Mel Tucker is out as the head coach of Michigan State football after what has been an amazing few weeks of allegations and revelations at the university. Michigan State gave him written notice of intent to terminate his contract for cause. The news comes amid MSU’s investigation into sexual-harassment allegations against the coach who less than two years ago signed a 10-year, $95 million contract extension amid an 11-2 run.
The schedule is daunting — the Spartans were crushed at home in Week 3 by Washington, trailing 35-0 at halftime — but the job will still be very attractive. It has had three AP top-10 finishes in the past nine seasons and is a program in a conference that is pulling in huge cash in the wake of the Big Ten’s massive television deal.
The job isn’t the first Big Ten vacancy of the season (Northwestern is), but this is a much more appealing coaching job. Michigan State isn’t quite on par with archrival Michigan, Penn State or Ohio State, but with the conference pulling back its divisions, the landscape should be a bit clearer optically. Expect plenty of Power 5 head coaches to get serious consideration.
Who will get consideration from the Power 5 ranks?
Mike Elko, Duke, head coach
Let’s start with one of the coaches that I think Northwestern would target as well. The 45-year-old from New Jersey had a stellar debut season in 2022, leading Duke to a 9-4 record. His team, currently ranked 18th, started this season with a bang by beating Clemson and is off to a 3-0 start. It’s all wow stuff.
A former Ivy League defensive end, he worked at Fordham, Richmond, Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M. MSU has a rich basketball history, as does Duke, but it’s not as much of a pure basketball school as Duke is — and the ACC doesn’t have the money that the Big Ten does. This one could be interesting.
Lance Leipold, Kansas, head coach
Leipold is practically a miracle worker for what he has done in Lawrence, Kan. The 59-year-old Wisconsin native, who won six Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater before turning Buffalo into an AP Top 25 team, got the Jayhawks to the top 25 last year after a rotten decade of football in Lawrence. This year, KU starts with 3-0. This is a call if you’re MSU you probably have to make because tLeipold is an elite football coach and he’s proven that everywhere he’s been.
Chris Klieman, Kansas State, head coach
Leipold’s in-state rival would be a smart choice if he’s interested. Klieman and the Wildcats were last year’s Big 12 champions, and although the Big Ten has much better resources than the Big 12, Klieman works for the same athletic director at K-State that he had when he won national titles at North Dakota State. Klieman is considered as good as there is in the conference.
PJ Fleck, Minnesota, head coach
The Spartans are said to have some interest in Fleck, who has done a good job of bringing a lot of stability to a program that was reeling when he left Western Michigan. The 42-year-old is 46-28 at Minnesota, and that includes an 11-2 season and a top-10 finish in 2019. He has a good job in the Big Ten, but it’s worth noting that MSU is a program has reached the College Football Playoff before, so it wouldn’t shock us if he would consider it.
Timeline of sexual harassment allegations against Mel Tucker, MSU’s investigation
Who will get consideration from group of 5 ranks?
Willie Fritz, Tulane, head coach
Fritz would be a solid candidate. A former defensive end at Pittsburg State in Kansas, he has had double-digit winning seasons at every level of college football, going 97-47 at Central Missouri, 40-15 at Sam Houston State and 17-7 at Georgia Southern.
Now he’s rolling in New Orleans. In 2022, he led Tulane to a 12-2 season that included a Cotton Bowl win over USC and a No. 9 finish. Tulane is 2-1 in the fall, and I could see him playing at Northwestern — and he’d be an obvious choice at Kansas if Leipold jumps to MSU.
Jason Candle, Toledo, head coach
A former MAC Coach of the Year, Candle has won at least nine games three times in his seven seasons with the Rockets. He is a well-regarded offensive mind and is expected to get some consideration for this job, according to sources. The 43-year-old Mount Union product has won two MAC titles.
Charles Huff, Marshall, head coach
Huff is seen as a rising star. The 40-year-old Maryland native proved himself to be a top assistant at Penn State, Mississippi State and Alabama before getting his shot as a head man. He is in his third season with the Thundering Herd and has gone 11-4 since 2022, including a win over Notre Dame in South Bend.
