“Football has given me everything I have," said Mel Tucker, after being introduced as Michigan State's next football coach The Detroit News
When Michigan State president Samuel L. Stanley mentioned former football coach Mark Dantonio, the crowd gathered inside Breslin Center erupted in applause.
Dantonio was not there to embrace the adulation for a man who had a 13-year run that included multiple Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win, a winning record over rival Michigan and a College Football Playoff appearance.
During new coach Mel Tucker's introductory press conference — which actually doubled as a pep rally, with the band and cheerleaders — Dantonio was not in attendance, fueling theories that he might not have been happy with MSU's choice to succeed him. Others simply thought Dantonio didn't want to overshadow Tucker's big moment.
Well, MSU now has issued an official reason for Dantonio's absence Wednesday night.
"Coach Dantonio was out of town, and not able to attend," said Emily Guerrant, a spokesperson for the university, in response to a question from The Detroit News.
She added that he was on vacation, not university business; he has taken a job to stay on in an as-yet undefined role in the MSU athletic department.
That said, after a seemingly slow start to the coaching search, the eventual hiring did come together quickly in the end. University brass met Monday night to discuss the status of the search process, Tucker was offered the contract late Monday night and negotiations continued Tuesday until he accepted, and a presser was held Wednesday.
Dantonio, who shockingly retired early last week on the eve of National Signing Day, has a history of working with Tucker. They were on Nick Saban's staff in the late 1990s, Tucker in his first job as a graduate assistant.
When Dantonio moved to Ohio State to be the defensive coordinator in the early 2000s, he hired Tucker to coach the secondary. They worked together for the three years Dantonio was there, and Tucker became co-defensive coordinator the year after.
Tucker briefly talked about Dantonio on Wednesday, during the press conference, calling him "obviously one of those great mentors that I've learned a lot from."
"He's helped shape some of my football philosophies and things like that," Tucker said. "So I've always considered him a friend and just a tremendous football coach and an outstanding person. So I'm looking forward to reconnecting with him."
After the press conference, Tucker said he hadn't spoken to Dantonio since he accepted the job Tuesday night.
Tucker was one of three candidates interviewed, including Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, a good Dantonio friend, and 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Tucker was the only man offered the job, though Fickell turned down the overtures before athletic director Bill Beekman got Board of Trustees approval to make any offer.
At Wednesday night's press conference, Stanley spoke first, followed by board president Dianne Byrum, Beekman, football player Antjuan Simmons, men's basketball coach Tom Izzo — the unofficial ambassador for MSU, given his legendary coaching status, and his public-speaking chops — Tucker's wife JoEllyn, and then Tucker himself.
Dantonio issued a statement earlier in the day,
"Mel is charismatic, brings good energy, and is a very forward thinker," Dantonio said in the university-issued statement announcing the hiring of Tucker. "He's also an outstanding recruiter who connects with his players, but also holds them accountable. He's from the Midwest and has a Spartan background with knowledge of the Big Ten.
"I'm extremely excited for Mel and his family. I'm looking to support him in any way possible. Go Green!"
Dantonio, 63, was on a long-term rollover contract that paid him more than $4 million a year. Tucker, 48, has received a long-term contract that will pay him more than $5 million a year, and significantly increases MSU's salary pool for assistant coaches.
Tucker was approved as the next coach in a unanimous, 7-0 vote by the Board of Trustees. Board member Renee Knake was absent.