Michigan State plans to fire Mel Tucker for cause

The long, varied and successful coaching career of Mel Tucker, which reached a peak in November 2021 when he signed a 10-year contract extension that rocked the college football marketplace with its $95 million figure, hit a nadir Monday. Michigan State announced it had notified Tucker of its intent to terminate that contract with cause after a sexual harassment charge against him surfaced publicly Sept. 10.

In a statement provided Monday afternoon, Athletic Director Alan Haller said: “I, with the support of the administration and board, have provided Mel Tucker with written notice of intent to terminate his contract for cause. This notification process is required as part of his existing contract. The notice provides Tucker with seven calendar days to respond and present reasons to me and the interim president as to why he should not be terminated for cause. This action does not conclude the ongoing Office for Civil Rights case; that rigorous process will continue.”

That contract, so bold at its time of signature, included a statement that termination could occur if Tucker, now 51, “engages in any conduct which constitutes moral turpitude or which, in the university’s sole judgment, would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule upon the university.” That statement figured to undergo intricate scrutiny beginning two weekends ago, when USA Today reported on a nine-month-old complaint from Brenda Tracy, a 49-year-old rape survivor and well-known counselor to football programs about sexual assault, and an ongoing university investigation. It will figure to undergo further study should Tucker continue to maintain his innocence and pursue reinstatement or legal action.

That issue of firing “for cause” will determine what Michigan State might owe out of the remaining $80 million or so.

Buckner: Mel Tucker’s poor judgment undermined his bigger mission

Tracy had visited and spoken to Michigan State’s program in August 2021 and had served as an honorary captain for its spring game of April 2022. She alleged in the complaint that Tucker had masturbated on a phone call with her April 28, 2022. She learned in July 2022 of the sudden cancellation of her scheduled training-session visit to Michigan State, and she filed her complaint in December 2022.

The university gathered evidence ever since. As it suspended Tucker on Sept. 10, Tucker countered that the long-distance relationship was consensual, calling the allegation “completely false.” A hearing was set for Oct. 5-6.

Michigan State is one of three Big Ten universities, including neighbors Michigan and Ohio State, that have reeled this century from sexual charges and convictions against university doctors, many of those charges dating to last century. Of those three cases, Michigan State’s became the most visible, because it included the trial and conviction of osteopathic physician and professor Larry Nassar, imprisoned since 2018 after pleading guilty to using his medical treatment as a facade to assault hundreds of female victims, including members of the U.S. gymnastics team. While the case against Tucker didn’t generate any overarching protest this past Saturday as the Spartans lost, 41-7, to Washington before 70,528 at Spartan Stadium, the rekindling of an old agony did surface in social media posts.

From 1997 to this month, Tucker, who played defensive back at Wisconsin, had a decorated coaching career, largely as an assistant, at seven universities and three NFL franchises. He coached under Nick Saban at Michigan State (1997-98), LSU (2000) and Alabama (2015). He earned two national championship rings as an assistant, at Ohio State (2002) and Alabama (2015). He served as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ interim head coach in 2011, going 2-3, and as the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns (2008) and Chicago Bears (2013-14).

His work as the defensive coordinator at Georgia (2016-18), under former Alabama boss Kirby Smart, began to place his name into the annual college football whispers, until Colorado hired him away from Georgia in December 2018. He coached the 2019 season at Colorado, going 5-7 but bolting suddenly and controversially in February 2020 for Michigan State, which had just seen the step-down of 13-season head coach Mark Dantonio, who had led the program to a College Football Playoff berth (2015-16) and a Rose Bowl win (2013-14) among 114 victories against 57 losses.

At Michigan State, Tucker quickly did two things that lathered him in cachet. His teams beat Michigan twice, in 2020 and 2021, and the 2021 season soared. When Michigan State beat Michigan, 37-33, in an East Lansing thriller Oct. 30, it elevated the Spartans to 8-0 and No. 3 in the country. While losses to Purdue and Ohio State littered the rest of the path, the Spartans closed the regular season by beating Penn State, 30-27, and landed in one of the coveted New Year’s Six bowl games, beating Pittsburgh, 31-21, at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

Three days before that Penn State game, with fresh suitors becoming part of the talk around Tucker, Michigan State announced the contract that elevated him all the way to second among college coaches in annual compensation behind Saban, who at Alabama had won six national titles already.

At the time, Haller said in a statement, “The decision to extend Mel Tucker’s contract is not based on one year of results, but rather it’s an investment in a promising future for Spartan football.” Board of trustees chairperson Dianne Byrum said, “We are very happy with his success at Michigan State University and the renewed excitement for our football program among the Spartan Community.” School president Samuel L. Stanley said, “In less than two years, his leadership has already resulted in a program competing for top honors, and I’m impressed by his intensity and drive.”

Tucker wrote on Twitter, “Every day I wake up feeling humbled to be the head football coach at Michigan State,” and, “I am honored to be a part of the Spartan process today, and for years to come.”

The next season, however, brought a plunging descent. The Spartans went 5-7 with emphatic losses to Minnesota (34-7), Ohio State (49-20), Michigan (29-7) and Penn State (35-16). The Spartans finished 97th in the country in total offense and 101st in total defense. Their season ended in State College, Pa., with Tucker, asked to assess the season, saying, “Now is not the time for me to do that.” The contract began to seem even heavier.

Just two Saturdays ago, Michigan State beat visiting Richmond, 45-14, to reach 2-0 against non-Power Five opponents, with No. 8 Washington inbound. “We’re going to be prepared,” Tucker said. “We got some good players on offense, defense and special teams, and we have potential to get better.” By the next day, he was suspended, replaced with acting coach Harlon Barnett, a Spartans pillar who has his own pillar in the stadium hallways noting his late-1980s playing career at the school. By this past Saturday, the Spartans looked a rare level of helpless in the 41-7 loss, and Barnett spoke of needing to “normalize.”

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