Michigan State football after Mel Tucker: Spartans coaching job pluses, minuses and candidates

Michigan State needs a new football coach.

The school announced Monday it intends to fire Mel Tucker for cause, following an explosive USA Today story detailing sexual harassment allegations against Tucker that launched an investigation the school said it largely stayed out of. The school said last week it did not know the full extent of the details until the story, as the review process is still ongoing. But in its letter informing Tucker of its intention, Michigan State said Tucker materially breached his contract with his admitted conduct.

Tucker went 20-14 over four seasons. His tenure was highlighted by an 11-2 season and a Peach Bowl win in 2021. But Tucker’s other two complete seasons were below-.500 years.

So how good is the Michigan State job? What names could get in the mix? Here are some factors to keep in mind.


Timeline of sexual harassment allegations against Mel Tucker, MSU’s investigation

You can win here

Tucker’s predecessor Mark Dantonio took the program to its longest sustained high-level success since the 1960s, including two Big Ten championships in 2010 and 2015, and Tucker got the Spartans back near the top. This is still a program that has played in four BCS/New Year’s Six/College Football Playoff games since 2013. That includes a Rose Bowl win against Stanford, a Cotton Bowl win against Baylor, a Peach Bowl win against Pitt and a College Football Playoff loss to Alabama in 2015.

The expectations and the resources are so high at Michigan State because, after decades of inconsistency, the school got a taste of the top and wants to get back there.

Under Dantonio, Michigan State did more with less, winning with overlooked players. Tucker’s hire and the accompanying resources were meant to bring in a higher level of recruiting class, but the Spartans’ class ranking still hovered in the 20s under Tucker. The current class ranks 46th, but that’ll certainly change with a coaching move.

But the Big Ten is about to get a lot tougher

Michigan State already had the challenge of being in the same division with Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. The Big Ten is dropping divisions next year but will add USC, Oregon, Washington and UCLA from the Pac-12. The Trojans, Huskies and Ducks are top-10 teams right now, and UCLA sits in the top 25.

A conference championship could be more difficult to come by, though the removal of divisions opens a path as a second-place finisher. The expansion to a 12-team playoff also opens more postseason opportunities.

Michigan State can spend big

Tucker might be credited with the recent jump to $10 million coaches. His 10-year, $95 million deal reset the market for coaches like Ryan Day, Kirby Smart, Brian Kelly and others. Michigan State was willing to spend at a national championship level because Tucker led a top-10 team at the time and because Tucker had leverage — MSU didn’t want to lose another coach to LSU. Two boosters — Mat Ishbia and Steve St. Andre — contributed a chunk of that at the time.

The school is also finishing up a $78 million renovation of what is now the Tom Izzo Football Building (named after Izzo at Ishbia’s request as part of a donation). It includes a new weight room, recovery room, locker room and more.

In the name, image and likeness space, Spartan Dawgs 4 Life is the school’s official collective. It works as a clothing brand and a crowdfunding space and is owned by St. Andre.

The timing is better this time around

Luke Fickell might be Michigan State’s coach right now if Mark Dantonio had stepped down right after the 2019 season. Instead, it dragged on and didn’t happen until right before 2020 signing day. Fickell was a top target but chose to stay at Cincinnati. Michigan State, which had been turned down by Tucker, went back and doubled their offer.

It’s not February this time. It’s September. Michigan State will be able to go through a normal coaching change cycle for the first time since 2006 and get a big head start on putting out feelers to sitting head coaches.

So what names could get in the mix?

Colorado offensive coordinator Sean Lewis did a really good coaching job at Kent State but couldn’t get enough attention, so he went to Colorado to be an assistant to Deion Sanders. In less than half of a season, the skill of the former Wisconsin tight end has been on display, helping Shedeur Sanders become one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the FBS. Lewis’ ability to adapt to personnel in running his up-tempo scheme is already paying dividends. The 37-year-old went 24-31 as head coach at Kent State from 2018 to ’22, though that’s slanted due to Kent State’s Power 5-heavy nonconference schedules. It was the program’s most successful stretch since the 1970s and included a division title. Lewis was a finalist for the Cincinnati job that eventually went to Scott Satterfield. But after the Tucker experience, would MSU want to stay away from hiring another Colorado coach?


Why Sean Lewis left Kent State to be Deion Sanders’ OC

Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman has won more than 75 percent of his games as a head coach, including a 32-21 record at Kansas State after a 69-6 run at North Dakota State with four FCS national championships. The Wildcats won the Big 12 last year (that’s right, not TCU) and finished in the top 15. Klieman has been a perfect fit at Kansas State, understanding how to do more with less. It’s very similar to what Dantonio did for MSU.

Kansas head coach Lance Leipold was in the mix for Wisconsin and Nebraska last year before signing a new big contract to stay at Kansas. He took over the worst program in the Power 5 and has dramatically improved the Jayhawks in less than three years — last season was their best in 14 years. Before that, Leipold made Buffalo one of the best teams in the MAC, and before that, he won six Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater with a 109-6 record.

