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Bacon: MSU athletic director's ineptitude made Mel Tucker "very rich"

Mel Tucker in East Lansing
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Last week Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio announced he was retiring. The news wasn’t surprising, but the timing was.

There were a lot of good reasons for Dantonio to step down – some positive, some negative. He had done just about everything he could do at Michigan State. He earned Big Ten’s Coach of the Year award twice, won three Big Ten titles, and beat arch-rival Michigan eight times.

He’s also 63 years old, he’s already had a heart attack, and he’s been sued by a former employee who can testify about Dantonio’s role in recruiting a player who has since been convicted of sexual assault.

Two months ago I predicted here that Dantonio would step down – but not before January 15, when MSU would give him another $4.3 million dollars just for being the head coach that day. Some called it a “loyalty bonus,” but that proved a poor name for it.

A couple weeks after depositing that “loyalty bonus,” Dantonio announced his retirement, which sent Michigan State into a tailspin. The timing was horrible: weeks after the annual coaching job fair had ended, and a day before the recruiting season closed.  

Worse, Michigan State’s current athletic director Bill Beekman, was uniquely unqualified for the job. The previous AD, Mark Hollis, had to resign in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal - no small thing, of course. But he was otherwise a highly regarded leader, on the short list of candidates to replace Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

John U. Bacon

Hollis knew coaches, and coaches knew him. When Hollis resigned, Dantonio helped promote Bill Beekman, the former secretary to the Board of Trustees, who had zero experience in athletics. But he did have one quality Dantonio liked: Beekman was not about to push back on anything Dantonio wanted, including his $4.3 million loyalty bonus.

Replacing Hollis with Beekman was convenient for Dantonio in the short-run, but cost Michigan State when it matters most. He had no idea how to run a national search.  

This helps explain why every candidate Beekman sought to fill a very appealing position kept dropping out. They weren’t about to risk their careers on a place-holder AD who probably won't be there in a few years – and shouldn’t be. Even former MSU defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi, only gave Beekman’s offer about five seconds of consideration before declining. Most surprising was seeing University of Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, whom many reporters said was a sure thing, turn down Beekman too.

Spartan Nation flew into full panic. But Michigan State still had a lot to offer, and plenty of good candidates who would jump at the job. They weren’t all big names, but big names aren’t always the best candidates. Some of the best coaches in college sports were considered virtual nobodies when they were hired – a list that includes Michigan’s Bo Schembechler in football, and State’s own Tom Izzo in basketball.

State had plenty such candidates to consider, including Eastern Michigan’s Chris Creighton, who’s done an amazing job at the historic "graveyard of coaches." I believe he would have been better than any candidate left, and hungrier.

But I had little faith MSU's fill-in AD Beekman would know how to find such candidates, or have the confidence to hire one. Instead Beekman hired Colorado head coach Mel Tucker – who had already turned Beekman down once. After all, Tucker had just finished his first year as head coach, winning five games and losing seven. He had work to do.

But Beekman backed up the Brink’s Truck, and offered to double Tucker’s salary, and his budget for assistant coaches. It worked. Tucker accepted, and Beekman was off the hook – even if State paid twice the market value for their new coach. Perhaps we should point out that just because you pay a man five million dollars, doesn’t mean he’s worth it.

Will Tucker succeed? Who knows? He has no experience, either.  

Really, we only know this: Beekman’s ineptitude made Tucker very rich.

John U. Bacon is the author of six national bestsellers. His next book, Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football, comes out September third.

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John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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