Michigan State football coaching candidates: Who could replace Mel Tucker?

Mel Tucker is done as head coach of Michigan State football after what has been a stunning few weeks of allegations and revelations at the university. Michigan State provided him with written notice of intent to terminate his contract for cause. The news comes amid MSU’s investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the coach, who less than two years ago signed a 10-year, $95 million contract extension amid an 11-2 run.

The program is reeling — the Spartans were crushed at home in Week 3 by Washington, trailing 35-0 at halftime — but the job will still be a very attractive one. It’s had three AP top-10 finishes in the past nine seasons and is an upper-tier program in a conference drawing in enormous money in the wake of the Big Ten’s massive TV deal.

The job isn’t the first vacancy of the season in the Big Ten (Northwestern is), but this is a much more appealing coaching job. Michigan State is not quite at the level of archrival Michigan, Penn State or Ohio State, but with the conference retiring its divisions, the landscape should be a bit more manageable optically. Expect plenty of Power 5 head coaches to get serious consideration.

Who will get consideration from Power 5 ranks?

Mike Elko, Duke, head coach

Let’s start with one of the coaches I believe Northwestern also would target. The 45-year-old from New Jersey had a terrific debut season in 2022, leading Duke to a 9-4 record. His team, currently ranked No. 18, started out this season with a bang by beating Clemson and is off to a 3-0 start. That’s all wow stuff.

A former Ivy League defensive back, he worked at Fordham, Richmond, Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M. MSU has a rich basketball history, like Duke, but it’s not as much of a pure basketball school as Duke is — and the ACC doesn’t have the money the Big Ten has. This one could get interesting.

Lance Leipold, Kansas, head coach

Leipold is practically a miracle worker for what he has done in Lawrence, Kan. The 59-year-old from Wisconsin, who won six Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater before turning Buffalo into an AP Top 25 team, got the Jayhawks into the Top 25 last year after a putrid decade of football in Lawrence. This year, KU’s off to a 3-0 start. This is a call if you’re MSU, you probably have to make because tLeipold is an elite football coach, and he has proven it everywhere he has been.

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Lance Leipold’s Kansas Jayhawks are 3-0 this season. (Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today)

Chris Klieman, Kansas State, head coach

Leipold’s in-state rival would be a wise choice if he is interested. Klieman and the Wildcats were last year’s Big 12 champions, and although the Big Ten has much better resources than the Big 12, Klieman is working for the same athletic director at K-State that he had when he was winning national titles at North Dakota State. Klieman is considered as good as there is within the conference.

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota, head coach

Word is the Spartans have some interest in Fleck, who has done a nice job bringing a lot of stability to a program that was reeling when he left Western Michigan. The 42-year-old is 46-28 at Minnesota, and that includes an 11-2 season and a top-10 finish in 2019. He has a good job in the Big Ten, but it’s worth noting that MSU is a program that has reached the College Football Playoff before so it wouldn’t shock us if he’d consider it.



Timeline of sexual harassment allegations against Mel Tucker, MSU’s investigation

Who will get consideration from Group of 5 ranks?

Willie Fritz, Tulane, head coach 

Fritz would be a solid candidate. A former defensive back at Pittsburg State in Kansas, he has had double-digit win seasons at every level of college football, going 97-47 at Central Missouri, 40-15 at Sam Houston State and 17-7 at Georgia Southern.

Now he has it rolling in New Orleans. In 2022, he led Tulane to a 12-2 season that included a Cotton Bowl win over USC and a No. 9 finish. Tulane is 2-1 this fall, and I could see him in play at Northwestern — and he would be an obvious choice at Kansas if Leipold jumps to MSU.

Jason Candle, Toledo, head coach

A former MAC Coach of the Year, Candle has won at least nine games three times in his seven seasons with the Rockets. He’s a well-regarded offensive mind and is expected to get some consideration for this job, according to sources. The 43-year-old Mount Union product has won two MAC titles.

Charles Huff, Marshall, head coach 

Huff is seen as a rising star. The 40-year-old Maryland native proved himself to be a top assistant at Penn State, Mississippi State and Alabama before getting his shot to be a head man. He’s in his third season with the Thundering Herd and has gone 11-4 since 2022, including a win over Notre Dame in South Bend.



