Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker has been suspended without pay while the university completes an investigation into claims that he sexually harassed a prominent sexual assault awareness speaker after she was hired to address the Spartan team.
Athletic director Alan Haller announced Tucker’s interim suspension Sunday night, less than 24 hours after news of the claims against the fourth-year head coach was made public in reports from ESPN and USA Today. Interim university President Teresa Woodruff appeared alongside Haller at a news conference and said she fully supported Haller’s decision.
“The university’s objective has been and remains focused on conducting a fair, thorough and unbiased investigation and allowing the processes to play out,” Haller said.
Brenda Tracy, who operates a nonprofit company that tries to raise awareness about sexual misconduct, especially among college athletes, told university investigators that Tucker sent her gifts, asked if she would date him if he wasn’t married and masturbated while on the phone with her without her consent, according to details reported by USA Today on Sunday. Tucker told investigators he took part in the behavior but that it was consensual.
Haller said longtime Michigan State assistant Harlon Barnett will serve as interim head coach in Tucker’s absence. Former Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio is also returning to the team to serve as an associate head coach starting this week. Dantonio retired in February 2020.
Haller said he was first made aware that Tucker was accused of violating the school’s sexual misconduct policy in late December, shortly after Tracy filed the claims. Michigan State hired a third-party investigator to decide if Tucker had violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy. The investigator finished her report July 25, Haller said, and recommended that the school hold a hearing to decide if Tucker violated any policy. That hearing is scheduled for the first week of October.
University leaders did not know any details about the complaint — including Tucker’s admission that he did have a sexual encounter on the phone with Tracy — until they were published early Sunday morning, according to a university spokeswoman. The spokeswoman said Sunday night that Tucker’s suspension was specifically for “unprofessional behavior and not living up to the core values of the department and university.”
Michigan State’s policy for handling sexual misconduct cases requires an employee’s superior to be made aware of any ongoing complaints about them but to prevent the superior from knowing any of the details about the complaint until the case has been closed. Experts say this firewall between employees and their bosses is part of a trauma-informed best practices approach to protecting the integrity of an investigation.
Any formal decision on Tucker’s job status, and the more than $77 million that remains on his contract, isn’t expected to be decided until the hearing concludes.
The university had some interim measures in place during its monthslong investigation — including a no-contact order for Tucker and increased oversight of the program and the head coach, Haller said Sunday. He said he decided not to suspend Tucker in July after the investigator had completed her report because he wanted to allow the full process to come to a conclusion. He said the school decided to increase those interim measures to include a suspension Sunday because of new information coming to light.
When asked after a brief news conference what new information the school received, he declined to answer.
Haller and Woodruff said they were limited in the information they could share because the case is an ongoing investigation.
“This morning’s news might sound like the MSU of old. It was not,” Woodruff said. “An independent, unbiased investigation is and continues to be investigated.”
Barnett is expected to speak to the media later this week. Haller said the school hasn’t yet finalized Dantonio’s role, but expects that he’ll be wearing a headset and actively coaching from the sideline or the press box during Tucker’s absence.