse of choice for Michigan State’s 5-2 loss to Michigan on Friday night. He dropped the U-bomb six times. And his third-year program has reached an intense and important crossroads.
Anastos went on to assail almost everything his Spartans did Friday, starting with a lackadaisical and carefree feel at pregame meal. He told his players that he worried it might carry over into the game. And it did.
He criticized — without naming a single player in his 10-minute postgame interview — everything from his team’s lack of discipline to its lack of togetherness to its lack of intensity and preparedness. And, of all of his indignation and disgust, Anastos primarily couldn’t fathom how his Spartans could flatline at home in front of a sellout crowd against their hated rival.
Here is the full transcript of Anastos’ postgame interview:
OPENING STATEMENT (after about 20 seconds of silence)
Anastos: “I think I’ll take questions. An unacceptable performance tonight. And it wasn’t just the third period. It was the whole game.”
Anastos: “I didn’t like our approach to the game. I felt it earlier in the day. I didn’t like it. (pause) It’s best I be careful with what I say, so I don’t say too many stupid things, but we gotta grow up. We have to grow up. You get humbled in your own building. You gotta take pride wearing that jersey, representing the people you represent. And it takes 100 percent commitment, 100 percent of the time.
“We played a really good team that was ready to play, hungry to play. And they were hungrier to play than us. And that’s unacceptable. If you lose because you’re out-talented, you know, that’s one thing. But if you’re not ready, that’s totally within your control. That’s on me, to make sure that me and our staff find guys who are all in. Tonight, I didn’t feel we had that. And that’s really bothersome to me.”
Q: IS THAT THE FIRST TIME THIS SEASON YOU’VE FELT THAT?
Anastos: “Yep. But I shouldn’t feel that against this opponent at home at this time of year. Unacceptable. I don’t know if there’s, for some reason — I can’t imagine why there could be — any level of complacency. So we have to figure that out. But we didn’t have enough players going. And to win, for our team to win, we have to have everybody going and we have to have everybody playing together. And we didn’t have that.”
Q: AFTER LAST NIGHT’S GAME, YOU PROBABLY EXPECTED YOUR TEAM TO HAVE A SNARL COMING IN AND BEING TOTALLY SET FOR ONE GAME TO MATCH THE WEEKEND AND GET OUT WITH A SPLIT.
Anastos: “How can you not? How can you not? These are the games you can’t WAIT to play. That’s what I can’t figure out. And we have to figure it out. We have to instill in guys that desire, to understand how important it is to bring everything you have to the table every night. You play two games a weekend. (pause) You have to be able to play hard for two games a weekend. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Q: YOU SAID YOUR TEAM NEEDS TO GROW UP. TOWARDS THE END OF THE GAME (on late penalties), DO YOU FIND THAT TO BE …
Anastos: “Unacceptable. It’s unacceptable. I’ve addressed it. It’s unacceptable. Our team plays with lots of discipline. (pause) But toward the end of the game, it didn’t. That’s part of growing up.”
Q: DOES IT COMPOUND IT TO HAVE IT HAPPEN HERE AT HOME, OR DOES THAT EVEN MATTER?
Anastos: “(pause) What bothers me, what bothers me most, is to know you’re playing your biggest rival, at home, in front of a great crowd who’s energized and bringing everything they can to help you — and I just don’t feel that everyone was ready. And I don’t know how that can possibly happen. I don’t know how you can’t be ready to play unless you don’t realize the magnitude of what you’re doing.”
Q: IN SPITE OF THAT, IT’S ONE GAME YOU GET THE POWER PLAY WORKING AND THEY GET TWO GOALS.
Anastos: “Yeah, we made an adjustment last night to try something different. They moved the puck around, they created some good scoring chances, and it worked. But this game is, in some ways, like golf — you gotta be able to drive, you gotta be able to chip, you gotta be able to putt. Here, your special teams have to be good, your team defense has to be good.
“There were some frustrations in the game. The puck went in kind of in some funny ways. But you have to learn — discipline, to me, is so important. And it drives me nuts, because it’s so manageable. It’s an emotional game. But when I say, ‘Grow up,’ you’ve got to learn how to manage your emotions. I’m trying to do that at the moment. But I was very disappointed in how we responded. And it’s my responsibility to make it better.”
Q: DO YOU THINK SOME OF THE FLUKINESS OF SOME OF MICHIGAN’S GOALS ATTRIBUTED TO SOME OF THE FRUSTRTION?
Anastos: “It can. But you know what? (pause) I didn’t like when the puck was dropped. I didn’t like our approach when the game started. And that’s what’s probably bothering me more than anything else.”
Q: DID THE END, WITH THE WAY THE PENALTIES WENT DOWN AND GETTING OUT OF CHARACTER, DID THAT COMPOUND EVERYTHING FOR YOU?
Anastos: “Yeah, it did. Absolutely. I didn’t like the way we responded. Discipline isn’t a sometimes thing, it’s an all-the-time thing. There’s certain components and toughness in our game, and I get all that. And there’s way to show toughness and play with toughness and, yet, remained disciplined. And I thought we lost it at the end of the game.
“So we have to improve that. We’ve been a very disciplined team for a long time, and we have to learn from allowing ourselves to lose our discipline.”
