Niyo: Michigan State pays the price to find its football coach

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Money talks, even when opportunity walks.

So if there’s a surprise in Michigan State’s head-spinning search for Mark Dantonio’s replacement this past week, it’s not that it circled back to land Colorado’s Mel Tucker a few days after the 48-year-old Ohio native said he wasn't on board.

No, it’s that anyone would argue that turnabout isn’t fair play. This sort of deal-making is commonplace in big business, and business doesn’t get much bigger than college athletics these days.

Mel Tucker arrives for his press conference at the Breslin Center on Wednesday night.

Sure, it’s a bit awkward, with Tucker saying yes to Michigan State after saying no to an offer that wasn’t there initially, then spending a couple of days doing radio interviews touting the program he was building at Colorado and even attending an event for donors in Denver. There’s a reason Tucker called this both a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and “the toughest decision of my life.” These things are not mutually exclusive.

But it wasn’t easy for athletic director Bill Beekman and his search committee, either, having to pay a price — in dollars and perception — after making it clear Tucker wasn’t the Spartans’ first choice.

Yet this is the cost of competition at the highest level in major-college football, and as much as anything else, Michigan State’s massive investment in Tucker confirms what the heights of the Dantonio era promised on the field: The Spartans do mean business.

They were bidding against themselves this time, after their No. 1 target, Luke Fickell, left them hanging — in mid-heir, if you will — Monday morning. The fallout they endured after that initial misstep was inevitable and largely justified.

But so is the credit they’ll get for rallying quickly with a Plan B, returning to Tucker and making him an offer — more than one, actually — that he ultimately couldn’t refuse.

"This is the right time for me to be here,” Tucker said Wednesday at a packed press conference at Breslin Center that featured university officials, fellow MSU coaches, the pep band, cheerleaders and several current football players. “That's really what it comes down to. The commitment is here, the resources are here, the want-to, the leadership is here, everything is here. Everything we need is here right now to get done what we need to get done."

And now that it’s done, what’s clear is Michigan State — and some influential donors — were prepared to pay the going rate for a high-profile coach, something Colorado wasn’t doing with Tucker, who ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 pecking order with the five-year, $15 million deal he signed 14 months ago. 

The Spartans are more than doubling his salary, agreeing to a six-year contract that starts at $5.5 million in 2020, in addition to paying the $3 million buyout at Colorado. That puts him on par with everyone not named Jim Harbaugh in the Big Ten. They’re also nearly doubling the all-important salary pool for his assistant coaches, from $3.2 million at Colorado to about $6 million here. By contrast, Dantonio was making $4.4 million plus bonuses with just under $5 million allocated for his assistants.

“Our assistant pool number will go up a fair bit, but that allows him to get the people he needs to get the job done,” Beekman explained, adding that after an initial offer was made Monday night, negotiations with Tucker's agent continued early Tuesday morning until a final deal was struck just after midnight Wednesday. “We want to give him every opportunity to be successful. …

“We knew that we probably were thin in the coach’s salary, relative to peer … and it was just sort of an evolutionary process as we put the thing together, that it made sense to add a little here and a little there to get to a package that we think and Mel thinks we can all be successful.”

That’s no small step for the Spartans in their ultra-competitive neighborhood, one that's considerably more affluent than the Pac-12, where the league revenue checks are about $20 million-plus lighter each year than in the Big Ten or SEC. And it's a giant leap for Tucker, whose lengthy resume admittedly includes just one year of head-coaching experience in college — Colorado went 5-7 last season — and a brief stint as an interim head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Beyond that, though, Tucker checks all of the boxes Beekman laid out last week after Dantonio announced he was stepping down after 13 years at the helm. And even a few he didn't, not least of which is the fact Tucker is one of just 13 African-American head coaches among the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools. 

Beekman said he wanted someone with character and integrity, and there’s a long line of his peers that’ll vouch for Tucker on both counts. Still, there’s no getting around the way he left Colorado in the lurch, talking about being “committed” to the program one day and then pulling up stakes barely 72 hours later.

Critics immediately noted the hypocrisy of him decrying the NCAA’s new transfer rules in October, saying, "There's no transfer portal in the real world.” And then flying to East Lansing on a private jet four months later, only a week after putting the finishing touches on his first full recruiting class in Boulder.

 “We had a conversation on Saturday about his commitment to Colorado, and I was comfortable with that,” Colorado AD Rick George said at a news conference Wednesday. “What transpired in the last 24 hours is disappointing.”

But if you ask other coaches for an honest take, I’m sure they’d admit the contract speaks volumes. So did Tucker’s voice Wednesday, booming at times as he talked about his passion for the game and this place, coming back to the school where he got his start making $400 a month as a grad assistant on Nick Saban’s staff in 1997. It's also the place where, as his wife JoEllyn noted, the place where the two got engaged.

“It’s like a dream come true,” he said, shortly after a meeting with his players that senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons described as "intense," grinning broadly.

For Beekman, it might not have been the dream scenario, but it’s pretty close, given the circumstances. He’d said he wanted “someone that knows the Big Ten” and “somebody that knows and understands Michigan State and our culture.” And Tucker certainly does, as a Cleveland native who played for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin and then got his start in coaching here, working alongside Dantonio, among others.

Saban, who’d originally recruited Tucker out of high school when he was Toledo’s head coach, actually hired him three times — first at MSU, then at LSU and again five years ago at Alabama, where Tucker was part of a national championship team for the second time.

The previous title came in 2002 at Ohio State, where Tucker coached defensive backs on Jim Tressel’s staff — Dantonio was the defensive coordinator — and proved himself as a top-flight recruiter, helping reestablish the Buckeyes’ dominance in his own backyard in Cleveland.

Now he’ll be tasked with doing something similar at Michigan State, re-energizing the recruiting effort that had sagged, along with the results on the field the past couple years. He'll focus on Ohio and Michigan, obviously — “We’ve got to win in Detroit,” he said Wednesday — and he's targeting Kentucky's Vince Marrow to bolster that effort. But Tucker also has ties in SEC country, particularly from his time at Georgia.

A late start won’t give him much time to hit the ground running, and among the many unanswered questions now is how quickly — or effectively — Tucker can build out his new staff in East Lansing. Spring practice is only a month away.

“Everything that has to be done in a football program, quite frankly, has already started for me,” he said. “So we sleep fast. We'll be sleeping fast, and getting out there and making the most of every opportunity we have."

Tucker’s ties here should help ease the transition, and Tom Izzo has pledged his full support. The reaction from a fan base that was beginning to fear the worst undoubtedly won't hurt, either.

“The outpouring of support that the Spartan Nation has shown me and my family over the past 12 hours has been overwhelming,” Tucker said.

But time is money. And if he’s short on one, he’s long on another now. In a bottom-line business like this, that counts for more than a little. For Mel Tucker and Michigan State, there’s no question it means a lot.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo