Syndication: Lansing State Journal

Michigan State fired football coach Mel Tucker for cause, the school announced Wednesday, bringing an unceremonious end to a turbulent tenure less than two years removed from the coach being rewarded with a blockbuster 10-year, $95 million contract extension. The school initiated the firing process on Sept. 18 amid an ongoing university investigation into allegations that Tucker sexually harassed rape survivor and activist Brenda Tracy.

Tucker, 51, was placed on administrative leave without pay on Sept. 10 following an explosive USA Today report detailing the allegations from Tracy, who developed a personal relationship with Tucker in 2021 after an on-campus speaking engagement. At the time of Tucker's suspension, Michigan State had just improved to 2-0 on the season with a win over Richmond. 

Tracy's complaint includes allegations of unwelcome advances from Tucker, including masturbating during an April 2022 phone call without her consent. Tucker has admitted to the act but claimed it was part of a consensual, personal relationship. 

After receiving a written notification of termination by the university, Tucker responded that he was "disappointed but not surprised," adding "a cursory reading of the facts and timeline should cause any fair-minded person to conclude that other motives are at play." By firing Tucker for cause, Michigan State could save nearly $80 million still owed on his deal, which runs through 2031. 

"Simply put, Mr. Tucker's response does not provide any information that refutes or undermines the multiple grounds for termination for cause set forth in the notice," Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller said in a statement. "Instead, his 25-page response ... provides a litany of excuses for his inappropriate behavior while expressly admitting to the problematic conduct outlined in the notice."

While it could take months -- or longer -- for Michigan State and Tucker to sort through the various legal entanglements associated with ending such a significant contract, the news marks the end to a coaching tenure that started and ended in controversy. 

Tucker was 20-14 as Michigan State coach. Spartans secondary coach Harlon Barnett is serving as interim football coach for the remainder of the season. 

Tucker's public flip flop to East Lansing

Tucker's Michigan State tenure began in controversy long before it ended in scandal. After years as an NFL and SEC defensive coordinator, Tucker finally broke into the head coaching ranks at Colorado where he went 5-7 during his debut season in 2019. When longtime Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio abruptly resigned on Feb. 4, 2020, Tucker came under consideration for the Spartans job. On Feb. 8, Tucker tweeted from a since-deleted account that he was "flattered to be considered" for the Michigan State job but "committed" to continuing with Colorado. 

On Feb. 12, he reversed course and accepted the gig, sparking shock and disdain from Colorado fans. Though he was doubling his salary and leaving for a program with a recent track record of more significant success, Tucker's public flip-flop after one year in Boulder, Colorado, invited early scrutiny.

Key transfer leads to storybook Year 2 

Tucker's debut was a struggle in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. The Spartans fell to a 2-5 record while playing an all-Big Ten schedule. But then came the high of an 11-2 follow-up in 2021 in which the Spartans beat Michigan for a second consecutive season. Behind the production of consensus All-American running back Kenneth Walker III, a transfer from Wake Forest, the Spartans surged to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff Rankings amid an 8-0 start. 

November losses at Purdue and Ohio State left Michigan State outside the CFP field, but it capped the year in style with a Peach Bowl victory against ACC champion Pitt. With LSU reportedly interested in Tucker amid his 2021 success, the Spartans rewarded him with a massive contract extension. At the time, his annual salary trailed only Nick Saban's at Alabama and put him in the company of other national title-winning coaches, such as Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher. However, sustaining success proved challenging.

Disappointment in 2022

In between the phone call and Tracy's Title IX complaint that December came a disappointing football season. On the heels of 2021's 11-win campaign, Michigan State lost seven games in 2022, including six by double digits, and missed a bowl game.

At just 18-14 (12-13 Big Ten) through three seasons, the heat ratcheted up on Tucker exiting Year 3. The program's 2021 signing class ranked just 45th nationally, according to 247Sports, and the 2022 class ranked a modest 26th. The 2023 signing class ranked 22nd, but its impact was offset by the departures of key transfers, including quarterback Payton Thorne (Auburn) and star receiver Keon Coleman (Florida State). There was little positive momentum to draw upon, and some oddsmakers placed the 2023 season win total line on the Spartans as low as 4.5 victories. 

Tucker also landed in the "pressure is mounting" category of Dennis Dodd's 2023 Hot Seat Rankings

"There might be only two people who can decide on Tucker's future: boosters Mat Ishbia (owner of the Phoenix Suns) and Steve St. Andre," Dodd wrote. "Nineteen months ago, their contributions made Tucker one of the highest-paid coaches in ball (10 years, $95 million). Is Tucker the portal king who went 11-2 in 2021 or the disappointment who dropped to 5-7 in 2022? For the money, he better be the former."

Unraveling in 2023

As it turned out, the Spartans didn't need major booster support in order to part with Tucker. Tracy's allegations gave the university a means to fire Tucker for cause; however, only after the allegations were made public did Michigan State suspend Tucker, even though it had been aware of the allegations for months.

Michigan State, which has a sordid past involving disgraced former doctor Larry Nassar, came under scrutiny for the timing of Tucker's suspension. However, interim Michigan State president Teresa Woodruff defended the school's actions, pointing to an ongoing "independent, unbiased investigation," which had not yet been referred to Tucker's boss, athletic director Alan Haller, when the USA Today report broke.

The university's termination notice referred to "unprofessional and unethical behavior" by Tucker and claimed he violated the "moral turpitude" clause of his contract by bringing "public disrespect, contempt and ridicule upon the university." Tucker is the second Big Ten coach to be fired with cause in recent months. He joins Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, who was dismissed amid a hazing scandal that engulfed the Wildcats' athletic department.

Michigan State's next move

There could be some advantage to the timing of Tucker's dismissal as it makes Michigan State the second power conference program on the coaching market this season behind Northwestern. Early firings led to blockbuster hires during the past couple of coaching carousels for programs like USC and Nebraska. The Trojans parted with Clay Helton two games into the 2021 season and made a stunning hire by landing Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley. Nebraska parted with Scott Frost just three games into last season and landed former Temple, Baylor and Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule.

The timing is certainly more favorable now than it was when Dantonio retired in February of 2020, which was an inopportune time for a program to make such a significant change. Dantonio, who is the program's all-time winningest coach, has returned to the Michigan State program to help Barnett through the fray. Dantonio, 67, and acting coach Harlon Barnett are also among those appearing on CBS Sports' list of candidates for the opening. However, the Spartans and their Big Ten money should be attractive to a wide swath of candidates. Among the other names to monitor are Oregon State's Jonathan Smith and Duke's Mike Elko.