Mel Tucker’s huge Michigan State payday plenty risky, but how much reward?

by | Nov 18, 2021 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Once upon a time, as a young graduate assistant, Mel Tucker used to drive Nick Saban around. Now Tucker can send a private jet, and he and Nick can compare paychecks.

Tucker, who has been at Michigan State football less than two seasons, is set to become the second-highest paid college football coach in the nation, behind only Saban at Alabama, despite the fact that Saban leads his former protégé in national championships, 7-0, in conference titles, 9-0, and in various national coach of the year awards, 16-0.

Nonetheless, here’s the headline: “MSU to Offer Tucker 10-year, $95 Million Extension.” To say Michigan State likes this guy is to say Winnie the Pooh likes honey. Remember, last year, they doubled his salary to lure him from Colorado. Now they’re almost doubling his salary again — and doubling the years as well.

Déjà vu? Not quite. The first time was out of desperation.

This time was out of fear.

Yes. Fear. MSU was afraid it would lose him, plain and simple. You don’t make offers like this otherwise. LSU began cooing Tucker’s name, USC started whispering as well, and apparently, the power brokers in East Lansing got jumpy.

So the school is about to lock up Tucker for a decade, thanks to a chunk of the money coming from two very rich alumni, Mat Ishbia, who’s the CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage, and Steve St. Andre, CEO of Shift Digital.

One thing’s for sure. Those two can sit anywhere they want at MSU now. Heck, they can probably even take a few snaps.

What is MSU really paying for?

But a quote from a local news story caught my eye Wednesday. Rema Vassar, who last year was elected to the MSU Board, called Tucker “a gift to our school” and added, “He’s a veritable magician … we have seen unprecedented increases in student applications after his wins. He has rejuvenated us, our alumni and donors. He brought us back from COVID and united us.”

Wow. Did we miss the part when he walked on water?

Listen. Like most people, I admire Tucker’s tenacity and enjoy his conversation. He seems to be a fine leader. But questions need to be asked here. Some pretty serious ones, to be frank.

First, does MSU really think Tucker is the second-best football coach in America? Or is it only paying him as such? Tucker had pretty much been a career assistant until 2019, when he took the head spot at Colorado just before his 47th birthday.

He lasted one season, went 5-7, then was stolen away by a fat offer from an MSU reeling from the body blow of Mark Dantonio’s sudden resignation. It was February. They had to overpay to get anyone.

So they gave Tucker five years at about $5.5 million a year, twice what he was making out in the Rockies, and he flew in and revved up for work.

Tucker went 2-5 in his COVID-shortened first season. That included a 52-12 shellacking by Ohio State. It’s worth noting this shiny new contract is reportedly being proffered two days before the Spartans play the Buckeyes in Columbus. If OSU pounds the Spartans again, how awkward would it be putting this news out there on Monday?

So that’s the first question. Are they overpaying relative to Tucker’s resume? Absolutely. You can’t argue that. The other coaches besides Saban who even come close in money are:

1. Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, who won a national championship at Florida State, beat Alabama this year, and is in the highly competitive SEC, where Saban sets the standard for everything.

2. Dabo Swinney at Clemson, who has won two national championships, seven conference championships, and at least 10 wins every season for the last decade.

3. Ed Orgeron at LSU, who won a national championship two years ago, is also in the crazy SEC and, oh, is being let go this year after a sub-par start to the season.

Paying for promise, not production

Now, it’s worth noting that these guys got fat, long contracts as well — although none of them currently as long or fat as Tucker’s.

It’s also worth noting that Orgeron is parting company with LSU less than two years after putting together perhaps the greatest season in college football history, a perfect 15-0 championship run, winning his two playoff games by a combined score of 105-53. That’s when they gave him a six-year extension.

And now he’s out — which is how fast fortunes change in college football. Yet the Spartans are locking in Tucker for a decade?

Is Tucker in the conversation with Saban and the above coaches? Sorry. Not yet. He has been a college head coach for less than three years. Hasn’t won anything. The proof of your legacy is in the victories, not the promise of them.

Sure, he’s having a terrific season so far, 9-1. He built this 2021 team largely through the transfer portal — but that thing giveth and taketh away. The Spartans’ biggest win was over Michigan (and the jury is still out on the Wolverines.) MSU also lost badly to unranked Purdue, and could, conceivably, drop its final two games and play for no titles.

Remember, Jim Harbaugh turned a losing Wolverines team around in his first year and won 10 games. Had you taken the temperature back then, someone might have suggested a fast contract extension.

Instead, six years later, Harbaugh had to take a pay cut to stay in Ann Arbor.

So does 10 years, $95 million look a little hasty for Tucker?

Apparently not, if you’re certain rich alumni.

And that raises another question.

The money ultimately does the talking

Last I looked, the college football coach still gets paid by the school. And yet all reports indicate that this deal is only happening because Ishbia and St. Andre are throwing millions in each year to sweeten the pot. Ishbia just committed $32 million to the MSU athletic department earlier this year.

Now it’s nice that Ishbia, a former walk-on to Tom Izzo’s Spartan basketball team, has made so much money that he wants to send a chunk back to his alma mater. But doesn’t the idea of one or two rich alums steering funds to a certain coach strike you as a bit … dangerous?

Who’s making the decisions here? The school can claim autonomy all it wants, but once it takes money to be directed to an employee, that employee’s future is realistically steered by two sets of hands.

I know boosters already influence much of what goes on in college sports, especially basketball and football. With the recent rules change for a student-athlete’s name, image and likeness, recruits can now be lured to a university because a rich car dealership owner promises six-figure endorsement deals if they commit.

That feels weird enough. Alumni essentially directing a personal financial contract for a coach only adds to that weirdness.

This seems like a bold move by the Spartans to somehow declare that Michigan State will now be a national title contender from this point forward. Hey. That would be great. But nobody ever did that by a paycheck.

The smart folks say you’re worth what someone wants to pay you. Mel Tucker, former grad assistant driver and a man who has switched employers 10 times in 24 years, is putting his transmission in park with this deal. Right or wrong, he’s an entrenched part of the new green and white landscape.

Emphasis on the green.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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