Analysis: Commitment in football is simply self-preservation

Mel Tucker, Michigan State's new football coach, speaks duirng a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
265805 Pinchos- PGB promo Banner (25 x 5 cm)-5 copy

College football needs to place a moratorium on the use of the words loyalty and commitment. Everybody involved, coaches, administrators and, yes, even players have ceded the right to demand it from others.

“I think what we have created is a disloyal business model,” said Gerry DiNardo, a former college football coach and current Big Ten network analyst. “I’m convinced this is no longer an educational endeavor. This is a completely business endeavor. Young coaches enter the profession now knowing they can be millionaires.”

The latest coach to toss loyalty aside to scoop up a few more million is Mel Tucker, who was hired away from Colorado by Michigan State on Wednesday.

A little more than a year ago, Colorado made Tucker a very rich man with a $14.8 million deal over five years in December 2018 to rebuild a football program that has had one winning season since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.

Tucker, 48, had been a longtime assistant in the NFL and at the highest levels of college football, working under Nick Saban at Alabama and Kirby Smart at Georgia, before becoming a head coach for the first time at Colorado.

Michigan State had Tucker on a short list of possible replacements for Mark Dantonio, who showed the extent of his loyalty to the school and players by announcing his retirement the day before a new crop of recruits signed with the Spartans β€” and a few weeks after receiving a $4.3 million bonus.

Tucker, realizing he wasn’t at the top of Michigan State’s list, took the opportunity to proclaim his commitment to the Buffaloes on Twitter just three days ago. He probably wasn’t going to get the job, but it benefited Tucker to let it be known he was in demand.

When Luke Fickell, choice No. 1 for Michigan State, decided he was better off staying put at Cincinnati, the Spartans circled back to Tucker. And now, a month before spring practice starts, Colorado is searching for a head coach again, trying to replace a guy who parlayed a single promising 5-7 season into six-year deal that pays $5.5 million annually.

A few months after Tucker was famously quoted saying, “There’s no transfer portal in the real world,” he went out and proved himself wrong.

“We have created this,” DiNardo said. “And we won’t let the kids transfer without penalty. The kids are watching this. What do you think they’re thinking?”

If you think transfers are an epidemic in college, talk to high school coaches who are regularly losing top players to local powerhouse programs or IMG Academy down in Florida. That’s business as usual these days as players and their families look out for their own best interests.

To be clear: Tucker is no villain. Fickell no hero. Each made a calculated decision about what was best for themselves and their families. As they should.

The shelf life on coaches has never been shorter. They can go from hot commodity to the hot seat faster with one poor season.

Remember when Tom Herman looked like the second coming of Urban Meyer after two seasons at Houston? After three season at Texas, Herman is 25-15 and heads into Year 4 with little room for error, having just gutted most of his staff.

Willie Taggart was crushed by Oregon fans for making a move similar to Tucker’s. He left the Ducks after one season in 2017 to take over at Florida State, a dream job for the Sunshine State native.

Taggart got 21 games with the Seminoles before being fired. Don’t feel too bad for him. His buyout was $20 million.

Still, it might have cost more for FSU to keep Taggart.

Toddlers on Christmas morning have more patience than many college football fans and boosters, who are quick to cut off financial support if they don’t think the coach can get it done. Athletic directors, with their own jobs on the line, often have little choice but respond to popular demand.

“Loyalty, we shouldn’t talk about it,” said former coach Rick Neuheisel, who is now an analyst for CBS Sports. “It’s doing what’s best for you.”

Taggart was one of three head coaches fired this cycle two years into their tenure. That used to be a rarity. Now second-tier Southeastern Conference programs Arkansas (with Chad Morris) and Mississippi State (with Joe Moorhead) are cutting loose coaches before Year 3.

It was not long ago Colorado did just that, hiring Jon Embree on the cheap in 2010 and then dumping him after he went 4-21 in two seasons.

Hard to blame Tucker or any coach for getting all you can while you can.

Tucker was in no danger of getting the Embree treatment from Colorado. But make no mistake: The chance he would have suitors looking to double his salary after another 5-7 season were slim to none.

Buffaloes fans longing for the glory days of Kordell Stewart were hopeful Tucker would be the coach to crack the code to success in Boulder. It looked as if they and athletic director Rick George were ready to give Tucker time to build up the Buffs. But what would that really mean if he was still struggling to get Colorado bowl-eligible in Year 3?

Michigan State is a challenging job, too, but Big Ten membership comes with privileges the Pac-12 can’t match these days.

“The commitment is here. The resources are here. The leadership is here,” Tucker said at his introductory news conference in East Lansing, Michigan. “Everything we need is here right now to get done what we need to get done.”

For George, it’s back to the well.

“I am committed to this program and we’re going to go out and hire an incredible coach,” he said.

The only real commitment in college football is to self-preservation.