Mel Tucker Out: Who Should Michigan State Turn to Now?

With Mel Tucker officially on his way out, who could replace him at Michigan State? An early list includes past Mark Dantonio assistants and an in-state fast-riser.

Michigan State is officially parting ways with head football coach Mel Tucker following the school’s decision to terminate his contract Monday. Tucker was originally suspended for allegations of sexual harassment stemming from interactions he had with “Set the Expectation” founder Brenda Tracy.

Per documents obtained by college football insider for The Athletic Nicole Auerbach, Tucker was given a lengthy written notice by the school announcing its plans to terminate his contract for clause.

The letter included how a Title IX investigation found multiple violations by Tucker that explained the reasoning behind the decision to part ways. Tucker leaves with a 20-14 record with the Spartans and a 24-21 overall head coaching record.

How Intriguing is the Michigan State Opening?

Already, there have been two prominent openings in the Big Ten — both for controversial reasons.

The first was Northwestern, which witnessed a swift change following accusations of hazing under former head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Now, Tucker’s firing opens up the latest high-profile job in the Power 5 conference.

The Spartans are already heading into a much different Big 10 ahead of the 2024 season. Former Pac-12 teams USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon are set to join next year.

In addition to the conference changes, Michigan State has facility upgrades to complete. MSU is building a $78 million facility named after Tom Izzo that began construction in April 2022. The facility is promising a new locker room, weight room, recovery pool, recruiting space, and a players’ lounge area.

Now, those facilities will open up with whoever replaces Tucker.

This leads to the next major question: Who should MSU target, and who could qualify here?

Early Potential Candidates Include Power Five Coach With a Recent Top 10 Upset

Here’s a list of head coach candidates who could hear from East Lansing and could be the right fit.

Mike Elko, Duke

Mike Elko’s name has begun to skyrocket in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Him leading the Blue Devils to the upset over a preseason top-10 program in Clemson to start the year solidified his ascension.

Elko’s first Blue Devils team went 9-4, and his 2023 unit is currently 3-0. While he’s never coached in the Big 10, Elko coached at four prominent collegiate institutions: Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Wake Forest, and Penn.

Elko is a strong choice to hear his name attached to MSU throughout this search process.

Chris Klieman, Kansas State

Chris Klieman, like Elko, has no Big 10 ties, but he’s lived in Big 10 country (Iowa native). Klieman is 32-21 with the Kansas State Wildcats and won four FCS national titles while coaching North Dakota State.

Klieman guided Kansas State to a Big 12 title game upset over the National Championship runner-up TCU in 2022. In all, he’s done a commendable job after taking over for a coaching legend in Bill Snyder. The weight and expectations at MSU likely won’t affect him.

If MSU wants to be rebuilt from the ground up, Klieman’s work in Manhattan, Kansas, makes him a qualifier here. KSU, though, would likely try to prevent Klieman from drifting away.

Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh

Let’s say MSU wants to recapture its run of 11- and 13-win seasons from the Mark Dantonio era; Pat Narduzzi is the guy for that.

The Pittsburgh Panthers head coach was the MSU defensive coordinator from 2007 to 2014 under Dantonio — a period during which the Spartans played in the Cotton Bowl and Rose Bowl.

Narduzzi has since gone 63-42 at Pitt. It would take some coaxing, but it would be a shock if Narduzzi isn’t at least called by the MSU office.

Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

It’ll likely be hard to persuade an Oregon State alum to leave his home, especially after Jonathan Smith turned the Beavers into a 10-win program last season and is off to a 3-0, nationally-ranked start in 2023.

However, the Beavs still don’t know their conference future, which could mean settling for the Mountain West Conference. Michigan State provides a new challenge and an opportunity to rebuild at a guaranteed P5 school.

Plus, Smith would have access to improved resources and would be in a fertile recruiting land. He could be targeted by MSU.