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson does nothing but win, and he’s been picky about leaving Winston-Salem. The 56-year-old Clawson has been at Wake since 2014, and he has reached seven consecutive bowl games in a difficult job, including 11 wins, a division title and a top-15 finish in 2021. He was previously the head coach at Bowling Green, where he posted a 10-win season, and also led programs at Richmond and Fordham. He has won a lot, and he’s done it his way. Can that translate to a higher-pressure, high-recruiting job like MSU?

Duke head coach Mike Elko has made an immediate impact with the Blue Devils, winning nine games in his first season and beating Clemson to open the 2023 season. The 46-year-old Elko started in the lower levels of college football but has worked at Bowling Green, Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M since then. He’s a head coach, he has recruited five-star players and he knows the Midwest. That crosses off a lot of boxes.

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell has felt like a natural fit for many Big Ten jobs and seems to be included on all of these lists, but he has stayed around in Ames. The 43-year-old Ohio native brought Iowa State its greatest success in a century, winning a Fiesta Bowl and finishing first in the Big 12 in 2020, but he’s 12-16 since, and his name isn’t quite as hot in coaching circles as it was a few years ago. Perhaps the downturn is all the more reason to make a move, but we also haven’t seen him at a high-expectations Power 5 job.


Bruce Feldman’s candidates to replace Mel Tucker at Michigan State

Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith has turned his alma mater into a top-half Pac-12 team, but with conference realignment and uncertainty coming to the Beavers, perhaps he might be interested in a move. Smith is a California native who has spent his entire career out west, but he’s 20-9 over the last three years with the Beavers, one of the toughest jobs in the conference. Oregon State is 3-0 and ranked in the top 15 right now. Smith is a sharp offensive mind who has shown he can do more with less.

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops has one of the safest jobs in the country, making around $9 million annually without high expectations. He’s taken Kentucky to seven consecutive bowl games with two AP Top 25 finishes. Would the 56-year-old Ohio native be interested as the SEC gets even bigger next year? He’s gone head-to-head with MSU on a lot of Ohio recruits and kept assistant Vince Marrow from joining the Spartans. Stoops does have a $4 million buyout if he leaves for another job.

Ohio State offensive coordinator Brian Hartline has been one of the best wide receiver coaches and recruiters in the country, promoted to the OC role this year. He has developed six NFL Draft picks since the 2019 draft, including three first-round picks in the last two years. The 36-year-old Ohio native received interest in the Cincinnati job last year and could get more Power 5 interest in this cycle.

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has a long history with Michigan State as its defensive coordinator from 2007 to ’14 but quickly turned down interest the last time the job opened (again, that was a February). He’s 63-42 at Pitt with an ACC championship in 2021. MSU brought in Dantonio to help steer the ship without Tucker. If people at the school want to go back to the Dantonio era, perhaps Narduzzi gets a call. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Tressel worked at MSU from 2007 to ’20 and became acting head coach when Dantonio stepped down. The 49-year-old spent the last two years at Cincinnati and followed Fickell to Wisconsin.

NC State head coach Dave Doeren has been consistently successful, with a 74-55 record in 11 seasons. He has won at least eight games six times there. But he has never won more than nine and only twice finished second in the ACC Atlantic Division. Eleven seasons is a really long time for any coach, but Doeren last year signed an extension through 2026.

LSU defensive coordinator Matt House is a Michigan native and worked at MSU as a graduate assistant from 2001 to ’02. House returned to college football last year after a three-year stint with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he won a Super Bowl as linebackers coach. In his first year at LSU, the Tigers’ scoring defense improved from 70th nationally to 33rd as LSU won the SEC West. He has also been a defensive coordinator at Kentucky, Pitt and FIU. He’d come in with a strong defensive background and experience recruiting at the highest level.

MSU has seen Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb up close the last two years, as his offense put up 80 points and 1,216 yards on the Spartans in their home-and-home with the Huskies. Grubb turned down the Alabama offensive coordinator job to stay at Washington, and the Huskies could be a CFP contender. He’s an Iowa native who spent 2014-16 at Eastern Michigan and has followed Kalen DeBoer to multiple stops.

Marshall head coach Charles Huff is 18-10 with the Herd, including 11-4 over the last two seasons and a win at Notre Dame last year. Huff is a former Penn State and Alabama assistant who earned national recruiter of the year honors, securing players like Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders and JC Latham. He also spent 2013 in the state at Western Michigan.

Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton has gone under the radar but was in the mix for Purdue last year. He’s 34-22 at WKU with three nine-win seasons in the last four years, and he has constantly adjusted on the fly as his staff gets poached by bigger schools. That’s because WKU has had one of the most prolific passing offenses in the country — Bailey Zappe broke the NCAA records with 5,967 passing yards and 62 touchdowns in 2021. Helton has also coached at USC and Tennessee.

(Photo: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)

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