Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Opinion: Michigan State’s win with Mel Tucker is a glaring loss for the NFL


Rising star did serious “soul searching” while passed over repeatedly for NFL head coaching jobs


Jarrett Bell


December 28, 2021


ATLANTA – Mel Tucker is here now. For a long time. This is the destination job, as Tucker declared it when he arrived at Michigan State in February 2020. If Tom Izzo can put Sparty on the map as a basketball hotbed (post-Magic), then Tucker can surely envision a football powerhouse,

And lo and behold, it took less than one full season for the big donors and power brokers to demonstrate faith with a 10-year, fully-guaranteed, $95 million contract extension that sends a message that they won’t let Tucker get away like his mentor, Nick Saban, did years ago in bolting from East Lansing to LSU.

But this wasn’t always the destination job. Tucker spent 10 years in the NFL, when he became the youngest defensive coordinator in Cleveland Browns history, had a stint as an interim coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars and for a spell was on the circuit as a candidate for an NFL head coaching gig.

Tucker, 49, may have received the largest contract extension in college football history at the time in less than one full season at Michigan State, but no NFL team ever saw fit to put him in charge. His NFL experience was so familiar to the legion of Black coaches who put in time, paid dues, prepared for the ultimate promotion, then saw themselves passed over for white candidates with lesser resumes.

With another NFL hiring cycle looming – against the backdrop of just four Black coaches hired for the 27 openings over the previous four cycles – Tucker’s case resonates for what it might have become on the pro level.

“I actually had to do some soul-searching when I was in the NFL,” Tucker told USA TODAY Sports during an exclusive interview as the Spartans (10-2) prepared for a Peach Bowl matchup against Pitt (11-2) on Thursday night. “I said, ‘Listen, you have to be OK with yourself as a person if you never become a head coach.’ I told myself that. Because I’m sitting there looking at guys that I coached with or that I knew that were head coaches. It was, ‘I can do that.’

“I was ready to be a head coach many, many years ago. When I interviewed for the Browns job in 2008, I firmly believed I could be an NFL head coach. Then they hired Eric Mangini.”

Mangini lasted two years and produced a 10-22 record. Tucker was reminded that in 2012 he lost out to Mike Mularkey for the Jaguars job. Mularkey was 2-14 in his one season.

“People always go, ‘Well, we want someone with experience.’ How the hell do you get that?" Tucker said. "It takes one person to say 'Yes, we’re going to take a chance on this guy.’ But I can remember sitting there saying, ‘No matter how good of a coach I am, I may never get that opportunity.’ “

Tucker’s soul-searching and the specter of racial barriers is hardly new. I’ve heard so many Black coaches express similar sentiments for decades, while hiring patterns often reflect the frustration that many experience. Tucker ultimately went back to the college level, the option that Herm Edwards (Arizona State) took in 2018 and Hue Jackson (Grambling) followed this year after not getting another NFL crack.

Tucker knows. It’s difficult for any coach from any hue to land a head coaching job in the NFL or at a major college. But he can surely relate to respected, passed-over Black coaches such as Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. He wonders, too, how Steelers defensive backs coach Teryl Austin (who previously coordinated a top-five defense) can just fall off the radar after once being viewed as a hot head coaching candidate.

“I’ve studied everything,” Tucker said, alluding to hiring patterns. “I asked a lot of questions. I watched how guys got jobs and I would trace it back. ‘How’d this guy get his job?’ You’d see, ‘He knew this guy,’ or ‘He was a grad assistant there,’ or ‘He knew the AD.’ I watched how all that happened and I realized I can’t hire myself. Becoming a head coach, especially as a Black coach, is like catching lightning in a bottle.”

Tucker, who grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, has coaching in his DNA. His father, Mel Sr., who is enshrined in the Sports Hall of Fame at the University of Toledo, was his first coach – in Little League, basketball, at home and then some – and instilled “old-school” principles. Yet it wasn’t until Tucker realized that he wouldn’t make it as a pro football player following his college career as a defensive back at Wisconsin, that he had enough of a bug to pursue a coaching career.

The first stop was, ironically, Michigan State, where Saban hired him in 1997 as a grad assistant. Tucker also worked on Saban’s staffs at LSU and Alabama, and along the way took his advice to seek NFL experience on his resume (as Saban himself did before winning six national championships).

Tucker, though, said he never thought he’d coach in the NFL for 10 years, seeing himself as better suited to mold young men, on and off the field. He stayed in the NFL longer than originally projected, he admits, thinking he was close to landing a head coaching job. Saban, nonetheless, was spot-on about the value of NFL experience.

“There’s a lot of (expletive) that happens in the NFL,” said Tucker, who had stints with the Browns, Jaguars and Bears. “It’s rough. Especially if you’re not in winning franchises. It’s cutthroat. It’s rugged. And it’s long.”

Tucker, who won national championship rings as an assistant at Ohio State and Alabama, landed his first head coaching job at Colorado in 2019. He stayed in Boulder for just one season (5-7) before jumping to Michigan State. It just so happened that his charge to establish a new culture was greeted by the pandemic and a social justice movement sparked by the death of George Floyd.

What did Tucker learn about himself amid that challenge?

“It reinforced what I already knew: I was prepared for the job,” he said. “As a coach, stuff is always happening. You have to lead. And you cannot lead unless people know where you stand. ‘Here’s how I feel about George Floyd. Here’s how I feel about civic engagement. Here’s how I feel about COVID. Here’s how I feel about the way football should be played. Here’s how I feel about the health and safety of the players and coaching staff.’"

Tucker and his new program have rolled with the punches well enough to land in a New Year’s Six bowl game and, of course, for him to land the security of a long, massive contract. In 2022, only new LSU coach Brian Kelly will top the contract for Tucker in terms of total value at a public school. Tucker insists the deal won’t change his mindset. Of course, he still wants to win national championships … especially since he won’t be chasing Super Bowl glory.

“I had a good contract before the extension,” Tucker said. “So, it doesn’t change anything. But what it has done is raise the bar. And I think Michigan State is seen maybe in a different light now as we aspire to be a Tier 1 program.”

Achieve that and Tucker would certainly prove that Michigan State’s win is the NFL’s loss.

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