News Story

MSU Coaches Frequent Users Of State Aircraft

Purpose of Dantonio, Izzo’s trips not disclosed; recruitment runs one likely use

Michigan State University athletics officials took 16 trips using Michigan Department of Transportation aircraft in the 2016-17 fiscal year. MSU has been using the aircraft since 2008, according to flight records made public.

While the practice is legal, it’s notable, since MSU appears to be the only state university to frequently use MDOT aircraft.

Tom Izzo, head coach of the men’s basketball team, has used state aircraft for five trips since October 2016, some with other basketball staff and players. One trip Izzo took by himself in May 2017 from Lansing to Chicago and back cost over $2,400. Izzo’s five flights combined, along with some of his staff and players, cost $15,700 total.

Head football coach Mark Dantonio took two trips using MDOT aircraft since December 2016. Dantonio and then-associate head coach Harlon Barnett took a trip from Lansing to Knoxville, Tennessee; Sarasota, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and back to Lansing between Dec. 7 and 8, which cost $10,500. Dantonio also took a one-day trip by himself in March 2017 from Lansing to Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and back that cost $5,550. In total, Dantonio’s two trips cost over $16,000.

Women’s basketball head coach Suzy Merchant took four trips between October 2016 and September 2017, with costs totaling almost $13,700

The flights were likely recruiting trips. While the MSU athletic department did respond to an email, it did not respond to a question about the nature of the trips.

MDOT owns five aircraft, which state government agencies regularly use. Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University, which has only used an MDOT aircraft once since 2016, are the only public universities to use the department’s aircraft, according to recent flight logs. It is unclear why MSU uses state-owned aircraft.

The University of Michigan didn’t respond to an email asking what its arrangements were for its coaching staff's flights. USA Today reported in 2016 that U-M football coach Jim Harbaugh’s contract requires that the university provide him with private aircraft time for recruiting purposes. Harbaugh’s expenses for private jets was $136,000 over a 12-day period, according to the newspaper.

Michigan State's athletic department has long used MDOT planes. The practice shows up on flight records for the first time in 2008. From October 2008 through September 2009, MSU's athletic coaches and staff used MDOT planes 12 times and incurred $12,084 in expenses. The most recent flight data from October 2016 through September 2017 shows the MSU sports teams used MDOT planes 13 times and incurred $52,329 in expenses.

Agencies and the universities that use MDOT’s aircraft pay for the use, but MDOT did not elaborate on its payment policies in an email.

“Owned and operated by MDOT, the current state aircraft fleet it is utilized state agencies, Veterans & Military Affairs, state police, and state-funded universities when it’s cost-beneficial and a time savings to the agency, most typically for long-haul flights. They also can be used to respond to emergencies, like the recent flood in the upper peninsula,” said Michael Frezell, a spokesman for MDOT, in an email. “The planes support group travel of three to five passengers in two of the planes and five to nine in another.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential previously reported the total costs of five aircraft that MDOT owns was over $5.6 million from 2015-17. State Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron sits on the appropriations committee and is reviewing the cost effectiveness of MDOT's fleet of planes.