Michigan State loss to Ohio State may have shown Mel Tucker’s ceiling

November 21, 2021
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker watches from the sideline during the fourth quarter of the Spartans' loss to Ohio State.
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Somebody at Michigan State wanted the world to know one thing this week about its football program: It was willing to pay coach Mel Tucker $95 million over 10 years to get him to stay in East Lansing. 

On the week of its biggest game of the season against Ohio State, the overwhelming story at Michigan State was the willingness of its boosters to shell out a shocking amount of money for a coach with a thin track record who will finish this season with a winning record for the first time in his career. 

It’s entirely absurd, and yet emblematic of college football’s existential crisis. So few schools actually win at the level they aspire to, that when a coach comes around who does it just once, they become an overvalued commodity. Thus, a school like Michigan State faces a choice to either wildly overpay Tucker or watch him walk out the door to LSU, Southern Cal, Florida or whatever blueblood program happens to be open in a given year. 

We know where Michigan State stands. We don’t know what Tucker will ultimately decide. But it sure is a lot easier to celebrate the idea of making your coach one of the three highest-paid people in the profession before you get waxed 56-7 by Ohio State.

By the end of that debacle, the easy joke made thousands of times on social media was that Tucker should have signed the contract at halftime. There is, of course, no danger in Tucker missing out on a massive payday because of one bad game. At 9-2, he’s done more than enough to be the hottest candidate of this cycle. 

But the optics turned out to be terrible for Michigan State, and getting exposed so badly by the Big Ten’s best team does raise a legitimate long-term concern for any middle-class type of program that wants to make sure its coach doesn’t leave because of money. Is paying $9.5 million a year for a football coach that probably won’t sniff a national title really worth it?    

That’s not an easy question to answer. There are lots of solid football coaches in the college ranks, but very few truly elite difference-makers. And there simply isn’t enough data on Tucker yet to determine which category he fits in. 

On one hand, he’s got all the requisite experience as an NFL assistant and a defensive coordinator under Georgia’s Kirby Smart who has seen what it takes to build a top-level recruiting operation. On the other hand, this is his record: A 5-7 season at Colorado, a 2-5 season impacted by COVID-19 at Michigan State and this unexpected 9-2 breakthrough that was built largely on players he picked up in the transfer portal like star running back Kenneth Walker III.

That’s not enough information to determine whether Tucker should be paid like Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban or even that he’s capable of building a program that can compete with Ohio State over the long haul. And you better believe that when you pay a coach $9.5 million a year, you’re not going to be happy as a fan base or an administration with a couple trips to the Citrus Bowl. 

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The only reason you’d sign Tucker to such an above-market contract is because you believe he’s capable of sustaining a top-10 program and occasionally contending for a national title. But days like Saturday, when the Spartans were helpless to stop whatever Ohio State wanted to do, make that notion seem pretty unrealistic. Regardless of this one result, it’s been a terrific season for the Spartans with one game left against Penn State. 

It’s possible Tucker will take the deal and lead them to an even better future. But if this is more or less as good as it gets, we’ll look back on it as one of the biggest miscalculations in the history of college sports. 

That’s why Michigan State is No. 1 in this week’s Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched. 

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