Mel Tucker was considered a rising star in November 2021 when Michigan State University signed him to a ground-shaking 10-year, $95 million contract extension.
In only his second year, he had taken an unranked football program and guided it to 11 wins and a No. 9 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. Suddenly, his name was being mentioned by NFL officials as a prospective head-coaching candidate, and LSU was rumored to be preparing a lucrative offer to lure him away.
Michigan State responded by putting him in the same financial neighborhood — if not on the same exclusive block — as Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, established coaches with multiple national championships on their resumes. It was a bold and preemptive strike, not to mention a nod to the warped importance of major-college football at institutions of higher learning.
How quickly things change.
Monday morning, the same university that hurriedly sought to lock down Tucker moved to swiftly distance itself from him, abruptly announcing that it has begun termination proceedings following a sexual harassment claim against Tucker.
“I, with the support of administration and board, have provided Mel Tucker with written notice of intent to terminate his contract for cause,” MSU athletic director Alan Haller said in a statement. “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.”
If terminated for cause, Tucker reportedly stands to lose $80 million. To which I say, oh well. He has no one to blame but himself. It’s mind-numbing that someone working at a university still struggling to recover from two sexual misconduct controversies would engage in such reckless behavior.
Can we attribute it to him believing that his landmark contract allowed him to fly above the university’s code of conduct? Could it be that he was so insulated within the football program that he failed to see that the school’s wounds have yet to heal from recent sexual misconduct cases? Whatever the case, there is no denying that his actions defied logic or reason. Simply put, they were stupid. Let me count the ways:
— Tucker has admitted to making sexual comments and masturbating during an April 2022 phone call with Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor whom he brought on campus twice to address his players, coaches and staff about sexual violence, then another time to be an honorary captain at the Spartans’ spring game.
Tracy has spoken at universities across the country and has made it her life’s work to educate others about sexual violence. At the very least, Tucker had to know she was someone who would not tolerate sexual misbehavior.
“Ms. Tracy’s distortion of our mutually consensual and intimate relationship into allegations of sexual exploitation has really affected me,” Tucker responded to Tracy’s claim in a March 22 letter to the Title IX investigator, according to USA Today. “I am not proud of my judgment and I am having difficulty forgiving myself for getting into this situation, but I did not engage in misconduct by any definition.”
Clearly, he and the university are reading from different definitions of misconduct.
— He engaged in said behavior despite knowing his predecessor, Mark Dantonio, retired after a yearlong Detroit Free Press investigation discovered four cases of sexual assault involving seven MSU football players. No charges were filed in the cases, but the accusations shook the university’s foundation because they came shortly after the school had reached a $500 million settlement in a sex abuse-assault lawsuit involving Larry Nassar, a university sports medicine physician and former doctor for USA Gymnastics.
Nassar, who was convicted of abusing Olympic and university gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment, received 40 to 175 years in prison after being convicted on multiple counts of sexual assault, possessing child pornography, and tampering with evidence. The university has been trying to wash away that stain of association for years, which makes Tucker’s conduct even more disturbing.
— And lastly, Tucker was a Black head coach in a profession that does not provide many opportunities for Black men to become head coaches. There reportedly were only 14 African American head coaches among the 133 FBS programs to start this season, and that reality has created a belief among many Black coaches that they must hold themselves to a higher standard on conduct.
Tucker clearly did not do that. Now he must ask himself if that moment of pleasure was worth the lifetime of shame he has brought on himself. He stands to lose not only his job and potentially $80 million in salary but also his good name.
Tucker released a statement Tuesday — expressing dismay, his intent to sue the university over a violation of confidentiality and the belief that “the public can decide if any of this is true or fair” — but it is unlikely to change anything.
The writing was on the wall Sept. 10 when the university suspended him without pay after learning details of the investigation in a USA Today article. The suspension was pending the results of the Title IX investigation, which has a resolution hearing set for the week of Oct. 5, but university officials ultimately decided the behavior was sufficient grounds to proceed with termination because Tucker’s contract includes a provision that allows the school to be void the agreement if he engages in activities that could embarrass the university. That standard would appear to have been met.
In the meantime, we are left with questions that only Tucker can answer. Like, why would he do something so reckless and stupid? Could he have fooled himself into believing he was above any rules or standards after receiving the extension two years into the job? Was he football’s version of Icarus, who flew too high too quickly only to have the wax melt from his wings? Did money and perceived power corrupt him?
Any or all of those things could be true, but none of them makes his behavior acceptable.
(Photo: James Black / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)