MSU provides Tucker with notice of intent to end contract

Kane Wommack, South Alabama, head coach

Like Huff, Wommack is another rising star head coach at the Group of 5 level who has been an assistant in the Big Ten. Wommack played a big role in Indiana finishing No. 12 in 2020 when he was the defensive coordinator. The 36-year-old is off to an impressive start in the Sun Belt, turning around South Alabama; he went 10-3 last year, including a narrow loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl. His squad just blasted Oklahoma State 33-7 in Stillwater.

Other considerations

Pat Narduzzi, Pitt, head coach

One wild-card sitting head coach option: Narduzzi, a beloved former defensive coordinator under Mark Dantonio. The 57-year-old was a superb DC and brought plenty of edge to MSU. He’s been really solid in almost a decade running Pitt’s program and has had consecutive Top 25 seasons the last two years, going 20-7. Would he want to go back to East Lansing? I’m not sure about that. He has a good job in a great city, but he has been there a long time, and the Big Ten has a lot more stability than the ACC.

Bill O’Brien, New England Patriots, offensive coordinator

O’Brien is another wild-card candidate who could end up in the mix. He knows all about stepping into messy situations, having taken the Penn State job in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. O’Brien did an excellent job dealing with all sorts of issues and getting things back on track. He won the Bear Bryant Award in 2012 and went 15-9 in two seasons before leaving to become the Houston Texans’ head coach. He had four playoff seasons and left with a 52-48 record. Whether he wants to go back to college again remains a mystery, but this is a good Big Ten job.



How good is the Michigan State job? Pluses, minuses as coaching search begins

Sean Lewis, Colorado, offensive coordinator

The top candidate from the assistant ranks I think will be Lewis. He has head coaching experience from his time at Kent State, where he did a really good job at a tough place to have any sustained success, going 18-10 in the MAC in his last four seasons. He led Kent State to its first bowl win before leaving this off-season to become Deion Sanders OC at Colorado.

As he explained to The Athletic last week, the move was prompted by him almost getting the Cincinnati head coaching job last winter, but Scott Satterfield, a coach with Power 5 experience ended up getting it at the last second, so Lewis decided it was time for a pivot. At Colorado, he has shown once again that he’s a brilliant offensive mind. The 37-year-old former Wisconsin quarterback-turned-tight end was very well thought of among his players and would be a compelling option for MSU.



Why Sean Lewis left Kent State to be Deion Sanders’ OC

Matt House, LSU, defensive coordinator

House is a Michigan State graduate who began his coaching career as a Spartan graduate assistant. The 45-year-old, a protege of Steve Spagnuolo, did a really impressive job at LSU last year, despite having seven new starters and missing his most talented defensive lineman in Maason Smith. The Tigers rose from 10th in the SEC in scoring defense to fifth. They also jumped from No. 13 to No. 3 in red-zone touchdown percentage. His stock figures to rise if LSU ends up making a College Football Playoff run.

Sherrone Moore, Michigan, offensive coordinator

Moore is a hot name inside the coaching world, but would MSU try and hire from its archrival? And would the 37-year-old really be tempted? If Jim Harbaugh does leave someday for the NFL, and perhaps that could happen this winter, Moore would make a lot of sense to be his replacement. He has been a vital assistant to the Wolverines’ rise the past two seasons, as his offensive line has won consecutive Joe Moore Awards as the nation’s top unit.

His work in the trenches and as a recruiter has played a key role in Harbaugh getting this program to the top of the league, dominating rival Ohio State the last two years. People inside the Michigan program are huge believers in Moore, gushing about his ability to connect with the players and say that players will run through a wall for him, in part because he’s very genuine.

Brian Hartline, Ohio State, offensive coordinator

One other Big Ten assistant to watch is Ohio State OC Brian Hartline. The former NFL wideout has proven to be arguably the top assistant coach in the nation the past few seasons, recruiting one elite wideout after another and developing them into first-round draft picks. The 36-year-old Canton, Ohio, native could be an intriguing option especially given his ability to land top talent and the attention to detail he has shown towards his craft.

Harlon Barnett, Michigan State, interim head coach

Barnett, a 56-year-old former Spartans standout, has a chance to win the job, but it’s a big uphill battle that started with a 41-7 blowout loss at home against Washington. If he can lead MSU to a few upsets, he could coach his way into this job full-time. But with four ranked opponents ahead, including three top-10 teams, the odds are not great.

(Top photo of Mike Elko: Lance King / Getty Images)

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