Michigan State University fired head football coach Mel Tucker for inappropriate conduct on Wednesday, a stunning fall for one of the highest-paid coaches in college sports, who signed a record 10-year, $95 million contract less than two years ago.
The action comes just over two weeks after a USA TODAY investigation revealed sexual harassment allegations against Tucker by Brenda Tracy, a prominent rape survivor and activist hired by Tucker to speak to his team about sexual violence and consent.
Hours after USA TODAY’s investigation, Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller suspended Tucker without pay pending completion of the case. One week later, Haller notified Tucker he intended to fire him, saying the sexual conduct he has admitted to alone violates his contract.
“Your unconvincing rationalizations and misguided attempt to shift responsibility cannot and do not excuse your own behavior,” Haller wrote in a letter to Tucker on Wednesday. “Had you not engaged in this inappropriate and unprofessional conduct, the University would not be subject to public disrespect and ridicule regarding your actions.”
Tucker did not answer phone calls from USA TODAY to his personal and work cellphones. A voicemail has not been returned.
A complaint Tracy filed with the university’s Title IX office in December alleged Tucker pursued her romantically for several months, masturbated without her consent during an April 2022 phone call and later insinuated that he would ruin her career if she spoke out. The case has remained under investigation since, with a formal hearing scheduled for Oct. 5 and 6.
Tracy told the university’s outside investigator she believes Tucker pretended to be an ally in her cause to get close to her personally.
“It’s like he sought me out just to betray me,” she told USA TODAY earlier this month. On Wednesday, Tracy declined to comment on Tucker’s firing.
Although Tucker denies sexually harassing Tracy, he has acknowledged masturbating and making sexual comments during the call, saying he and Tracy had kindled a romance that culminated in consensual “phone sex.”
Because Tracy was a university vendor and Tucker’s alleged actions affected her ongoing business relationship with the school, the university determined that the case fell within its sexual harassment policies.
Tucker’s firing could represent the beginning of more challenges for Michigan State during a potentially ugly and expensive court battle. Tucker and his attorneys have indicated they will file a lawsuit against the school for wrongful termination and try to recoup the roughly $80 million remaining on his contract.
The hearing is expected to proceed next week regardless, and the stakes remain high. Tracy has said she fears Tucker will damage her business and her legacy by painting her as a woman who mixes professional and personal relationships and files false reports. A finding of fault against Tucker would lower his odds of landing another coaching job.
Perhaps no reputation faces more scrutiny on sexual misconduct than that of Michigan State, which is moving to cut ties with Tucker amid efforts to repair its image following one of the worst sexual abuse scandals in American history. For years, Michigan State officials missed opportunities to stop Larry Nassar, the disgraced former U.S.A. Gymnastics and campus physician accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of young women and girls under the guise of medical treatments.
The university has made strides in the last few years to ramp up its Title IX operations and fix the problems that allowed Nassar’s abuse to go unchecked. During a press conference hours after USA TODAY’s investigation was published, Interim President Teresa Woodruff assured the public that its handling of Tracy’s complaint has been proper and doesn’t represent the “MSU of old.”
But the Title IX office still struggles with understaffing, lengthy delays and communication issues, years of audits the school conducted after the Nassar scandal have found.
It would be disappointing if the university paid Tucker to leave quietly as part of a settlement agreement, said Danielle Moore, one of several Nassar survivors who co-founded The Army of Survivors, which advocates against sexual abuse in sports. Moore also doesn’t want the school to waste millions of dollars in legal fees that could instead be used to fix its ongoing Title IX issues.
The sheer size of Tucker’s contract, she said, demonstrates the school’s misplaced priorities.
“It’s just disheartening and just so sad that MSU keeps putting money and medals and status over a human being,” Moore said. “That’s seen in this Mel Tucker case, as well as the Nassar case. And this pattern is scary.”
Mel Tucker recruited to MSU after early successes
Twenty-six years before Michigan State fired Tucker, it gave him his first coaching job.
A former defensive back at the University of Wisconsin, Tucker landed a position as a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1997, when Nick Saban was head coach. Tucker spent the next two decades climbing the coaching ladder at 10 college and NFL teams, drawing praise along the way from some of football’s biggest names.
