Mel Tucker took a football coaching job last week at Michigan State. It happened a few days after MSU had made an exploratory run at him, a few days after he had decided he wasn’t interested in moving to East Lansing as a replacement for Mark Dantonio. It was a decision Tucker later would reconsider.
A man's change of mind was, obviously and admittedly, tied to MSU's follow-up sales pitch: Money would be about twice what Tucker was making at the University of Colorado, where until last week he was head coach. The offer came with a blimp-sized budget for hiring staff, a package that, factored with MSU's and the Big Ten's appeal, was enough to coax a 48-year-old man to Michigan State.
What followed, outside of East Lansing anyway, was a good deal of wailing, most of it along the lines of: What a money-hunting mercenary this Tucker guy must be.
The uproar seemed to ignore that Tucker did pretty much what most folks do in their professional lives. He took a better job. For more money.
The nerve of him.
It’s OK if I scoot on my current employer for greener grass. But if you’re a coach, no, this is not acceptable. Not to a university’s football fans.
The coach only gets to leave when fans want to fire you, which, as history has shown us, even in East Lansing, can be quite sudden.
The flip side never seems to count. No, a coach, fans argue — at least when they’re not demanding he be axed — must “keep his commitments to players.”
This is high ground, the old “but what about the children?” mantra. So, a reminder: The coach’s pledges to recruits don’t seem to count for much when fans, or the coach’s bosses, have decided he should leave. Their intolerance for him carries more weight than that supposedly inviolate pledge he made to incoming, or resident, players.
This has been something, this Tucker outrage, flowing from so many corridors of Righteous Indignation World.
Tucker, of course, had earlier said to MSU: No, thanks. And when it wasn’t foreseen that a six-year deal for $33 million was yet coming his way on a later try, he said, because it then was true, that he would stick in Boulder and get on with business begun in his first year as head coach.
He spoke honestly. Until, that is, an offer that most of his critics would also have jumped on, came his way.
Saying yes to MSU has since branded Tucker as a hired gun, concerned only about the money.
Uh, no. Not in any overall context.
A coach's shelf life
Tucker can see more clearly than can zealots, who believe their school’s quixotic attitude toward a coach must be held sacred. He sees more broadly, too, than critics who forget about the southbound lane on a highway they view as a one-way road.
Tucker went 5-7 last season. He coaches in the Pac-12, at Colorado, specifically. Consider the four coaches who since 1999 preceded Tucker:
► Gary Barnett, misconduct, forced resignation.
► Dan Hawkins, fired after five seasons.
► Jon Embree, fired after two seasons.
► Mike MacIntyre, fired after six seasons.
Tucker might be up on his history. Or, he might simply know that this is the way college football works. It certainly works this way in a conference where Oregon, and Washington, and Stanford, and Arizona State, etc., and their live-by-whim head coaches can’t all win in numbers sufficient to keep the fans and execs annually happy.
Thus, a guy who grew up in Cleveland, who played at Wisconsin, who coached at MSU and Ohio State, who worked in the NFL for 10 seasons, and who shined at Alabama and Georgia, was to say no to Michigan State and its heavy offer.
No. And those who argue otherwise, quit pretending you’d have acted differently.
This goes, too, for Michigan State’s fans.
They still have it out for Nick Saban. Against all documented evidence that he was getting raked over by then-president M. Peter McPherson, against evidence that his salary and contractual guarantees were either low or being ignored, Saban reluctantly — wholly reluctantly — opted for LSU. But only because the prez had finally pushed him to do so.
Too many Spartans devotees haven’t yet forgiven him. Nor did they understand why Darryl Rogers and his boss and athletic director, Joe Kearney, 40 years ago departed East Lansing for Arizona State.
That package exodus, too, was driven by problems with a president.
But tell a fan base that, then or now. Or, rather don’t. Victimization is as naturally attractive to a university’s rooters as another well-known emotion: A school’s blood-lust, often impulsive, to have a coach fired after an autumn or two where things didn’t quite measure up.
Cost of business
If hypocrisy isn’t yet as visible as the Goodyear blimp, consider another area of populist outrage: Tucker’s plush salary.
The audacity of Michigan State, buying its way to a new coach, poaching him from a helpless Pac 12 school. It might be noted that the extra $1 million a year Tucker is getting, compared with predecessor Mark Dantonio, is what serious schools these days are offering new hires, as could be said for a fatter payday by $1 million that MSU will now pay Tucker’s assistants.
The revenue, MSU has explained, will come from the athletic department's coffers and from donations earmarked for football. Those accounts figure to be substantially feathered now that MSU has opted for Tucker over, say, Bret Bielema.
Still, this is said to be reprehensible, spending on this lavish level. Look, for example, at what teachers make. Social workers. Firefighters. Soup-kitchen administrators (street-crossing guards and museum docents presumably are also on fire over Tucker).
A lot of resentment out there from those whose vocational choices didn’t include football. And that’s probably fortunate. Most coaches’ families understand your primary relationship in this treacherous profession is with moving-van companies, and generally because someone got fired, not because a better and more secure job was in the cards.
Truly, spare the sermons. All of them. They’re embarrassing when a country that loves to trot out its free-market commerce decides coaches or professional athletes should be exempt.
It’s disingenuous, doubly so, when a nation that makes college football a manifestation of its own extreme sports psyche pretends money should be overlooked.
Michigan State is but one example of how this game is played, coast to coast. MSU decided, with its fans’ blessings, to act seriously on that great proscenium stage known as Big Ten football.
Rather than play if halfway, a university decided it would put up rather than cop out.
Note that word: university. It’s why a kid, ideally, commits to play at a particular place. The coach is the primary face on that commitment, but the university, at-large, is what a player has signed to join.
That means a campus, and teammates, and quite probably an education, should figure in a prep star’s decision at least as much as a coach who might in a season or two discover fan romance can be quite the fleeting fling.
And most times, those considerations do in fact carry weight.
Players, in fact, tend to recover when there’s a change in coaches.
It’s the fans who can’t always handle it. Even as they update their personal resumes, keeping an eye out for that next better gig.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.