On Sunday Sept. 10, headlines out of East Lansing swept through the college football community.
An incident occurred around two years ago following the Michigan State’s football team as they hosted Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor who has devoted her life to educating athletes about sexual violence. This visit took a turn and evolved into a scandal as Tracy has come forward, stating that she was sexually harassed by Michigan State Head Football Coach, Mel Tucker.
Tucker and Tracy had developed a professional relationship following her visit. According to phone records, 27 phone calls occurred between the two, spanning an average of 30 minutes and taking place every other week. The relationship abruptly ended in April 2022, when Tracy claims to have been sexually harassed by Tucker. Tracy filed a formal Title IX complaint with the University’s Office of Civil Rights in December 2022.
In an interview with USA Today, Tracy said, “The idea that someone could know me and say they understand my trauma but then re-inflict that trauma on me is so disgusting to me, it’s hard for me to even wrap my mind around it.” Following this complaint the University hired an independent Title IX investigator, who finished her formal report in July of 2023. The University has scheduled a formal hearing for Oct. 5-6, 2023, the weekend of Michigan State’s bye week.
Photo credit: Spartan Avenue
Tucker told investigators, “I am not proud of my judgment and I am having difficulty forgiving myself for getting into this situation, but I did not engage in misconduct by any definition.” He continues to claim that the relationship was consensual.
Michigan State’s Athletic Director Alan Haller held a press conference on Sept. 7, announcing that Coach Tucker has been suspended without pay and will not coach again until a hearing is completed and an investigation is carried out.
Interim President Teresa Woodruff followed Haller’s remarks by saying “This step, suspending Mel Tucker without pay, is … necessary and appropriate for today’s circumstances. These actions are not taken lightly.” She goes on to say “In the MSU of today, when any report comes into the university, it is appropriately and rigorously reviewed.” Her contrast between the MSU of old versus the MSU of today is noted several times throughout the press conference. This is in reference to former Michigan State leadership failing for years to act on the numerous complaints about disgraced former University and Team USA Gymnastics physician, Larry Nassar. He is now serving a minimum of 100 years in prison for his actions regarding sexual offense.
In Dec. 2021 Tucker signed a 10-year $95 million contract. This contract made him one of the highes-paid coaches in all of college football. This contract was fully guaranteed unless one of three events occurred: if the contract was breached; if Trucker was convicted of a crime; or if Tucker participated in “conduct which, in the University’s reasonable judgment, would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule on the University.” He currently has 8 years and $77 million dollars left on his contract.
Tucker called the hearing a “sham” and stated it is “not designed to arrive at the truth.” He states “there is an ulterior motive designed to terminate my contract based on some other factor such as a desire to avoid any [Larry] Nasser taint.”
Since the announcement of Tucker’s suspension, no players have made formal comments on the situation and none are expected to do so in the future. Some players have posted on X in support the of program and the team. Defensive Back Jaden Mangham (’26) tweeted saying, “It’s Bigger Than Just Football!”
So what does this mean for the Spartan football team moving forward?
Following Tucker’s suspension, Michigan State has appointed 56 year old Harlon Barnett as Acting Head Coach of the Spartans. Barnett is a former All-American for Michigan State and spent 11 years as the Defensive Backs coach, Assistant Head Coach and briefly as Co-Defensive Coordinator under former coach Mark Dantonio. He left for a brief stint as Florida State’s defensive coordinator before returning to East Lansing and spending the last two seasons as Defensive Backs coach again. In his opening press conference Barnett was quoted as saying “I’m being totally honest here – I want to be the head coach at Michigan State, but not in this way, obviously…anybody who knows me knows that I am a Spartan. They will tell you that this dude is Green all day…I am very excited about this coming week and this opportunity to show that I’ve got.”
Barnett’s former boss, Mark Dantonio will also be making a return to the football program to serve in an advising role. Dantonio resigned in 2020 following back to back 7-6 seasons. Barnett told Sports Illustrated that Dantonio’s role is more about calming the staff and players and less about the X’s and O’s strategy of the game.
Within his first week, Barnett has already made some changes, bringing back the popular “Spartan Walk” a 15-minute team walk starting at Kellogg Center Hotel and passing the Spartan Statue on their way to the stadium. This tradition has been in place since the 1960s until Coach Tucker shortened the walk during his tenure.
Barnett, Dantonio and the Spartans hosted the Number 8 Washington Huskies on Saturday, Sep. 16. Washington won 41-7 thanks to 473 yards and four touchdowns by their Heisman Trophy candidate Quarterback, Michael Penix Jr.
At the end of the day, this is a story about way more than football. Healing needs to occur for the victim, players, coaches and fans alike before football can become the main focus again.