MSU has no choice — it has to pay Tucker $95M

If Mel Tucker agrees to stay at Michigan State via a 10-year, $95 million contract, the key part of this sentence for the Spartans will be “agrees to stay,” not the eye-popping numbers.

Is State overpaying for a guy who is just 16-13 overall as a head coach (one season at Colorado, two at MSU), especially when two of the toughest games of the season (at Ohio State, home vs. Penn State) remain?

Of course it is.

Based on accomplishment, there is nothing — not even this current 9-1 dream of a season — that suggests Tucker should trail only Nick Saban and his seven national titles on the list of highest-paid college football coaches.

Based on the economics of talent retention however, Michigan State had no other choice.

To keep Tucker, it had to overcompensate in one of the few controllable variables that factor into the employment decisions of football coaches. What Michigan State lacks in a recruiting base, weather and championship tradition, it can make up for in money.

So it leaned on a couple of billionaire alumni — Mat Ishbia and Steve St. Andre — to give Tucker likely more than any other school would or perhaps could.

It may work. Tucker hasn’t signed anything yet, but he said on “The Draymond Green Show” podcast: “I always made it clear MSU is a destination job, not a stepping-stone. It was never my intention to come here and just pass through.”

That’s easy to say now, but Tucker was staring at a world of opportunity after quickly revitalizing the Spartan program. After reaching impressive heights under Mark Dantonio — their 2010-15 stretch included three Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl victory and a College Football Playoff appearance — everything dropped off his final four seasons.

Now, the Spartans control their path toward the Big Ten championship and in terms of the playoff chase heading into a massive game at Ohio State. Tucker, meanwhile, has become a folk hero and a point of pride for the school. A 2-0 record against hated Michigan doesn’t hurt.

Mel Tucker claps with an intense look on his face.
Mel Tucker’s Spartans are in prime contention for the Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff spot. At Michigan State, that’s not the easiest thing to do. (Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports)

That kind of success, and his background in the NFL and SEC as an assistant to Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart, was enough to make him perhaps the hottest coaching prospect in the country.

With job openings at historic programs such as LSU and USC — and perhaps Florida and who knows where else as the coaching carousel spins — Michigan State had reason to be worried.

College football doesn’t operate on a level playing field. The inherent power and potential of individual schools are not equal. Some schools win. Some never will.

Consider that each of LSU’s past three coaches have captured national titles. MSU hasn’t won any since 1966, when it was able to draw African American talent from the still-segregated South.

Two of those LSU coaches, Les Miles and Ed Orgeron, aren’t even considered all that great. The other, Saban, previously coached MSU for five seasons but left for Baton Rouge after his only good season, a 9-2 campaign in 1999.

Without great players, no coach can win. It’s why great coaches are attracted to the jobs where great talent is easiest to procure.

Louisiana is a hotbed for high school talent. Over the past decade, according to Rivals.com, it has produced 18 five-star and 136 four-star recruits. Michigan has had just five and 79, respectively — or 54.5 percent of Louisiana’s elite recruit output.

As the only Power 5 program in the state, LSU gets almost all of those kids; 15 of the 18 five-stars who have committed or signed did so with the Tigers. They haven’t lost one since 2014.

MSU must compete with Michigan, not to mention Notre Dame, which essentially sits on the Indiana border. Most of the top in-state players go to those two schools, or Ohio State. The Spartans have signed just one five-star and 10 four-stars over the past decade.

That’s the advantage LSU can offer. Same with USC or Florida or a lot of other places that offer a clearer path to exceptional talent.

There is no fixing the local talent gap. And while Michigan State can try to close on its local rivals via facility and stadium upgrades, it’s not like they don’t build things in Ann Arbor, Columbus and South Bend, as well.

As such, about the only variable MSU had going for it was comfort and familiarity. Tucker is in East Lansing. It’s always easier to not move than move. But at 49 years old, there were plenty of reasons to move.

Compensation was the Spartans’ only play here. And they went big because it was the only strategy. It’s not like LSU or USC or anyone else was offering minimum wage. So like any other business trying to lure a highly coveted employee to an off-the-beaten-path location, it needed to overpay, which doesn’t mean Tucker is, or will be, overpaid.

Being a successful football coach in East Lansing requires a higher salary than being a successful football coach in some other places.

This was just two businessmen, Ishbia, who runs United Wholesale Mortgage, and St. Andre, CEO of the marketing company Shift Digital, making a business move on behalf of their alma mater.

They invested in human capital. Now, it’s on Mel Tucker to actually take the deal and prove staying in place was a good idea for all involved.