The first inkling that something was amiss with how Mel Tucker presented himself to the world arrived in my inbox around dinner time on July 7, 2022.
The email came from a large public relations firm in New York offering "uninterrupted time with beloved MSU Head Football Coach Mel Tucker," including a facilities tour of Michigan State, time on the driving range and "bourbon/cigar hours" with Mel and the boys where you'd be regaled with stories of his "leadership skills, coaching successes and how he's preparing for the upcoming football season." They were even going to coordinate and pay for all the travel to East Lansing, which of course would be against the ethics policy of any reputable news organization.
Schmaltz aside, any sports reporter would love to get that kind of quality, one-on-one access to a prominent football coach in a relaxed setting, especially the way so many programs have cloistered themselves from the media these days. But something about that offer seemed completely over the top.
Why did Tucker, who was the toast of college football coming off an 11-2 season and a new 10-year, $95 million contract extension, need a fancy PR firm to set up a press junket that would almost entirely be about glorifying his image?
It felt phony. Which, in retrospect, probably foreshadowed everything that was about to happen.
By the time Tucker’s offer went out to reporters, he had already had his infamous April 28, 2022, phone call with Brenda Tracy, the rape survivor and activist, where he allegedly masturbated and made unwanted sexual comments while on the phone with her. And he certainly knew by the time he was trying to woo reporters to East Lansing that his relationship with Tracy had turned in a direction that could potentially cause him problems.
In fact, the end of the press junket was supposed to be on July 22 — the same day, according to reporting by USA TODAY, that Tucker cancelled Tracy’s in-person training with Michigan State players and coaches scheduled for July 25.
The sequence of events that followed, culminating with Tucker’s firing on Wednesday, concludes one of the most bizarre coaching tenures in memory. And given the standard set by the likes of Mike Price, who was fired without coaching a game at Alabama, or the Bobby Petrino motorcycle ride to human resources hell, that’s a really high bar to clear.
But now here's Tucker, having secured one of the most lucrative contracts in the history of coaching and poised to become one of the new faces of the sport, putting himself firmly in that mix. Even the most expensive crisis-management consultants can’t do much to spin this one.
Maybe it was just happenstance that the Tucker PR blitz coincided with the time period where his relationship with Tracy turned from problematic to a legitimate threat to his career. But it also fits into the overarching narrative of this story, where just doing the job well wasn't enough for Tucker, even though that’s what got him the big contract in the first place.
Coaches are salesmen by nature, but Tucker was trying really hard to sell an image that didn’t comport with what was actually going on behind the scenes. Too hard, we found out. And as seen in the subsequent reporting by USA TODAY, which detailed how he couldn't get his story straight on various details when investigators started asking questions, he just wasn’t very good at it.
Unfortunately, that's about as profound as this story is going to get.
Tucker has insisted in his public statements — and surely will continue to insist as he mounts various legal challenges in an attempt to recoup some of the money Michigan State now claims it doesn't have to pay him — that the “intimate” relationship with Tracy was consensual and personal and does not violate his contract.
He may even have a point that Michigan State was motivated to pin some kind of misconduct on him because his contract started to look like an anchor given the poor results last season, when the Spartans went 5-7. Would Georgia be eager to get rid of Kirby Smart if he were in the same predicament? Probably not.
We can leave the legal and contractual issues here to the attorneys. What's not up for debate, though, is that Tucker crossed a line when he engaged with Tracy in any kind of relationship that wasn't strictly about her role as a speaker who Michigan State paid for.
How did he think that was going to end?
Frankly, the scant details that have already been reported about how this relationship developed and where it went don’t reflect particularly well on either one of them. Tracy does good, important work in this space, but her contention that Tucker developed a completely one-sided romantic interest deserves some scrutiny as well, if they had indeed been communicating regularly for nearly a year before things went sideways.
The fact they both told investigators they had erased their messages with each other means that part of the story is probably going to remain a mystery one way or the other.
But in the end, that doesn't matter from Tucker’s point of view. This wasn't a relationship completely outside the bounds of his job. His job was the reason he met Tracy in the first place, and his role as the head coach played a significant part in determining whether Tracy was going to earn money by speaking at Michigan State. Setting a boundary that this had to be a business relationship, not a personal one, was Tucker's responsibility.
Trying to claim it’s not, or that somehow the behavior he’s already admitted to shouldn't cost him his job, seems like the kind of thing you might say to a reporter after a cigar and a bourbon at Tuck’s expense.
But much like that offer, it was too good to be true. If only Tucker himself had that kind of skeptical eye and the discipline to maintain rather obvious professional ethics, he wouldn’t be out of a $9.5 million per year job.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mel Tucker crossed obvious line at MSU. How did he think it would end?