Dino Babers, Syracuse

If he’s up for a change of scenery, East Lansing presents an opportunity for Dino Babers.

The Syracuse head coach has the Orange off and running at 3-0 so far, and he has produced two bowl teams. Though he’s 39-49 overall in New York, his last two stops at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green saw him post a combined 37-16 record.

He’s won at a basketball school and in the mid-major realm. MSU, though, would offer better recruiting advantages for Babers compared to his current situation at University Hill.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State

For what it’s worth, Campbell’s name will continue to sprout for any major CFB opening. So why not this one?

He has lasted eight seasons in Ames and produced five bowl teams, posted a 47-44 record, and coached up a 2023 first-round edge rusher in Will McDonald IV. Arguably, his biggest find is former seventh-round quarterback and current San Francisco 49ers starter Brock Purdy. However, his 5-10 record since the start of 2022 may cause MSU to shy away.

Still, Campbell has earned lots of respect in CFB circles. He won with fewer resources compared to most Big 12 teams. MSU would be an upgrade.

Jay Norvell, Colorado State

When Jay Norvell left Nevada for Colorado State, he ended up getting a pay increase and nicer facilities. But he could get at least double that in East Lansing if MSU pursues him.

While he has no ties to the Spartans, he is from Big 10 country, having grown up in Madison, WI, and his first two coaching jobs were at Iowa and Wisconsin. Norvell has since become an offensive whiz known for producing talented receivers (see his latest prospects in Romeo Doubs and Tory Horton) and has extensive experience in the Power 5.

While his current 3-11 record at CSU will likely roll some eyes, Norvell won with limited resources at Nevada and constructed four bowl teams. His P5 runs and high-powered Air Raid offense could draw some looks.

Mike Tressel, Wisconsin

If MSU goes the assistant-to-head coach route, Tressel would likely top the list.

Before running the Badgers’ defense, he spent 2007 to 2020 as a prominent defensive assistant under Dantonio. He also gained experience coaching in the College Football Playoffs alongside Luke Fickell at Cincinnati.

The 49-year-old has never been head coach, but this opening presents a potential opportunity given his past ties.

Alex Atkins, Florida State

Sticking with the theme of fast-rising assistants, the offensive coordinator for the Seminoles has been on the rise.

His unit put up 45, 66, and 31 points during the ‘Noles 3-0 start and rise to No. 4 in 2023. In 2022, he helped the offense become the best at producing plays of 20 yards or more — with an average of 7.46 per game.

Sean Lewis, Colorado

Time to throw in one more assistant — let’s go with the most red-hot offensive coordinator in the nation.

Lewis, under head coach Deion Sanders, has turned QB Shedeur Sanders into a potential top-10 2024 NFL Draft pick. He’s also turning Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr. into threats for All-Conference honors at wide receiver. Lewis has also helped two-way phenom Travis Hunter develop even more as an offensive weapon.

But there’s more, Lewis is a former head coach who produced the first two bowl appearances ever for Kent State football.

Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan

Now we get into possible Group of 5 promotions and coaches with zero ties to the Power 5. Creighton would be considered an in-state hire if lured in.

While he’s 50-64 at EMU, his 2022 team was his best one at 9-4. And he’s 189-110 overall as a head coach, including his past stops at the NAIA and Division III level.

Lastly, the 54-year-old coach ended a near-two-decade streak of missing bowl games at EMU. He’ll stay in green if he moves an hour and eight minutes north of Ypsilanti.

Jason Candle, Toledo

If the Spartans pilfer from the MAC, Creighton isn’t the only option there.

Candle is nearing a decade with the Toledo Rockets, and all he’s done is go an astonishing 56-33 with six bowl appearances. Candle also currently makes only $1.1 million at Toledo. Any P5 school, let alone MSU, would more than likely offer a bump in pay.

There have been rumblings that Candle would leave if a larger opportunity opens up. Candle, per SportsLine, has the highest odds of landing MSU at +400.