At a Colorado donor event he organized Tuesday night, Tim Harrington expected the featured guest to be his normal self—fiery, intense, gregarious—but that wasn’t necessarily the case. In fact, Mel Tucker spoke at such a low pitch that the hum of a nearby mini fridge almost drowned him out. “The whole thing was surreal,” Harrington says during an interview with Sports Illustrated. “I know he knew exactly what he was doing the next day.”
Tucker’s final hours as Colorado’s head coach are becoming clearer, and while it’s not rare for college coaching transitions to have some bizarre elements, the situation that transpired this week in the Rocky Mountains is one of the strangest.
While working toward a deal Tuesday night to become Michigan State's head coach, Tucker spoke to more than two dozen Colorado boosters and fans at a fundraising event at the Denver Country Club, soliciting their donations while expressing his commitment to the program. Sipping on his trademark Scotch and water, Tucker paraded through a reception of big-money Buff Club members in a plush, window-lined room, eventually delivering a speech and taking questions. He spoke about his passion for Colorado, described his reasons for accepting the job 14 months before and expressed excitement in the future, built around the high school players he had signed a week ago.
Tucker conveyed to supporters his “full intentions to be at CU,” says Bob Masten, a tight end for Colorado from 1969–71 and a Denver-based businessman who attended the event. In fact, when exiting the club, Masten told Tucker he was looking forward to seeing him again in a couple weeks at another donor gathering on Feb. 25. “Yeah,” Masten said Tucker told him, “that’d be great.”
Harrington, 62, spoke one-on-one with Tucker throughout the night. “The thing ended and I was talking to him and looking him in the eye,” says Harrington, a 62-year-old Denver native and Colorado graduate. “I swear to God after the event I said, ‘There is something going on.’ His eyes were not … it was almost like he wasn’t telling the truth. It was bizarre.”
An hour later, Tucker struck a deal with Michigan State to be its new coach.
“We were hoodwinked,” says Craig Poulter, 60, a longtime CU season ticketholder and Colorado native who was there Tuesday. “Mel misled us. I believed in him.”
Harrington and five others who attended that event Tuesday night spoke to SI, one of them on anonymity, about Tucker’s exit. The manner of his departure has left those at CU angry, frustrated and disappointed. Tucker originally rejected strong interest last weekend from the Spartans, even tweeting a commitment message on Saturday. Less than four days later and 18 hours after that donor event, the Michigan State football Twitter account posted an eight-second video message of Tucker seated in a private jet bound for Michigan. “Can’t wait to see you in East Lansing,” he said in the clip. “Go Green!”
Tucker, a disciple of Nick Saban and a longtime college and NFL defensive coordinator, returned to his roots. He’s an Ohio native who played at Wisconsin and started his coaching career at Michigan State as a graduate assistant under Saban. Michigan State more than doubled his $2.7 million annual pay and provided him with a $6 million staff salary pool, roughly twice what he had in Boulder. After just one season running his own program—a 5–7 result at that—the 48-year-old went from being the ninth-highest paid coach in the Pac 12 to the 12th-highest paid coach in the nation.
Why MSU officials would dole out such a hefty contract—and length too, at six years—can only be explained by their situation.
The Spartans found themselves in a bind when longtime coach Mark Dantonio announced his retirement so late in the hiring cycle, Feb. 4, a day before National Signing Day. Things got worse after at least two prominent candidates turned down interest: Tucker on Feb. 8, a Saturday, and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, the day afterward on Sunday. Fickell was widely believed to be Michigan State's primary target, and when that fell through the school was in a desperate position. On Monday, MSU re-engaged with Tucker. CU athletic director Rick George was not given an opportunity to make a counter offer, even though the situation was unlikely to change. With a wallet fattened by more than $50 million in annual conference revenue, the Spartans have considerably more financial wherewithal than the Buffaloes.
Reached for comment on the timeline of events, Michigan State officials referred to athletic director Bill Beekman’s comments from earlier in the week. At some point, MSU interviewed Tucker in person but did not offer him the job. According to a story at mlive.com, Beekman offered Tucker the job Monday. Negotiations continued Tuesday until, according to Beekman, they had a deal in place by 9 p.m. MT, or about one hour after Tucker left the event at the Denver Country Club. Beekman said Tucker accepted the job at 10:50 a.m. MT on Wednesday. Michigan State officials declined further comment Sunday.
Tucker, George and others at CU involved in this ordeal were, in a way, victims of timing. This all played out over a stretch of days that included previously scheduled fundraising functions, media events and a hospital visit. George underwent back surgery on Monday. Last weekend, Tucker, George and other school administrators were part of a three-day tour of booster gatherings in Southern California, where at one point Tucker called Colorado a “destination football job.”
On Tuesday, with that offer in hand from Michigan State, Tucker did three interviews with prominent Denver radio personalities, including Dave Logan and Alfred Williams, two former CU football greats, as well as Scott Hastings. He wasn't eager to do the interviews, said a source familiar with the situation, but they had been previously scheduled and Tucker had good relationships with all three hosts. “Listening back, in hindsight, I think there were some signs,” Hastings said in an interview Saturday. “I think losing an assistant to Tennessee [defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh], and the inability to pay enough to keep his staff, that bothered him. But he said he wanted to be here, and I took him at his word. I thought he would be at CU. Then, five or six hours after the show, someone who is in the know called me and said, 'Mel's back in play.’”
