Editors’ note: This story contains graphic language of a sexual nature.
Michigan State is expected to fire embattled football coach Mel Tucker on Wednesday, sources tell Sports Illustrated, formally ending his tenure at the school after a sexual misconduct scandal went public earlier this month. While the legal fight over the roughly $75 million remaining on Tucker’s lucrative contract will likely continue, the school is free to move on in its search for a new coach for the 2024 season.
Tucker took the Spartans to great heights in 2021 with an 11–2 record and No. 9 national ranking. But he was suspended without pay Sept. 10 after a USA Today report disclosed that Tucker was the subject of a long-running investigation into whether he violated university policy by allegedly harassing a woman contracted to work with the football program, Brenda Tracy.
The report spawned a succession of back-and-forth statements from Tucker’s attorneys, Tracy and the university, turning what had been an under-the-radar investigation into a public spectacle.
Tracy, a prominent public speaker and advocate for sexual assault survivors who travels to college campuses to speak to athletic teams, filed a complaint with Michigan State against Tucker in December 2022. The complaint stated he made sexual comments toward her and masturbated without her consent during a phone call in April ’22, at a time when she was doing advocacy work with the Spartans. Tucker said the phone sex was consensual and that he had developed a personal relationship with Tracy outside of the work she was contracted to do for the school.
A hearing on whether Tucker violated school policy was scheduled for Oct. 5 and Oct. 6, but the Michigan State administration did not wait that long to signal that it was done with him. On Sept. 18, athletic director Alan Haller released a statement saying Michigan State had notified Tucker that it intended to fire him.
“I, with the support of administration and board, have provided Mel Tucker with written notice of intent to terminate his contract for cause,” Haller said. “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.”
The school attached Tucker’s contract to the statement, which includes this clause stating that if the coach “engages in any conduct which constitutes moral turpitude or which, in the university’s reasonable judgment, would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule upon the university,” he can be terminated for cause.
Tucker’s attorneys did respond within the seven-day window, with a letter Monday that said the coach was a victim of unjust actions by the university and could not be fired for cause.
“[Tucker] did not engage in unprofessional or unethical behavior or ‘moral turpitude’ by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, as discussed below, under Michigan law, assault and battery does not even constitute ‘moral turpitude,’ and the flimsy foundation of the university’s finding—a private relationship involving mutual flirting and one instance of consensual phone sex—falls far short of the mark.”
Michigan State was undeterred and followed through with its intent to fire Tucker on Wednesday. The 48-year-old finishes his tenure at the school with a 20–14 record on the field. The 11–2 season in 2021 led to interest from other schools in luring him away, which prompted Michigan State to present a whopping, 10-year, $95 million contract—a massive overpayment for Tucker’s 18–14 career record to that point, dating back to his lone 5–7 season at Colorado.
Things went downhill from there. The Spartans slumped back to 5–7 last season, and it was in December when Tracy filed her complaint. Michigan State started this year 2–0 before Tucker was suspended, and the scandal erupted into public view. The Spartans have lost both subsequent games in lopsided fashion under interim coach Harlon Barnett.
Where Michigan State will turn next is unclear at the moment. With the school’s early entry into the search process it has the luxury of time for a thorough search—and as Tucker’s contract shows, Michigan State has some deep-pocketed boosters willing to pay top dollar for a coach. But there are complications.
There is an expectation of a mass exodus via the transfer portal after this season. There is the eternal competition with powerhouses Michigan and Ohio State, neither of which shows any signs of slipping. And there is the arrival of four new schools from the Pac-12 for 2024. The job is lucrative but not a guaranteed winner.