Opinion: Michigan State's Mel Tucker hire underscores type of competitive imbalance NCAA ignores

Mere hours after a media tour to explain why he had rejected overtures from Michigan State to remain as Colorado’s football coach, Mel Tucker reversed course Tuesday night and reached an agreement to leave Boulder after just one season and head to East Lansing. 

The machinations of the move aren’t terribly difficult to figure out. According to a report in The Athletic, Michigan State will “more than double” Tucker’s guaranteed salary of $2.4 million and will give him significantly more resources to build his staff than he had at Colorado. For anyone in coaching, that’s a significant bump in pay. For someone who went 5-7 in his only season as a head coach, it’s an opportunity you can’t turn down. 

Though the optics of Tucker’s sudden change of heart are awkward at best, it would be silly to criticize him for being disloyal. As one coach who recently got a mind-blowing contract told me, you might only have real leverage in these situations a few times in your life so you better take advantage. As Michigan State’s search for Mark Dantonio’s replacement became increasingly desperate, Tucker had it and used it. Good for him. 

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Mel Tucker went 5-7 in his lone season at Colorado.

But it would be impossible to let this particular money grab pass without noting that it came on the same day several college athletics leaders — including NCAA president Mark Emmert and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby — went in front of a Senate subcommittee to argue that more money for athletes through name, image and likeness rights could create a competitive imbalance.

Earth to Mark and Bob: Your sport is already there. 

Because even within the ecosystem of the Power Five, where the powerbrokers like to believe in a level playing field, it is now obvious that there are haves and have nots based on nothing more than the ability to pay coaches. When a Big Ten school can pile up the money so high in front of a Pac 12 coach with a 5-7 career record that he would be dumb not to take the job, it’s time to admit that more money for the players is a potential solution to the imbalance rather than the extinction event of the college model. 

Maybe more than any other coaching hire in the last few years, Tucker’s departure from Colorado says a lot about the current state of affairs in college football. 

While the 48-year old Tucker played in the Big Ten at Wisconsin, coached for four years at Ohio State under Jim Tressel and had been a graduate assistant at Michigan State years ago under Nick Saban, there was no compelling football reason for him to leave Colorado right now. Tucker’s first season was generally considered a success. He had recruited well this year, and with Colorado committing more resources to football than it had previously, all the ingredients were there to compete in the Pac 12.

But more and more, we are seeing what that’s worth on a national scale in college football: Not very much. When Pac 12 people try to rationalize why the league has had a representative in the College Football Playoff just twice in six years — Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016 — a lot of the focus goes toward tangential issues like the nine-game conference schedule or making its top teams play road games on Friday night.

But the reality of the situation is clear: If an SEC or Big Ten school wants a Pac 12 coach bad enough, they have enough resources to ensure they won’t be outbid. 

That’s not a pretty picture for the Pac 12, especially when they’re already fighting two factors they can’t really control: The decline in football participation in California high schools relative to the Deep South and the high cost of living in a lot of Pac 12 markets, which makes it tougher to attract and retain quality assistants.

But when a Pac 12 school finally generates some football enthusiasm under a new coach and can’t even compete financially to keep him around for Year 2, it’s hard to make the argument that this kind of “competitive balance” is worth preserving.

As people like Emmert and Bowlsby have attempted to blunt the growing public narrative on the name, image and likeness debate, their core argument has been that an unfettered market would function as a proxy for recruiting and thus give certain schools an unfair advantage. 

Even at Tuesday’s hearing, Emmert tried to make the case that schools in big urban markets would start to dominate since athletes at those schools would potentially have more sponsorship and marketing opportunities.

Beyond the counterfactual nature of that argument — the marketing potential of a college athlete is likely far higher in a community like Alabama or Clemson where there are no pro sports in the state — it’s impossible to know what effect that might have on the talent distribution. 

What we do know, however, is that an unconstrained market on the coaching side has led to schools in the Big Ten and SEC that benefit from the most lucrative television contracts having the ability to pay whatever they want, whenever they want and to whomever they want.

When you look at the current landscape of college football, where the SEC, the Big Ten and Clemson appear to be leaving everyone in the dust, can you really argue that giving athletes the right to profit off their likeness will make things more uneven than they are right now?

Given his thin record as a head coach, nobody really knows how Michigan State will fare over the long haul with Tucker. But when the Spartans’ administration got backed into a corner, all they needed was money to get them out.

Time will tell whether that’s a sound investment. Just like a local car dealership giving $100,000 to a blue-chip linebacker who may or may not develop into a star, there are no guarantees.

But the argument that money going to players would somehow tip the scales of competition is a tough one to make on the same day a Big Ten school straight up bought a 5-7 coach from the Pac 12. 

Of course, if we know anything by now about the likes of Emmert and Bowlsby is that it won’t stop them from trying. 

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