While on with Logan, Tucker hemmed and hawed through answers to two questions about his commitment to Colorado, at one point saying “I'm really excited about being here.” Then came Tuesday night at the Denver Country Club, an event Tucker attended while his agent was finalizing his new contract with the Spartans.
“It’s almost unbelievable he showed up at that event,” says Don Bechter, a Colorado supporter who lives in Denver and attended Tuesday’s function. “It was really disappointing, a bit like a betrayal. You hate to take these sports things personally, but he was a guy you really wanted to believe in. He seemed to be genuine.”
Harrington laughably refers to Tuesday’s event as "the last supper." It ran from 6 to 8 p.m. local time and was set in the swanky Fairway Room in the club’s east wing. The Denver Country Club bills itself as the oldest country club west of the Mississippi River, and its interior is themed in a vintage décor. Along with a golf course, club members have access to indoor and outdoor tennis courts, an Olympic-sized pool, a croquet and lawn bowling pitch and an outdoor skating rink. On its website, the club identifies the appropriate dress codes for social and dining experiences as well as golf and tennis.
More than a year ago, Harrington hosted one of Tucker’s first booster events as coach in the very same space used Tuesday night. This week's gathering had a different feel. At least three school athletic administrators were present at the function Tuesday, not including George, who was recovering from that surgical procedure to his back. Sensing that something was amiss before the event, at least one administrator reaffirmed with Tucker his commitment not only to the school but also the event. The coach assured them he was “all in,” says a person with knowledge of the talks. “He’s standing there knowing 30 minutes later he was going to accept or already did accept another job,” another attendee at the event said. “I think as he stood in front of that room, a deal was already done.”
During Michigan State’s first attempt to land Tucker, the coach showed transparency with school officials, and they eventually agreed to a joint announcement on social media: Tucker’s tweet on Saturday, followed by a retweet from George.
During Michigan State’s second foray, Tucker was no longer transparent. While recovering from surgery, George learned of the latest interest in his coach from a third party. “Rick knew about what had transpired before our function was over,” Harrington says. “I don’t know how Rick found out but I’m sure somebody tipped him off. It wasn’t Mel.” By the time George figured out what was happening, there was nothing he could do to change Tucker's course.
Tucker’s tweet on Feb. 8 announcing his commitment to Colorado remains on his Twitter page, creating an odd juxtaposition with a slew of recent posts regarding his new job. However, there is one tweet that has been removed from social media—a picture and message from Tucker’s appearance at the Denver Country Club event, tweeted at 6:38 p.m. by @CUBuffClub, the official account of the fundraising arm for Colorado athletics. SI obtained a screen grab of the tweet.
Tucker is an affable man who normally wins over a room with his energy and booming voice, but Harrington described him as “low key” on this night. After about 30 minutes of drinking cocktails and snacking on Hors d'oeuvres, attendees gathered in a semi-circle to listen to Tucker give a speech and take questions. Toward the end of the Q-and-A, Bechter asked Tucker about Michigan State’s pursuit of him, now three days old. “Man, I was hoping somebody didn’t get to that subject,” Tucker said, according to Harrington.
Tucker’s answer was winding, touching on the loss of Brumbaugh, a key assistant that Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt plucked away with a significant raise. “That was disappointing,” Harrington says Tucker told the crowd, “but he made twice as much money so who could blame him?” It was a somewhat chilling line that some folks would utter about Tucker himself hours later. Tucker milled around with attendees until about 8 p.m., at which point he left with Lance Carl, an associate athletic director who drove Tucker the 30 miles back to Boulder. About three hours later, at 11:13 p.m. MT, The Athletic broke news that Tucker had agreed to become Michigan State’s next coach.
“I can understand any person reviewing their options and making a decision that financially benefits them,” says Tom Coxhead, a 61-year-old CU booster and financial adviser in Denver. “I thought to myself as a financial adviser, if he were a client of mine of how I would have advised him. I would have been hard pressed to say, ‘Don’t take it.’ What bothered me so much is he was standing in that room and misleading people.”
Harrington awoke to the news at 5 a.m. and joined his morning workout group an hour later, many of whom attended the country club event. “Everybody is going ‘Holy s---, what just happened?’” says Harrington, who works in commercial real-estate business. “My first thought in my head was ‘Damn, those poor kids.’ He lied to those kids and their families. I feel bad for the Michigan State folks. I don’t think you have somebody with good character there.”
Masten’s wife woke him with the news: Tucker’s leaving, she told him. “I said, ‘What?!’” the ex-Buffalo player recalls.
Poulter has written an extensive letter meant for Tucker, but his wife, because of its language, will not allow him to send it, he says. “I want to tell Mel thank you for being the person you are and providing me the opportunity to share with my son of how not to live life from an ethics and integrity standpoint,” says Poulter, his voice rising during an interview Saturday with SI. “He talked to us about integrity. What the hell does he do? He does it in the dark of the night, and he’s on a plane out. I see him today on (ESPN basketball) GameDay and he’s God’s gift to the world. He talks about building that program with integrity. How do you do that? Those at the event, we are a small representation of Buffs nation. The manner in which he left is a slap in the face to all of us.”
Harrington, meanwhile, has a parting gift for his old coach. Harrington’s father-in-law gave him an idea: send the bill from Tuesday night’s event to the guy with the new job and fancy, big contract.
“I’m going to do that,” Harrington says, “as I think he can afford it!”