(Ed. note: After Anastos watches the replay of the final 45 seconds, his opinion might change. Upon reviewing the game tape, Michigan’s JT Compher started the fisticuffs by throwing an elbow to the back of the head of MSU’s Mackenzie MacEachern, who was kneeling on the ground facing away while going after a puck along the boards. Compher then grabbed MacEachern around the neck as he got up and as other players paired up to push and shove, but the Wolverine did not receive a penalty. In Anastos’ defense, there is no way to see what happened on the ice/ground from his vantage point along those boards on the same side as the Spartans’ bench. On the ensuing faceoff, MSU senior defenseman Jake Chelios skated directly toward Compher, smacked him in the head, followed him down the ice and then cross-checked the freshman twice in the back, drawing a 10-minute misconduct penalty for sticking up for his own freshman teammate. All Michigan coach Red Berenson did was break out in a big grin on his team’s bench at Chelios’ retaliation. It will be interesting to see what the Big Ten’s reaction to it will be. — CS)
Q: THAT SAID, YOU HAVE TO GO TO MINNESOTA NEXT WEEKEND. THAT’S A TEAM AGAINST WHICH YOU CAN’T LOSE THAT DISCIPLINE, BOTH IN COMPOSURE AND WHAT YOU WANT TO DO.
Anastos: “Yeah. And when I say discipline, the natural thing for people to think about is just physicality or roughing or penalties or that kind of thing. I’m not just talking about that kind of thing, that’s just one small piece of it. It’s how you play. It’s the togetherness that a team plays with, a team that has success. It’s not pointing fingers when guys are making mistakes. Those are things that good teams don’t do, and we can’t allow that to happen here.
“We’re trying to change or go through a transition and develop a championship mentality. And that’s not a sometimes thing, that’s an all-the-time thing — when things are going good, and when things aren’t going so well. We have to learn from this weekend, and now we have to prepare for a really good team in a very tough environment to play. So it doesn’t get any easier.”
Q: LAST NIGHT, IN THE TOUGH LOSS, YOU THOUGHT THE TEAM MOVED FORWARD. WOULD YOU SAY TONIGHT WAS A STEP BACKWARDS?
Anastos: “Yes. I didn’t like our approach to the game, more than anything else. I know it was 2-2 going into the third period. The game aside, so much of sports is your mental approach. And when I went to our team meal today, I just had a sense that I wasn’t going to be happy with it. And I told the guys that at the time — I said, ‘I may be wrong.’ But my sense was telling me, ‘I don’t like where we’re at, approaching this game tonight. But I’ll judge by our performance.’ So, I can now.”
Q: CAN THIS BE ONE OF THOSE PROGRAM-DEFINING GAMES, EITHER WAY, FOR YOU RIGHT NOW?
Anastos: “There’s only one way to take this. We have to look at how we responded, how we approach the game, and we have to get better. We can’t permit that to happen. Like I said, if you lose games for bad breaks or a team’s more skilled than you or whatever, OK. But my angst is over our approach — and that’s not just preparing for the game today, that’s being all-in, all the time. And I’m wondering about that. I’m wondering about that. Because I don’t know how so many guys can come up flat when you play your biggest rival. (pause) Unless you’re satisfied with something. And what could we be possibly satisfied with? So, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
A rather scathing indictment of a young team that has just four seniors and four juniors who receive regular ice time. And by all accounts, his media-sanitized postgame comments were nothing compared to the fire and brimstone he unleashed to the players. By the time the 10-minute postgame cooling-down period finished, Anastos had just wrapped up his wrath a moment or two earlier. The players sat silently at their locker stalls with their heads drooping, most still in full uniforms, pads and skates.
His message comes at a pivotal moment for them and for the underclassmen — and for Anastos’ leadership.
He typically treats his players both genuinely and genially. They saw a different side after Friday’s loss. They saw someone who learned to hate MSU’s rival as a player and assistant coach under Ron Mason, then had to squelch it for 13 years as the neutral commissioner of the CCHA.
Anastos first loss at Munn to the Wolverines uncorked that emotion. Majorly. And it was somewhat similar to how Mark Dantonio went off in the days after his first loss to Michigan. It’s now on Anastos and his staff, as he said, to channel that intensity into motivation and cohesion with their understudies for the future — immediate and long-term.
The Spartans are 8-12-3 overall and 2-4-2-2 in the Big Ten. Their 12 points put them fourth in the conference, with 14th-ranked U-M leapfrogging them by taking all six points in the series. Just 12 regular-season games are left before the Big Ten Tournament. And, as Anastos said, it doesn’t get much easier with having to travel to top-ranked Minnesota next weekend, four games left with No. 9 Wisconsin and two more against the Wolverines.
It’s not like the Spartans have looked bad against Michigan. Quite the contrary in their three meetings, including a dominating 3-0 win at Comerica Park in December. They also played an entertaining and competitive game on Thursday at Joe Louis Arena, with the Wolverines pulling out a 2-1 victory in the final minutes. One could argue that MSU has been equal to or better than U-M in eight of the nine periods the teams have played.
But like sophomore Michael Ferrantino said, fighting off the emotions after Friday’s loss, “You can play as many good minutes as you want — it’s the second you let down that kills you.”
Until the overall talent and depth on this team increases, MSU cannot afford to play lax and experience lapses in energy and effort like Friday. Further letdowns will only become more costly and painful after the bits of progress they’ve already made.