Michigan State Football: Mel Tucker’s contract paving way but NCAA must do better

PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 09 : Head coach Mel Tucker of the Michigan State Spartans looks on from the sidelines during the first half of a game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Piscataway, New Jersey. Michigan State defeated Rutgers 31-13. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 09 : Head coach Mel Tucker of the Michigan State Spartans looks on from the sidelines during the first half of a game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Piscataway, New Jersey. Michigan State defeated Rutgers 31-13. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

Mel Tucker’s Michigan State football contract paves a way for African American coaches but getting an opportunity in the first place remains a problem.

Mel Tucker, as we all know, last year signed an enormous extension amongst a mirid of reports that he was potentially being targeted by LSU to take over for then departed Ed Orgeron. The contract — 10 years for a total of $95 million — equaling $9.5 million per season was at the time the second-largest single-season haul this side of Nick Saban.

Oh, the irony and how things come full circle.

After a few other mega-deals for other coaches settled, Tucker remained in the top five, tied for fourth overall in the highest, per season, salaries in the sport — tied with Brian Kelly who wound up at LSU after all — again wow… the irony.

However, as I reflect on this February, during Black History Month, and think about the landscape of college football, I can’t help but still think we have a lot of work to do when it comes to our efforts on elevating qualified African American head coaches to represent these universities across the country.

Make no mistake, Michigan State is paving the way with this effort by showing that they are willing to hire Tucker with a somewhat limited head coaching resume, but also to ensure that they keep him around. The significance of the contract is massive for college football as a whole because it places Tucker amongst those that have won at the highest level — and Tucker is proving he can do that, too, at Michigan State.

I’m proud of Michigan State for the job that they have done and the effort they made to keep Tucker at MSU — but the job also that they did in hiring Tucker in the first place. Only 14 of 130 college coaches currently are African American. The Big Ten has actually remained among the top leagues when it comes to representation, but sadly that currently is only three — Penn State, Michigan State, and Maryland — out of 12 schools. Still a whopping 25 percent. That’s just not good enough.

The staggering statistic comes in that more than 60 percent of the sport is represented by African American athletes, which is where the coaching tree comes from for most — former players of the sport itself. However, most college coaches, and even pro coaches, come by way of the coordinator position.

Since 1981 — according to ESPN.com — only 11.35 percent of the coordinators hired at the 65 FBS Power Five schools have been African American. However, over 40 percent have been hired as position coaches. The pipeline seemingly dissolves between the position coach and the ability to move into coordinator positions which is most likely to result in head coaching opportunities. That is a problem. Per the same study, 17 coaches were hired in 2020 and only three were African American. Again, that’s just not good enough.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that athletics in general, from college to pro, bring a large amount of pressure — many athletic directors and general managers are defined by the coaches that they hired. They’re tied to results and results matter if you want to keep your job. Interestingly an article by EPSN’s The Undefeated (Adam Rittenberg) back in 2021 highlighted a conversation between UCLA AD Martin Jarmond and NCAA President Mark Emmert about the hiring of coaches and ADs in college athletics.

"“[Emmert] said … they usually don’t have a lot of familiarity with athletics, so they hire people who they’re comfortable seeing,” said Jarmond, who became the first Black athletic director at both Boston College (2017-2020) and UCLA. “It’s not a matter of trying not to be inclusive. It’s just, ‘When I’m not familiar with athletics and I know athletics can get me fired, I’m going to go with something comfortable.” Jarmon said “I never thought of it like that”"

Comfort is what the NCAA needs to challenge more at the highest levels. That is one thing that MSU challenged when they selected Tucker — because despite a long track record of success, they listened intently to the plan that Tucker had to lead a program. They identified the gaps in their historical practices and selected the best fit for the program. The results speak for themselves.

It shouldn’t be about the color of someone’s skin that gets them the job, but it also shouldn’t be the reason that individuals are excluded either. For some, it is evidently clear, by the current representation, that hiring African American coaches leads a multi-million-dollar game, that is college football, on behalf of these institutions makes the decision-makers and boards uncomfortable.

The comfort factor is something that allows colleges to simply make choices based on a very limited scope, one of familiarity, that results in the selection of a leader for the football program.

Very rarely do you even hear about a university going through a true “interview” process with coaches. They simply make a selection and appoint the leader. Until the NCAA challenges the process and stops allowing Universities to select based on biases, this will remain a systemic issue. Even Mel Tucker, himself, was quoted in saying about the selection process for college football jobs:

"“Once I saw jobs start to open up, I wanted to see if there was going to be anything different, whether there would be more minorities, coaches of color, hired as head coaches,” said Michigan State coach Mel Tucker, who is Black. “I didn’t see a noticeable difference. I didn’t see anything that showed me that there was any type of change in behavior in the hiring process.” – The Undefeated, Adam Rittenberg"

Unless there are more colleges and universities like MSU that look at the gaps they have and, even despite not having a true interview process, and hiring for the gaps to infuse a culture and acceptance of diversity in the highest-profile positions.

It isn’t just about the fact that Michigan State brought Tucker to the school to coach but recognized him like many schools have by giving him the contact that they did. Only three of the top 12 highest-paid coaches in college football are African American. That’s only 25 percent of the top paid college coaches are African American, but when you add in that only 14 total overall total head coaches in college football though that number becomes be extremely misleading.

The results have to be there for people to get and maintain head coaching jobs, but unfortunately, college football is notorious for throwing around a lot of money to individuals who haven’t won a lot in their careers. Michigan State not only opened the door with Tucker’s hiring, but they also recognized his success and paid him for the results. The fact that some of their wealthiest donors opened their wallets up the way that they did represents so much more than just the result that was achieved — it represents what is needed more in college football, giving diversity a place in the institution in the first place, and rewarding the individual like you would anyone else.

Michigan State is a better football program today because they infused a great leader into their program, in Tucker, but they are a stronger university because they infused diversity into their leadership structure — in one of the highest-profile positions that they could have.

Our college football program is leading the way in diversity and will continue to for years to come. However, college football has a lot of work to do in ensuring that African American coaches get the chance to showcase their ability to lead and teach student-athletes.

When the sport is a majority of America’s minority, there is no excuse that those performing at the highest levels can’t eventually turn into coordinators and head coaches of these major college football programs. The universities make billions of dollars every year from these players; to play at the highest levels of the game they have to understand it — live it, sleep it, breathe it — so why can’t they also be the ones to lead and teach it?

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