B1G debate: Is Michigan State a 'destination job'?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Is Michigan State a destination job?
RYAN: The big news of the week is that Michigan State is reportedly prepared to essentially write Mel Tucker a blank check in a bid to keep him from leaving and taking the LSU job. If you’re at all interested in the Big Ten, you love to see it. That’s what you call getting it done and keeping the SEC from stealing a guy who should win National Coach of the Year.
While the 10-year, $95 million contract offer isn’t official yet (per the Detroit Free Press), Tucker is out doing interviews as if he is sticking around East Lansing. Here’s what he said on The Draymond Green Show:
“I made it clear in my initial press conferences that I thought Michigan State was a destination job and not a stepping stone. It was never my intention to come here and just pass through. I believe that we’re building something special here. I have tremendous support here to do that, and we’re on the right track.”
Bravo, Mel. I made the case about a month ago that Tucker shouldn’t go to LSU and should instead stay with Michigan State, since it would be his third head coaching job in 4 years if he left. Does Tucker read Saturday Tradition? Probably. What B1G fan doesn’t?
Anyways, the thing that stuck out to me about what Tucker said was that Michigan State is a destination job, not a stepping stone. Now that, I hadn’t considered. But I don’t think he’s wrong.
I think anywhere that ponies up north of $9 million per season can be a destination, because how many schools will actually do that? According to USA Today’s database, only Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney were making more than $9 million per season. That’s some elite company. Those are the last 3 coaches to win national titles.
The argument against Michigan State being a destination job is that it has unfortunately been branded as “little brother” by Michigan, even though the Spartans are really the big brother in that relationship. Michigan, though, is the bigger brand with better recruiting just 60 miles down the road.
The case for Michigan State is that is just wins. For one, it is the only non-Ohio State team from the Big Ten to make it to the College Football Playoff. It had the 13th most wins (92) in the country in the 2010s, ahead of Auburn (87), Penn State (87), USC (86), Michigan (85), Florida (81) and Texas (71). That, combined with the money that Michigan State reportedly is willing to spend, is good enough for me. And the fact that a coach is willing to turn down LSU, which won a national title just 2 years ago, to stay in East Lansing is good enough for me.
The question is, how many of those jobs are there? In the Big Ten, I think it’s Ohio State and Michigan. If you get those jobs, you aren’t peeking around the rest of the country. Penn State, while a very good job with incredible fans, doesn’t belong in that category. Bill O’Brien used it to springboard into the NFL. James Franklin has been eyeing a move to USC or elsewhere for years. Just this week, he was not so subtly complaining about the lack of commitment from the administration and boosters. Wisconsin had Bret Bielema leave for a middle-tier SEC job.
Outside of the B1G, I’d argue Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Clemson are also in that category, and maybe a few others.
Michigan State maybe wouldn’t have been included in that group, but if you have the support of $9 million per year, how can it not be?
CONNOR: OK, so this might sound like a hedge for a debate column, but I think this reported gesture has made it much more of a destination job. I mean, you’re essentially daring a better program to offer Tucker like, oh, I don’t know … $120 million? That’s not stepping stone stuff. That’s hey, we’ve got our guy, we’re not letting him go.
Even though I argued that I’d have no problem with Tucker leaving Michigan State for LSU and following the Nick Saban path, think about just the basic premise of being presented with an offer like that. Wisconsin wasn’t a destination job because it wouldn’t pony up for assistants. It didn’t matter that it won a ton of games and it had one of the highest floors of any program in the 21st century. I don’t care how beautiful Madison is and how incredible of a gameday atmosphere it is. If there are factors like that holding you back, you’re always in danger of getting your coach poached.
On the flip side, I’m not really convinced that Michigan State was a destination job with Mark Dantonio. Just because a coach turns down Power 5 jobs doesn’t mean it’s a destination. Facilities matter. Recruiting matters. Not being second fiddle at your own school matters. I thought Michigan State was in the middle of the pack in the league in terms of all of those things, and perhaps with the exception of 2014-15, football was always second fiddle to basketball. Recruits don’t want to show up and see that they aren’t the big men on campus. That stuff matters, too.
I give Michigan State a ton of credit because this offseason was the ultimate test for this very question. If it wasn’t a destination job, Tucker would be on his way to Baton Rouge or Southern California.
All of those schools you mentioned as destination jobs, I’d argue, are in that category because we watched them play in a national championship in the 21st century. Well, except for Michigan. Here’s a wild stat for you. Of the last 30 teams to have made it to a national championship, those 12 schools you mentioned made up 27 of those spots. The 3 that didn’t make the cut? Oregon got there twice and Florida State got there once. Florida State and Oregon, ironically enough, both had coaches leave those jobs for other Power 5 head coaching jobs in the last 5 years.
So tying that back to Michigan State, I think as massive of a financial commitment as that is, some will hesitate to say it’s a destination job until it can show it belongs in the Playoff. Maybe we’re closer to that than we think, though? Nobody in all of college football has a bigger chance to change their public perception over the course of the next 2 months than Michigan State.
