EAST LANSING — Mel Tucker dodged questions Monday about a proposed contract offer, then signed it late Wednesday to agree to stay as Michigan State football’s head coach for the next decade.
After the 13th-ranked Spartans’ 30-27 victory over Penn State on Saturday at Spartan Stadium, Tucker again only briefly touched on his new 10-year, $95 million contract. The 49-year-old said he has not yet been able to reflect on the deal while preparing for the Nittany Lions.
But Tucker made it clear that MSU is devoting the resources he wants to produce an elite program.
“I said from the beginning that I thought this was, I believe that Michigan State is a destination job and not a stepping stone,” he said after becoming the fastest MSU coach in program history to produce a 10-win season. “We want to bring a national championship to East Lansing, that's the goal, that's the plan. And we want to be in that conversation year in and year out. Obviously, there's a commitment to do that.”
At 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten) and in third place in the East Division, MSU won 10 games for the ninth time in school history. Duffy Daugherty (1965) and Nick Saban (1999) each did it once, while Mark Dantonio did it six times (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017).
A win in the yet-to-be determined bowl game would allow Tucker to join Dantonio as the only coaches to win 11. MSU did that five times under Dantonio, with 10 wins in 2017 the outlier.
Tucker improved to 17-14 in three seasons overall and 12-7 with the Spartans the past two years. Dantonio was 18-17 in his three years as head coach at Cincinnati before leaving for MSU and became the school’s all-time winningest coach (114-57) in his 13 seasons in East Lansing.
The new contract is expected to make Tucker the highest-paid Black head coach in all of major American sports. His nemesis across the field Saturday, James Franklin, on Tuesday agreed to a 10-year extension reportedly worth $85 million.
“In terms of Black head coaches, there's very few out of 130. … I know it's a small percentage,” said Tucker, one of 13 in the Football Bowl Subdivision and among just three in the Big Ten (Franklin and Maryland's Mike Locksley). “So everything that I do is and has significance and meaning across all different types of fronts. Everyone is watching. So, in terms of what all that means, I haven't really had the time to reflect on that because of the preparation and what goes into helping a team prepare for a Big Ten game like this.”
If he does manage to do reach his goals, Tucker still won’t be the first in his family win a championship in their new home state. His son, Christian, is a senior outside linebacker for Lansing Catholic and captured the Division 6 state title on Friday over Warren Michigan Collegiate, 16-6, in a defensive battle.
Coach Tucker said he was able to go to Ford Field in Detroit to watch, glowing after an opportunity to simply be a proud father watching his son achieve his dream.
As much as the Spartans have had a spate of injuries across the field, the problems with them in the kicking game became glaring.
Kicker Matt Coghlin, who did not kick in the Purdue loss and has been limited by a right hip issue the previous two weeks, did not take kickoffs again Saturday and made MSU’s first two extra points. When the sixth-year senior hit a 22-yard field goal in the second quarter, which tied Brett Swenson for the school record of 377 points, Coghlin came up hobbling and in pain. He did not play again.
Freshman walk-on Stephen Rusnak handled kickoff duty but got sent spiraling to the ground hard while making a tackle on MSU’s first kickoff. Rusnak stayed back on his second kickoff but did not play again after that.
That forced MSU to dig deep to use Evan Morris on kickoffs and Evan Johnson on point-after kicks, a significant dropoff in both areas.
Morris, who walked on to MSU’s roster as a kicker/punter before moving to tight end before the 2020 season, hadn’t kicked since 2019. The third-year sophomore averaged 55.8 yards on his four kickoffs Saturday.
It had been even longer for Johnson, who walked on to the roster this season. The redshirt junior had not kicked in a game since 2018, when he was at Division III Hope College. He missed his first point-after attempt against PSU but made his second in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously we had issues with our specialists kicking,” Tucker said.
There were plenty of memorable moments and statistics from the win over Penn State.
• Running back Kenneth Walker III ran for 138 yards, and his eight 100-yard games are tied for third most in a single season in MSU history. Walker moved into fourth place on the school’s single-season rushing list with 1,636 yards, and his 18th rushing touchdown put him in a tie for fifth-most in a season.
• Quarterback Payton Thorne threw two touchdowns to move into second on MSU's single-season list, behind Kirk Cousins' 25 in 2011. The sophomore now has 2,886 passing yards, the seventh-best season total in school history.
• Linebacker Cal Haladay wasn’t recruited by Penn State, but the native of Elysburg, Pennsylvania, registered a career-high 11 tackles and forced a fourth-quarter fumble the Spartans recovered.
• MSU went 6-0 at Spartan Stadium this season, the 21st time that has happened since it opened in 1923 but the first time since 2015.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mel Tucker: Michigan State shows 'commitment' to being elite