In a rather melancholic turn of events, the Mel Tucker era officially drew to a close this Wednesday. What was once brimming with promise and hope had dwindled into a disheartening chapter in the history of Michigan State University’s football program. A mere three weeks ago, there still lingered a glimmer of optimism, albeit one bereft of momentum.
The university made the somber decision to terminate the tenure of its fourth-year football coach, Mel Tucker, just ten days after suspending him, and there’s no intention of welcoming him back. This drastic move came in the wake of the shocking revelations from a Title IX sexual harassment investigation, brought to light by USA Today. Alan Haller, the athletic director, made the unfortunate announcement through a press release.
The aftermath of Tucker’s time at MSU is poised to be a tumultuous affair, leaving the university in a precarious position. The impending legal battle looms large as Tucker seems poised to wage war in order to salvage a portion of his colossal 10-year, $95 million contract. On the flip side, the university faces the unenviable prospect of enduring severe public relations repercussions or settling for a more palatable compromise. In this predicament, there appears to be no flawless strategy.
Meanwhile, the football program that Tucker leaves behind must soldier on through the remainder of the season, albeit with a palpable absence of hope.
This ordeal is disheartening for all parties involved. Just two years after Michigan State University invested substantially in Tucker, harboring aspirations that he might become the next Nick Saban, he faltered in his fourth season due to a lack of personal discipline. The decision to reward Tucker handsomely was, in part, driven by the scars of past regrets, particularly the loss of Saban over two decades ago. MSU’s fervent desire for football greatness led to a whirlwind of excitement and anxiety that, in hindsight, was perhaps unavoidable. There are lessons to be gleaned from this episode, although they may not be immediately apparent.
Tucker’s second season in 2021 was nothing short of magical, particularly in the initial eight games. It wasn’t solely reliant on Kenneth Walker, although Walker’s contributions were pivotal in transforming a potentially 6-win regular season into a 10-win spectacle. That team, featuring two future NFL wide receivers, possessed an insatiable hunger and resilience. Victories over Miami and Michigan will forever be etched in the annals of MSU’s history, even if they were ultimately overshadowed by the subsequent downturn. During that time, Tucker’s program radiated competence in a manner it hasn’t since replicated.
Despite the setbacks, glimmers of progress persisted into the first two games of the current season. This progress could primarily be attributed to Tucker’s two post-pandemic recruiting classes, comprising sophomores, redshirt freshmen, and true freshmen.
The immediate future of the program hinges largely on the decisions made by these players, irrespective of the incoming coach’s identity.
In light of Tucker’s termination, the transfer portal has swung open for all MSU players for the next 30 days. They have the option to explore opportunities at other schools, even while continuing to represent the Spartans. Furthermore, the portal will re-open for 45 days at season’s end, a window available to every college football player. Hence, players must weigh their options carefully, as prematurely entering the portal may only exacerbate distractions. However, it’s important to remember that these are young adults, aged 19 to 20, and their choices may not always align with conventional wisdom.
For players who remain uncertain about their commitment to MSU or whether they want this season to count against their eligibility, a critical decision looms. They must decide whether to cease playing after four games to preserve a redshirt year. Among the 27 scholarship players at MSU with an available redshirt season, ten have already participated in four games this season, meaning that one more appearance, such as the upcoming game against Iowa, would make this year count towards their eligibility.
This group of ten players includes some of the most significant names in the program, both for the current season and, ideally, the seasons to come. The list comprises sophomore defensive backs Dillon Tatum and Malik Spencer, freshman DB Chance Rucker, senior DB Angelo Grose, sophomore defensive end Zion Young, freshman linebacker Jordan Hall, sophomore receiver Tyrell Henry, senior wideout Montorie Foster, senior running back Jordan Simmons, and junior long snapper Hank Pepper.
In total, there are 57 MSU scholarship players who have not utilized their one-time transfer option and still retain eligibility, with 32 of them hailing from outside the Midwest. Their loyalty to MSU is fundamentally tied to their satisfaction with life in East Lansing.
The cornerstone for mitigating the pains and duration of the program’s reconstruction lies in retaining as many of these players, especially those from the highly regarded younger classes, as possible.
The next three months hold a multitude of outcomes, with much to gain or lose on this front.
Additionally, there are crucial decisions on the horizon regarding the future leadership of the football program. This responsibility falls upon an administration currently without a president, and it might be prudent for the board of trustees to refrain from meddling until these decisions are finalized. The absence of a president may deter potential coaching candidates, and it’s unlikely that this vacancy will be filled promptly.
Above all else, Michigan State University must first define its football program’s identity before selecting its next leader. The importance of making the right choice cannot be overstated, as the health of the football program significantly impacts the university’s overall psyche. The ideal candidate should possess a deep understanding of the institution, recognizing both its strengths and limitations.
Mel Tucker’s past coaching experiences at Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia may have influenced his perception when taking the job, leading him to believe he could transform MSU into a powerhouse akin to those programs. However, he miscalculated and encountered numerous challenges, even as MSU’s administration and donors went to great lengths to meet his demands.
Consequently, Tucker was perhaps never destined for a lifelong tenure at MSU, despite contractual obligations suggesting otherwise.
Ultimately, Tucker will be remembered not only for securing an extravagant contract but also for the circumstances surrounding his departure, marking the end of an era for MSU football.