Mel Tucker was an obvious target to fill the Michigan State coaching vacancy created when Mark Dantonio stepped down in early February. Tucker is from Ohio, played at Wisconsin, began his coaching career in East Lansing, has made stops with some of the sport’s heavyweights (Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia) and spent 10 seasons as an NFL assistant, most of them as a defensive coordinator. He checked all the boxes.
Yet when approached by Michigan State officials about the possibility of leaving Colorado after just one season as head coach, this was his public response Saturday on Twitter:
While I am flattered to be considered for the HC job @MSU_football, I am committed to @CUBuffsFootball for #TheBuild of our program, its great athletes, coaches & supporters. #UnfinishedBusiness #GoBuffs— Mel Tucker (@Coach_mtucker) February 8, 2020
We are #Relentless #Culture #TheBuild
One doesn’t say no to Michigan State twice, apparently. On Wednesday, the school announced it had hired Tucker, salvaging a coaching search that had turned dire after Cincinnati Coach Luke Fickell, reportedly the top choice to replace Dantonio, also turned down the job.
Michigan State’s dire straits were evident in the money it will be paying Tucker. According to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, the Big Ten school will “more than double” the $2.675 million annual salary Tucker made in his lone season at Colorado, double Tucker’s $3.2 million salary pool for assistant coaches and increase the Michigan State strength and conditioning staff’s budget, also paying Colorado a $3 million buyout.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Tucker met with Michigan State officials over the weekend and again on Tuesday after originally turning down the school. Throughout, he was “completely transparent” with Colorado officials, The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach reported, even though he reportedly met with Colorado boosters Tuesday night before his departure became public. (The CU Buff Club, the Colorado athletic program’s fundraising arm, even tweeted out a photo of that event but apparently deleted it after the news broke of Tucker’s impending hiring.)
“It’s always flattering when someone shows strong interest in you. I think that shows that we must be doing something right here,” Tucker told KOA radio in Colorado on Tuesday.
Tucker, 48, guided Colorado to a 5-7 record in his only season as head coach, right around where the Buffaloes were predicted to finish in the Pac-12 preseason football media poll. But he brought in the nation’s No. 35 recruiting class this year, quite the accomplishment for a program that’s been to just two bowl games in the last 14 seasons.
Some people associated with Colorado football were dismayed over Tucker’s change of heart. Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson said on Twitter that Tucker had told his grandson — Torren Pittman, a linebacker in Colorado’s 2020 signing class — that he would be staying in Boulder.
MEL TUCKER IS A CON MAN! He recruited my grandson to go to CU said he wasn’t going anywhere then ups and leaves. Sat there and lied to my face he wasn’t going anywhere!— Drew Pearson (@88DrewPearson) February 12, 2020
So I want to beat him up today on social media.
What else can I do?
Pearson also had words for Colorado assistant Darrin Chiaverini, who recruited his grandson:
Nice words coach but you will be gone too as soon as you get a better offer.— Drew Pearson (@88DrewPearson) February 12, 2020
No trust sir! Fool us once. Right.... https://t.co/tlkq3VqOFV
At a news conference Wednesday, Colorado Athletic Director Rick George said he had a “conversation on Saturday about his commitment to Colorado, and I was comfortable with that. What transpired in the last 24 hours is disappointing.” He added that the school had “discussions” with Tucker on Tuesday night about possibly countering Michigan State’s offer, obviously to no avail.
Michigan State needed a shot in the arm, its issues exacerbated by Dantonio’s abrupt departure in February, long after other teams had filled their coaching vacancies. Since making the College Football Playoff semifinals in 2015 (they were shut out by an Alabama team that included Tucker on its coaching staff), the Spartans have gone just 27-24. There are holes everywhere on the roster, and Dantonio’s final recruiting class ranked 43rd nationally (10th out of 14 Big Ten teams).
Plus, the specter of NCAA punishment looms because of alleged violations committed under Dantonio’s watch. Former Spartans staffer Curtis Blackwell has sued Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis and former university president Lou Anna Simon, alleging he was fired to cover up for three players who allegedly sexually assaulted a woman at a 2017 party and that Dantonio asked Blackwell to secure employment for the parents of two Michigan State players at the company of a program donor. Dantonio and the school have denied the allegations.
Tucker, the school apparently believes, will get the program through these choppy waters.
Colorado, meanwhile, now finds itself in the same predicament Michigan State faced after Dantonio’s surprise resignation: in need of a coach at an inopportune time on the calendar (the Buffaloes’ spring game is a little more than two months away). Persuading a top-level head coach to come to Boulder will be tough, considering what Pac-12 jobs pay (six Big Ten coaches made more last season than the Pac-12′s highest-paid coach, Washington’s Chris Petersen) and the fact that Colorado’s 2020 cupboard will be pretty bare (ESPN’s Bill Connelly ranks the Buffaloes’ returning production for next season 115th in the country).
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Colorado’s all-time leading rusher, is an obvious candidate, but he’s likely in line for an NFL head coaching job in coming years and may prefer to wait things out by sticking with the Super Bowl champions. Florida Atlantic defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and Alabama analyst Butch Jones, both former NCAA head coaches who were candidates at Colorado before Tucker got the job, could be in the mix, and former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich — the Buffaloes’ offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2008 — is looking for a job after getting fired by the Chicago Bears.
“I’m going to be open-minded to candidates that are out there,” George said Wednesday. “Certainly, I want somebody that shares my passion for this university. … Knowing that we can win a championship.”
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