The millions may soon be gone and his position vacated, and as significant as they are, nothing compares to the true collateral damage from Tucker’s failure to himself, to his team, to women and to the men he said he wanted to mentor.
He may have blown up his career, laying waste to everything that he had been trying to build — his program, his branding but especially his pipeline for young Black coaches who desire to reach the heights he’s now free-falling from — all because he couldn’t keep his zipper up.
Over the past several days, we learned uncomfortable details involving Tucker and his alleged sexual harassment of Brenda Tracy, who was gang-raped in 1998 and now tours campuses to spread the message of prevention and advocacy to male student-athletes. According to a report by USA Today, Tucker helped bring her on campus to speak to his Michigan State team in 2021. He appeared to be an ally in the mission to combat sexual assaults, but over the course of a year, their professional relationship turned pervy. And in April 2022, Tracy claims that during an evening phone conversation, Tucker began to masturbate. Tucker, a married man, admitted to having phone sex with Tracy but maintains it was a “late-night intimate conversation” between two consenting adults.
This week, Michigan State suspended Tucker without pay pending an early October hearing.
Now he’s a man without a team, somewhere sending out press releases to defend his sex life and argue whether Tracy actually wanted those “expensive athletic shoes” he gifted her. And he’s a champion without a pulpit.
There are cautionary tales, and then there’s this: an unexpected punch in the gut for the naive among us who root for progress and an even playing field. Count me as one of those dupes.
I met Mel Tucker last summer while working on a story about his work in bringing along other young Black coaches. He invited me to have full access to his program and made sure I left with a clear understanding of who he is and what he was building. And if that wasn’t enough, he gave me a 51-page binder titled: “RELENTLESS, Mel Tucker Brand Guidelines.” On Page 5, it reads: “The Mel Tucker Brand is a story brand driven by an omni-channel strategy. This approach fits the brand as it reflects Mel as a person and a professional: authentic, dynamic, multi-faceted, high impact and resilient.”
Despite the self-promoting booklet, I walked away with respect for him. I listened as he spoke on the phone with a friend and detailed the four-strike policy he was implementing for players. I sat at the coaches’ table during the team dinner when Tucker had a guest lecturer share the history of MSU’s role in integrating college football. I watched one Black man after another freely enter his office, then instruct players on the practice field. They wore white or green staff polos, and those men were everywhere. Tucker was the reason.
Tucker spent a decade coaching in the NFL and interviewed for several head coaching jobs. Last year when we spoke, Tucker had the hindsight to look at a few of those opportunities and wonder whether he was just fulfilling the team’s Rooney Rule requirement. But for five games at the end of the 2011 season, Tucker reached the mountaintop when he was named interim coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He had the title but no authority. Four years later, when he returned to college football, Tucker made sure to use his influence the best way he knew how.
So he started planting the roots that would be his coaching tree. Knowing how the game is played and how brutal it can be for men who share his skin tone, Tucker intentionally sought out and created positions for young Black assistants — the same way White men do for their buddies.
As evidenced in The Washington Post’s “Black Out” investigative series, the same doors that open in the NFL for White coaches remain locked for Black men. Someone has to do the work to fight that. Tucker had the purpose and, as the Michigan State coach, the platform. In 2021, he signed a guaranteed 10-year, $95 million contract extension. No other Black coach in sports — not even the NFL’s Mike Tomlin or the NBA’s Doc Rivers and Tyronn Lue, coaches who have won championships — was assured to make as much money over the lifetime of his contract.
He had power. Real power, and the potential to change this game in which networking plays such a big role. Who you know matters. But as Tucker told me last year, for Black men, there’s this equally important addendum: what you know. More specifically, a Black coach climbing in his career must know what he can and cannot do. Tucker wanted to be the mentor who told the truth.
“I’m also available for [young Black coaches] and if I see a guy doing something, you know, then I’ll tell them. Some guys whether it’s here or somewhere else, I’ll say: ‘Listen, you can’t do that,’ ” Tucker told me. “Like, you can’t get away with that, bro. That’s not going to work. Like, if you want to go some place in this business, you can’t do that.
“You can’t do that,” he repeated with emphasis. “As a Black coach, you can’t do that. These other guys might be able to do that, but you can’t do that.”
Tucker should have listened to his own advice.
No matter his fate at the Michigan State hearing next month, Tucker will never possess the level of influence he had before these allegations. He, as a Black man, cannot survive the stain of allegations involving sex. A White coach might be able to lay low for a few years, outlive the headlines and then crawl out of his hole for another job. Bobby Petrino can do that. But you can’t do that, Mel.
When this story broke, I thought of all the men Tucker helped get into the business. The janitor he found on the internet and created a position for, a first in college football. The former Dave & Buster’s bartender he gave a chance. The NFL player-turned-aspiring coach to whom he gave “the talk.” He cared so much about these men — and their appearances — that he even advised them about wearing earrings and their hairstyles so that they wouldn’t find little things blocking their upward mobility in this White world.
I thought about what will now happen to these men linked to Tucker and the future seeds that may never blossom from his coaching tree. The Tracy allegations do not define the entirety of who Mel Tucker is as a man. In this all-or-nothing society, the good he was trying to do shouldn’t be diminished. But he damaged both his career and his pipeline, and there’s no guarantee either can be fixed.