We will soon learn whether Michigan State coach Mel Tucker suffers from premature veneration. It’s a projectile dysfunction that afflicts many football coaches. It’s when projections of greatness far exceed actual accomplishments and a school or franchise vastly overpays a promising head coach.
The coach prematurely goes limp, leaving the team, fans, and decision-makers totally unsatisfied.
The highest-profile example of premature veneration happened at Notre Dame 16 years ago. After a 5-2 start and reaching No. 9 in the polls, the Fighting Irish made Charlie Weis the highest-paid coach in college football, lavishing the former Bill Belichick assistant with a 10-year, $40-million contract. After his hot start, Weis lost 25 of his next 55 games at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame fired Weis halfway through his groundbreaking 10-year contract.
So here we are again. The Detroit Free Press reported yesterday that Michigan State plans to extend the contract of its second-year head coach to the tune of 10 years and $95 million. At an average salary of $9.5 million, Tucker would be the third highest-paid coach in college football, trailing only Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. Saban would earn approximately $200,000 more than Tucker and Swinney about $8,000.
Saban has won seven national championships. Swinney has won two.
In three years as a head coach, including one season at Colorado, Tucker has one winning season and a career record of 16-13. This extension smells like premature veneration. Tucker has gone from dating Instagram models to hopping in bed with Mia Khalifa, the adult film star.
The record contract might be far more than Tucker can handle.
Let me say it in a different way by quoting the street philosopher and adult rap star Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G.
“Mo Money Mo Problems.”
Most people have more trouble handling success than failure. There are a million books written about overcoming adversity and failure. Success makes you an author, which is short for authority. Success means you have all the answers. Success allows you to write your own rules. Most people can’t handle that.
Mel Tucker no longer has to answer to a boss, the school’s athletic director or school president. His critics are now irrelevant. It’s game over. Tucker hit the lottery. According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, about 70% of lottery winners go broke in a few short years.
I get why Michigan State is paying Tucker. LSU and USC were allegedly interested in hiring Tucker. Tucker has NFL coaching experience. An NFL franchise would likely offer Tucker a job this off-season. The competition to employ Tucker was going to be intense.
Plus, two MSU boosters are financing Tucker’s new contract. Mat Ishbia and Steve St. Andre, two Detroit-area businessmen, are paying for Tucker’s whopping contract. Ishbia was a walk-on basketball player on Michigan State’s 1999 national championship team. Ishbia is the president, chairman, and CEO of the largest wholesale mortgage lending company in America. He’s worth nearly $7 billion. He previously gave $32 million to the Michigan State athletics department.
He’s a white male billionaire who loves his alma mater, loves sports, and understands the value of good publicity. Investing in Mel Tucker is “cancel culture” insurance. Ishbia wed himself to a high-profile black football coach. Mel Tucker’s new last name is Ishbia.
I don’t write any of that to denigrate Ishbia or Tucker. I’m writing it to explain another one of the factors that led to Tucker being paid like he’s Saban or Dabo. It’s brilliant marketing by Ishbia and St. Andre.
But will all the money harm Tucker’s evolution as a coach? Would Tucker’s long-term success be better served by a contract that pays him $7 million a year for five years? Will the contract and the headlines sparked by the contract create unreasonable expectations around Tucker?
Tucker’s deal will change the market for college coaches. Saban and Swinney and others will get raises because of the deal handed to Tucker. But the headlines about Tucker’s deal will not go away. His name will be attached to Saban and Swinney moving forward. This Saturday, when Michigan State faces Ohio State, you will hear plenty of discussion of Tucker’s contract. If the seventh-ranked Spartans lose to the fourth-ranked Buckeyes, you will hear that Tucker earns more money than Ohio State’s Ryan Day.
Sometimes less really is more. A little less money would’ve protected Tucker’s growth. I don’t blame Tucker for taking the contract. I blame the overzealous boosters and Tucker’s agent, Jimmy Sexton. I’m not vilifying Sexton, Ishbia, or St. Andre. They’re all well-intentioned.
However, they’re doing what serves them. Jimmy Sexton is arguably the most powerful man in college football. Tucker getting paid as much as Saban and Swinney serves Sexton. He represents nearly every college coach who matters. Changing the market serves Sexton. Over the next decade, Sexton will make far more money off the new market than Tucker will.
Sexton can’t lose. Tucker can. The whole sports world might see him prematurely venerated on national TV. He could end with a big pile of money and Charlie Weis’ reputation. Tucker was already making $5 million a year. He was always going to end up with a big pile of money. This new contract puts his reputation at risk.