MSU gives Tucker notice of intent to terminate contract
Kane Wommack, South Alabama, head coach
Like Huff, Wommack is another rising star head coach at the Group of 5 level who has been an assistant in the Big Ten. Wommack played a big role in Indiana’s No. 12 finish in 2020 as defensive coordinator. The 36-year-old is off to an impressive start in the Sun Belt, touring south Alabama; he went 10-3 last year, including a narrow loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl. His team just blew out Oklahoma State 33-7 in Stillwater.
Pat Narduzzi, Pitt, head coach
One wild card incumbent head coaching option: Narduzzi, a beloved former defensive coordinator under Mark Dantonio. The 57-year-old was an excellent DC and brought plenty of edge to MSU. He’s been really solid for nearly a decade running Pitt’s program and has had back-to-back Top 25 seasons the last two years going 20-7. Would he go back to East Lansing? I’m not sure about that. He has a great job in a great city, but he’s been there a long time, and the Big Ten has a lot more stability than the ACC.
Bill O’Brien, New England Patriots, offensive coordinator
O’Brien is another wild-card candidate who could end up in the mix. He knows all about stepping into messy situations after taking the Penn State job in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. O’Brien did an excellent job of dealing with all sorts of issues and getting things back on track. He won the Bear Bryant Award in 2012 and went 15-9 in two seasons before leaving to become the head coach of the Houston Texans. He had four playoff seasons and returned with a 52-48 record. Whether he’ll go back to college again remains a mystery, but this is a good Big Ten job.
How good is the job at Michigan State? Pros, cons when the coaching search begins
Sean Lewis, Colorado, offensive coordinator
I think the top candidate from the assistant ranks will be Lewis. He has head coaching experience from his time at Kent State, where he did a very good job in a difficult place to achieve sustained success, going 18-10 in the MAC in his final four seasons. He led Kent State to its first bowl win before leaving this offseason to become Deion Sanders’ OC at Colorado.
As he explained Athletics Last week, the move was prompted by him nearly getting the Cincinnati head coaching job last winter, but Scott Satterfield, a coach with Power 5 experience, ended up getting it at the last second, so Lewis decided it was time for a pivot . At Colorado, he has shown once again that he is a brilliant offensive mind. The 37-year-old former Wisconsin quarterback-turned-tight end was highly regarded among his players and would be a compelling option for MSU.
Why Sean Lewis left Kent State to be Deion Sanders’ OC
Matt House, LSU, defensive coordinator
House is a Michigan State graduate who began his coaching career as a Spartan graduate assistant. The 45-year-old, a protégé of Steve Spagnuolo, did a truly impressive job at LSU last year, despite having seven new starters and missing his most talented defensive lineman in Maason Smith. The Tigers rose from 10th in the SEC in scoring defense to fifth. They also jumped from No. 13 to No. 3 in red-zone touchdown percentage. His stock numbers will rise if LSU ends up making a College Football Playoff run.
Sherrone Moore, Michigan, offensive coordinator
Moore is a hot name in the coaching world, but would MSU try to hire from its archrival? And would the 37-year-old really be tempted? If Jim Harbaugh one day leaves for the NFL, and maybe that could happen this winter, Moore would make a lot of sense to be his replacement. He has been a key contributor to the Wolverines’ rise over the past two seasons as his offensive line has won multiple Joe Moore Awards as the nation’s top unit.
His work in the trenches and as a recruiter has played a key role in Harbaugh getting this program to the top of the league and dominating rival Ohio State the last two years. People in the Michigan program are big fans of Moore, and they rave about his ability to connect with the players and say the players will run through a wall for him, in part because he’s so genuine.
Brian Hartline, Ohio State, offensive coordinator
Another Big Ten assistant to watch is Ohio State OC Brian Hartline. The former NFL wideout has proven to be arguably the best assistant coach in the nation over the past few seasons, recruiting one elite wideout after another and developing them into first-round draft picks. The 36-year-old Canton, Ohio native could be an intriguing option, especially given his ability to land top talent and the attention to detail he has shown to his craft.
Harlon Barnett, Michigan State, interim head coach
Barnett, a 56-year-old former Spartans standout, has a chance to win the job, but it’s a big uphill battle that started with a 41-7 loss at home to Washington. If he can lead MSU to a few upsets, he could work his way into this job full-time. But with four ranked opponents ahead, including three top-10 teams, the odds aren’t great.
(Top photo by Mike Elko: Lance King/Getty Images)