Content warning: This story addresses allegations of sexual harassment and may be difficult to read and emotionally upsetting.
Michigan State has provided Mel Tucker with written notice of intent to terminate his contract for cause, Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller announced Monday. The news comes amid Michigan State’s investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the football coach.
“This notification process is required as part of his existing contract,” Haller said in a statement. “The notice provides Tucker with seven calendar days to respond and present reasons to me and the interim president as to why he should not be terminated for cause.”
If Tucker fails to present reasons to the school why he should not be fired for cause within seven days, he will be fired on Sept. 26. The school’s investigation will continue, regardless of Tucker’s participation in the upcoming hearing or his job status. Tucker could be losing more than $70 million of his $95 million deal.
The school stated that Tucker’s “admitted behavior” violated the terms of his contract, which required him to conduct himself professionally and ethically at all times. MSU also said Tucker engaged in conduct “which constitutes moral turpitude, or which, in the university’s reasonable judgment, would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule” on the school.
Timeline of sexual harassment allegations against Mel Tucker, MSU’s investigation
The allegations of sexual harassment became public in a story published by USA Today on Sept. 9. According to USA Today, Brenda Tracy — a rape survivor and activist — accused Tucker of making sexual comments and masturbating while on a phone call with her in April 2022 after the two had developed a professional relationship because of her advocacy work. Tracy filed a complaint against Tucker with the school’s Title IX office in December, and MSU hired an outside Title IX attorney to investigate.
The attorney submitted her report on July 25, according to Haller, and Tucker is set for a hearing to determine whether he violated school policy. That hearing is set for Oct. 5 and 6 — when the football team has a bye week. Haller said publicly that he learned of the investigation in late December.
After the allegations became public, Michigan State suspended Tucker without pay.
One day after being suspended, Tucker denied Tracy’s allegations, calling them “completely false.” He said Tracy “initiated the discussion that night, sent me a provocative picture of the two of us together, suggested what she may look like without clothes and never once during the 36 minutes did she object in any manner, much less hang up the phone.”
Tucker argued that it was not until four months after the call that Tracy told anyone she was offended. During that time, he alleged that she gave him “every indication that everything was fine,” which included sending him a text on Father’s Day and repeatedly expressing a desire to return to the university, his statement said.
After meeting and bringing Tracy to campus in 2021, Tucker said he and Tracy developed a personal relationship “that grew into an intimate, adult relationship” which involved dozens of calls during the fall of 2021 and the winter of 2022, a period when Tucker had been estranged from his wife.
Tracy, who survived a gang rape by college football players in 1998, visits campuses to raise awareness about sexual assault through an activism platform named Set the Expectation. Michigan State named Tracy honorary captain for a spring game in 2022.
On Sept. 12, Tracy said in a letter released through her attorney that she had no intention of disclosing her identity publicly while the investigation was ongoing and only agreed for USA Today to publish her story before the investigation was complete after her name was leaked to local media.
USA Today said Tracy agreed to be identified in its story and share over 1,200 pages of case documents. USA Today added that it typically does not identify people who allege sexual harassment.
Michigan State is known for its missteps in handling sexual abuse accusations against Larry Nassar, the disgraced former USA Gymnastics and campus physician. Nassar sexually abused over 300 female gymnasts; he pleaded guilty in 2018 to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. Then-school president Lou Anna K. Simon resigned amid the scandal, but criminal charges against Simon were dismissed. Athletic director Mark Hollis also resigned during that period. It was never alleged Hollis had any knowledge of Nassar, but an ESPN report in 2018 described a pattern of sexual assault issues within MSU athletics.
Michigan State hired Tucker away from Colorado in February 2020. In November 2021, he signed a 10-year, $95 million contract extension amid an 11-2 run. The 51-year-old’s contract goes through the 2031 season unless he is fired for specific causes: materially breaching his contract, being convicted of a crime and engaging “in any conduct which constitutes moral turpitude.”
Tucker is 19-14 as a head coach. Two donors, including Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Mat Ishbia, are paying $24 million of the contract; the school is paying $71 million.
Why Michigan State started termination process now
Michigan State had a couple of potential paths to take in the wake of the explosive USA Today report. It could have waited until the conclusion of the grievance process, or it could have gone after Tucker for violating the terms of his contract. The latter is the route MSU decided to take — and it allows the school to move much quicker. Otherwise, it would have had to wait for the October hearing to take place and then for a final written decision, which could have taken another month. That determination could have helped the school fire Tucker for cause, but it would have taken a much longer time.
MSU clearly believes it has more than enough evidence to fire Tucker for cause now based on his own admitted behavior without waiting to find out if he violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy. The hearing will take place even if Tucker is fired by then and with or without his participation because it is important for the process to result in a finding, Title IX experts told me. Otherwise, if investigations such as this one were halted the second a university employee was fired, there wouldn’t be a formal record of the bad behavior. For situations involving less high-profile figures than the football coach, that could be a huge problem; another university could hire a professor with a history of sexual misconduct without knowing it. — Auerbach
If Tucker is fired, who could fill the job?
Because it’s September, Michigan State will have time to put out feelers and gauge interest. When Tucker was hired, it was a mad dash around signing day in February and the timing turned away some potential hires. This time around, potential names to watch could include Kansas State coach Chris Klieman, Kansas coach Lance Leipold, Colorado offensive coordinator Sean Lewis, Duke coach Mike Elko, Iowa State coach Matt Campbell and Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith, among others.
This is a Big Ten job that has a lot of resources and a program that has played in four CFP/NY6/BCS games since 2013, so it will get a lot of interest.
This will be Haller’s first time making a football hire. He has recently hired new hockey and women’s basketball coaches, and the hockey hire of Adam Nightengale quickly turned around that program in one year. This will also be MSU’s first football coaching hire on a more regular fall timeline since it hired Mark Dantonio in late 2006. — Vannini
(Photo: Mike Mulholland / Getty Images)