“Mel has made a name for himself as one of the best and brightest coaches in our profession,” Saban, the University of Alabama’s head coach, said when Michigan State hired Tucker as head coach in 2020. “MSU is getting a guy with infinite class and a great personality, who is smart, works hard, and does it with an incredible amount of enthusiasm and positive energy.”
Tucker coached defensive backs at Miami University, Louisiana State and Ohio State for five years. Ohio State named him co-defensive coordinator in 2004, and a year later, Tucker left for the NFL. He served as defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears. The Jaguars named him interim coach for the last five games of the 2011 season after firing head coach Jack Del Rio.
Tucker returned to college football in 2015, reuniting with Saban, this time at Alabama. The Crimson Tide won the national championship that year in Tucker’s one season as assistant head coach and defensive backs coach. He spent the next three years as the University of Georgia’s defensive coordinator, where he and head coach Kirby Smart helped the Bulldogs win a Southeastern Conference championship in 2017.
“I worked with Mel at Alabama and when I became the head coach at Georgia, a top priority was to bring Mel along in the defensive coordinator role,” Smart said in a statement issued when Tucker came to Michigan State. “In his three years at UGA, he was a great coach, trusted friend and colleague, and role model for our players. Mel helped us build the foundation of the program we have at Georgia and I'm confident he'll be a great fit for the Spartans.”
The University of Colorado gave Tucker his first full-time head coach job in December 2018, and the Buffaloes went 5-7 in his first year. Soon after the season, longtime Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio announced he would be retiring, a surprise move that left the Spartans with a void to fill.
Seven days later, Michigan State lured Tucker away by offering to more than double his salary.
The Spartans went 2-5 in Tucker’s tumultuous first season, which was upended by the pandemic. The next year, though, he seemed to turn around the program, leading the team to an 11-2 record – its best in six years – and a victory in the Peach Bowl.
Midway through that season, as rumors circulated that LSU was considering throwing a pile of cash at Tucker to hire him away, Haller and Michigan State’s Board of Trustees moved to lock Tucker down. They signed him to an unprecedented 10-year, $95 million extension in November 2021 that came fully guaranteed, even if he never won another game.
The only way Tucker could lose out on the money was if he was fired for cause.
Details of the MSU coaching contract gain importance
Michigan State football contracts have long included a clause that gives the school broad latitude to fire coaches for cause for conduct that “constitutes moral turpitude” or “would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule upon the University.” It mentions “material insubordination or impropriety involving a student” as examples but leaves it open-ended.
The language is vaguer than that of most other schools in the NCAA’s Power 5 conferences, whose coaching contracts often provide detailed, pages-long lists of fireable offenses, according to records obtained by USA TODAY through public records requests.
LSU head football coach Brian Kelly, for instance – who also signed a 10-year, $95 million contract in 2021 – can be fired for any of 19 reasons, including sports betting, abusing drugs or alcohol or refusing to cooperate with an internal investigation. At the University of Nebraska, driving drunk, damaging school property or making false or misleading statements to the school can get head football coach Matt Rhule canned.
Michigan State’s more nebulous termination language remained virtually unchanged from when the school hired Mark Dantonio in 2006 until Tucker’s extension in November 2021.
Tucker’s new contract raised the bar for what sorts of alleged criminal conduct can trigger automatic termination. Whereas previous Michigan State contracts, including Tucker’s original one, said the coach could be fired for committing a crime – other than a minor traffic offense – “whether prosecuted or not,” Tucker's amended contract said a criminal conviction was necessary.
Also in previous contracts, the decision of whether the coach’s conduct met the threshold for termination was the university’s to make in its “sole judgment.” As part of Tucker’s extension, the word “sole” was replaced with “reasonable.”
Haller’s Sept. 18 notice that he intended to fire Tucker said the university had “amassed a body of undisputed evidence of misconduct that warrants termination for cause.” Citing the USA TODAY article, he said Tucker’s admitted conduct to the investigator had brought public disrespect, contempt and ridicule upon the University.
Haller also said Tucker had materially breached his contract by accusing the university in public statements afterward of conducting a “sham” investigation and having “ulterior motives.” The contract requires him to keep his comments about the university positive and constructive. In addition, Haller said even Tucker’s version of the story, taken as fact, constituted “moral turpitude.”