RYAN: That’s a lofty standard, though. I don’t think being a destination job is as much about on-field success as it is about money.
Michigan hasn’t even won the Big Ten since 2004, and I definitely wouldn’t classify it as a stepping-stone job. Texas hasn’t won the Big 12 since 2009, and it’s not a stepping-stone job. Florida hasn’t won the SEC since 2008, and it’s not a stepping-stone job. Now, you can say because of the financial resources at programs like those, they are a tier ahead of Michigan State. As long as Michigan State plays ball off the field, though, it can be in that category.
That’s a different question than, can you win a national title there? I would’ve said, “No way,” at the start of this season for the Spartans, but watching all of the talent that Tucker has accumulated in such a short time, now, I’m not so sure. If Tucker can combine his prowess in the transfer portal with getting high-quality high school players on campus, then who’s to say that the Spartans can’t compete with Ohio State for Big Ten titles and CFP berths?
That’s a fair point about the basketball/football dynamic, but I tend to disagree. I think the exceptions are Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina. Those are clear-cut basketball schools who will compete for national titles year in, year out. Everywhere else, though? Football is what brings in the money, and therefore, football players will be treated like royalty, with exceptions being potential NBA lottery picks. And while Michigan State has had some good basketball teams, the Spartans have made it to the Sweet 16 once in the last 5 NCAA Tournaments. They aren’t even ranked this year.
It’s not like Michigan State is some flash in the pan for football. The Spartans are 1 win away from their 7th double-digit win season in 12 years. That’s remarkable. That, combined with a long-term financial commitment to a coach, elevates Michigan State into that “destination job” tier.
CONNOR: So then I suppose we can settle on destination jobs, with Michigan State now being one of them, as “where you get a raise instead of getting poached.” I’m on board with that.
What I’m interested in seeing is how the transfer portal can change how we view a program’s ceiling. Like, what Tucker did this year with 41 new players on that roster, 15 of which were from the transfer portal. Is that the secret to getting someone like Michigan State to overcome not having top-10 classes on an annual basis? I say that because history suggests if you’re going to compete for a national title, you need top-10 talent.
In the 247sports talent composite rankings, which break down a roster’s talent based strictly on recruiting class rankings since 2015, the 12 teams who played for a national championship were all ranked in the top 10 nationally. The lone exception was 2015 Clemson, which was No. 13, but also had Deshaun Watson. Just for a little perspective on that, here are Michigan State’s annual rankings in that department:
- 2015 — No. 23 (Playoff season)
- 2016 — No. 22
- 2017 — No. 30
- 2018 — No. 30
- 2019 — No. 31
- 2020 — No. 35
- 2021 — No. 37
You still need to increase recruiting spending. On3.com reported that Michigan State ranked No. 8 in the B1G and No. 34 among Power 5 teams in recruiting spending in 2019, which was behind the likes of Indiana, Missouri, Texas Tech, Kansas, Rutgers, Iowa State and others. The Spartans reportedly spent $788,358, a little more than half of what Michigan spent ($1,411,989) in that year.
That number has to improve, yes, but one of the reasons why Tucker probably sold the Michigan State brass in such a quick period of time was finding the right pieces in the portal. That transfer portal formula can mitigate some of that perceived gap. Clearly, the talent isn’t on par with some of these other contenders, and Tucker can’t expect to dip into the portal and find a Kenneth Walker every year.
But if he can have a roster that’s top-20 in talent with the combination of some savvy additions from the portal, yeah, suddenly that conversation about reaching that next level seems a bit more realistic.
You’re right that Michigan State isn’t some flash-in-the-pan program. It certainly had a lower floor than some would like. This reported move was made, in the home stretch of recruiting season, to avoid that exact scenario. This is momentum season. Destination jobs are expected to recruit and develop talent at an elite level. All signs point to Tucker being a guy who welcomes those increased expectations.
Here’s a fascinating question to close on for you. Because debating Michigan-Michigan State is all the rage these days — everyone go read our debate column from last week — and also because of the length of Tucker’s contract, which team’s next 10 years would you rather buy stock in?
As crazy as it sounds, I think I’d go with Michigan State. Even though there’s more risk in East Lansing, I’m buying the all-in nature of a program that isn’t worried about enduring some heat for those lean years. Warde Manuel deserves credit for the creativity of Jim Harbaugh’s contract, but it still feels like Michigan is a bad year away from starting over. Maybe I’m still scarred from the way it played out with Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. It just doesn’t seem like anything is a given if you have a new regime in Ann Arbor.
What about you?
RYAN: I know we are supposed to debate, but I think I agree with you. You just never know with Harbaugh. I really like Michigan’s immediate future with JJ McCarthy and Donovan Edwards as building blocks, and the culture seems to be strong with this new coaching staff. But I think this extension for Tucker is going to be a game changer on the recruiting trail. Recruits are going to want to be part of this.
And a strong showing Saturday in Columbus would only add to that momentum.