Mel Tucker a solid hire for Michigan State after Spartans’ messy coaching search

Michigan State’s coaching search to replace Mark Dantonio was not executed well.

Multiple candidates turned the Spartans down. The shadow of a lawsuit involving former assistant coach Curtis Blackwell still hangs over the program. The best candidate — Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell — stayed at a Group of 5 school instead.

And yet, much like Tennessee in 2018, Michigan State still found a suitable hire: Mel Tucker is expected to take the job Wednesday.

This is the nature of coaching searches in 2020. They can get ugly for both sides. Michigan State trustee Brian Mosallam called Fickell a “waffling flake” after he turned down the Spartans. Tucker on Feb. 5 tweeted he was staying with Colorado, then left a week later. This is the same coach who once said, “There’s no transfer portal in the real world.”

All of that will get tossed around the news cycle in the next 48 hours, and none of it will matter.

Michigan State still landed a solid candidate to navigate the program through what is going to be a rough season or two. Tucker fittingly started his coaching career with the Spartans as a graduate assistant in 1997-98 and worked with Dantonio as an assistant coach at Ohio State. He spent 2015 as the defensive backs coach at Alabama under Nick Saban, then followed Kirby Smart to Georgia, where he was defensive coordinator from 2016-18.

Tucker can recruit. According to 247Sports’ Composite rankings, Colorado’s 2020 class ranked No. 35 in the FBS, a nine-spot improvement from 2019 — and eight spots higher than the Spartans’ 2020 class. Michigan State hasn’t reeled in a top-25 class since 2016, when it was ranked No. 17. That was Dantonio’s highest-ranked recruiting haul.

Michigan State needs recruiting classes that are fringe top-10 — the ones that Michigan and Penn State have — to get back in the mix in the Big Ten East. That will be Tucker’s challenge. The Spartans have to play catch-up with the Wolverines and Nittany Lions before entertaining the notion of competing with Ohio State again.

Can it be done? Look at Tennessee: Jeremy Pruitt needed two seasons — and there were low points — but pulled in the No. 10 recruiting class in 2020. Phillip Fulmer is proclaiming that “The Vols are back!”

Tucker faces another challenge in living up to the on-field standard set by Dantonio, which included a share of a Big Ten title and two outright championships and winning records against Michigan (8-5) and Penn State (6-4). Dantonio did that with a program-wide chip that worked until the last few seasons.

Michigan State had stability with Dantonio. That is not going to be easy to recreate for Tucker. The case involving Blackwell will need to run its course first. Fickell reportedly turned down the job because of concerns about the “campus culture.” Tucker’s reputation will be questioned, too, after his exit. Colorado fans probably feel like he’s the “waffling flake.”

But the truth is Michigan State paid for their mistakes in the search. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman reported the details of a substantial raise that would double Tucker’s salary. In the end, that’s where these coaching searches end. The money talks.

The rest — you know what it’s called, and there was a lot in this case to sift through — walks.

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