“It is decidedly unprofessional and unethical to flirt, make sexual comments, and masturbate while on the phone with a University vendor,” the letter said. “The unprofessional and unethical behavior is particularly egregious given that the Vendor at issue was contracted by the University for the sole purpose of educating student-athletes on, and preventing instances of, inappropriate sexual misconduct.”
Tucker and his attorneys sent Haller a 25-page letter on Monday making their case of why he should keep his job. It repeated arguments they have made throughout the case, including that the school lacks jurisdiction to investigate his “private life.” The letter attacked Tracy and accused the university of conducting a biased investigation designed to fire him.
“This is nothing more than the schools’ (sic) knee-jerk reaction to negative publicity brought on by Ms. Tracy’s release of the 1200-page investigation file to the national media,” Jennifer Belveal, Tucker’s attorney, wrote in the letter. “If the University investigated your private life or that of any other employee, it would certainly find something 'embarrassing' to presumably justify your or their termination.”
“Simply put, Mr. Tucker’s response does not provide any information that refutes or undermines the multiple grounds for termination for cause set forth in the notice,” Haller wrote. “Instead, his 25-page response, which includes a 12-page letter from his attorney and a 13-page ‘expert report,’ provides a litany of excuses for his inappropriate behavior while expressly admitting to the problematic conduct outlined in the notice.”
Liz Tippett, a University of Oregon law school professor who specializes in employment law, said Tucker’s termination clause is broad and likely “intended to give the university flexibility to avert and cut off a PR scandal, of which this has already turned out to be.”
Although Michigan State seems to be in the stronger position, that doesn’t mean Tucker has no hope, said Gil Fried, a sports law professor at the University of West Florida. Tucker’s camp has twice in the past week put out public statements that referenced the coach requesting a leave from the university under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which Fried said could prevent an employer from firing an employee.
Fried estimated that a settlement in the $10 to $15 million range is possible. But the longer any litigation drags on, he said, the more Tucker’s leverage could increase.
“You can quickly muddy up the water,” Fried said, “if you have a good strategy and good attorney.”
Our coverage so far of the harassment case against MSU coach Mel Tucker
Michigan State University has been investigating its head football coach since prominent rape survivor and anti-sexual violence activist Brenda Tracy filed a complaint in December with the campus' Title IX office.
The allegation: Tracy alleges that Tucker made sexual comments and masturbated without her consent during an April 2022 phone call. Her account was first reported early Sept. 10 by USA TODAY, after an alleged leak of her name led her to agree to go public.
The investigation: An outside attorney was hired by MSU to investigate Tracy’s allegations, resulting in a 106-page report in July based on another 1,100 pages of exhibits. While Tucker delayed the proceedings by offering to settle with Tracy, challenging the university’s grounds for investigating and postponing the hearing to a bye week, he continued to earn millions.
The university’s response: Within hours of the story breaking, athletic director Alan Haller held a news conference to announce that Tucker would be suspended without pay pending the outcome of the case. A week later, MSU sent Tucker a letter notifying him it intended to terminate his contract, saying that even the conduct he has admitted to – sexual relations with a college vendor – violates his contract.
Tucker’s response: Tucker continues to maintain that the two had a romantic relationship and that the April call was consensual phone sex. He also says he filed for a medical leave for an undisclosed “serious health condition” a few days before he received the notice of termination.
Inconsistencies in Tucker’s statements: Tucker has changed his story repeatedly, made false statements and misled the investigator about several key facts, including where he was at the time of the April call, a USA TODAY analysis found.
What happens next: A hearing in the university’s investigation, overseen by another outside attorney, is scheduled for Oct. 5 and 6. Tucker can – but is not required to – attend. Afterward, the hearing officer will issue a report determining if there is enough evidence to conclude that Tucker violated school policies banning sexual harassment and exploitation.
USA TODAY reporter Steve Berkowitz contributed to this story.
Kenny Jacoby is an investigative reporter for USA TODAY covering sexual harassment and violence and Title IX. Contact him by email at email@example.com or follow him on X @kennyjacoby. Matt Mencarini is an investigative reporter for the Lansing State Journal. Reach him at 517-377-1026 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X @MattMencarini.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mel Tucker fired: MSU football coach out amid sex harassment scandal