Sources: MSU AD eyed Tucker split in preseason

Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller said he wanted to separate former coach Mel Tucker from the football team months before the 2023 season began, but the school’s administration prevented him from doing so, according to multiple sources familiar with comments Haller made about the matter to the university’s board of trustees in September.

Haller fired Tucker for cause on Sept. 27, citing in part Tucker’s admission that he had a sexual encounter with a woman hired to speak to the team. The woman, prominent sexual assault awareness speaker Brenda Tracy, claimed the coach harassed her and masturbated without her consent during a phone call. Tucker told university investigators that he and Tracy had an intimate, consensual relationship.

In an initial termination letter sent Sept. 18, Haller told Tucker his admissions that he flirted and had a sexual encounter with a school vendor were grounds for termination regardless of consent. The sources told ESPN that Haller was aware of Tucker’s admissions months before taking any disciplinary actions against him and pushed to take action sooner.

Tucker remained in charge of the Spartans’ football program for the first nine months of the school’s investigation, collecting millions of dollars in salary and opening up the school to the potential of additional legal liability if he committed any other violations of the school’s sexual misconduct policy during that time.

Haller did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Through a university spokeswoman, Michigan State interim president Teresa Woodruff declined to answer whether she or anyone else in her administration discouraged Haller from acting sooner. The spokeswoman also declined to provide clarity about when Woodruff learned about Tucker’s admission of his conduct with Tracy.

In previous public comments, Woodruff said she learned about a complaint against Tucker in December 2022, and in July learned the complaint had been filed by Tracy. The spokeswoman, Emily Guerrant, has said Woodruff and others were not aware of the full scope of the investigation until details were made public in a USA Today story on Sept. 10.

In response to specific questions about when Woodruff learned the information the school eventually used to fire Tucker, Guerrant provided a general statement that said, in part:

“Best practices in investigations call for privacy in order to not influence outcomes. Privacy is also key to creating a culture around reporting incidents — we must create a safe environment for all individuals to come forward without a fear of institutional retaliation or dissemination of information regarding highly personal matters.”

Guerrant said the university could no longer maintain privacy after detailed reports about Tracy’s claim were published in the story by USA Today on Sept. 10, and “determined then that personnel actions were warranted.”

Haller initially suspended Tucker without pay the same day that news of the ongoing investigation was made public in media reports. Haller said during a news conference announcing the suspension that “new developments” led to their decision but did not provide any specifics.

“It’s an ongoing process, and we update those interim measures as we receive information,” he said when asked what had changed to prompt the suspension.

Woodruff wrote a letter to the Michigan State community on Sept. 11 to explain Tucker’s suspension. She concluded a section of her letter about the investigative process by writing: “As there have been new developments before the hearing, including details of acknowledged behavior, Athletic Director Haller suspended Mel Tucker without pay.”

In the weeks following the Sept. 10 news conference, Guerrant, the university spokeswoman, did not answer specific and repeated questions about when Haller and Woodruff learned about Tucker’s admission. Guerrant declined to answer those questions again this week on behalf of Woodruff.

Michigan State’s past three university presidents have departed amid controversies about how the school handled sexual misconduct claims involving other high-profile school employees. Survivors of assault, subject matter experts and other advocates have criticized how the school’s leadership has handled claims in the past decade, including a pattern of lacking transparency.

During her brief comments on Sept. 10, Woodruff repeatedly referenced the “MSU of today” while defending the way the school handled the complaint against Tucker.

“This morning’s news might sound like the MSU of old. It is not,” Woodruff said. “It is not the MSU of old because we maintain the confidence of the claimant and respondent while respecting and valuing the claimant and respondent’s right to share their story. And it’s not [the MSU of old] because of the further action we take today.”

Both Tucker and Tracy have since expressed disappointment and concern with how the school has handled the case. Tucker called the school’s investigation “a sham.” A hearing officer determined in October that Tucker had violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy. His attorney has alerted Michigan State that Tucker may sue the school for wrongful termination, but he has not yet filed a lawsuit.

Tracy, through her attorney, has said she was compelled to share her story in September only because she learned someone from Michigan State had shared some details about her complaint with a reporter. The university has since hired the Jones Day law firm to investigate whether any university official leaked information about the confidential case.

While it is considered by some sexual assault awareness experts best practice to withhold information about an ongoing investigation from an employee’s manager, several experts told ESPN that many universities have mechanisms in place to take warranted personnel action without waiting for an investigation to conclude.

The Michigan State relationship violence and sexual misconduct policy posted on the university’s website does not include any specific language that dictates how or when information should be shared with an employee’s manager during a case.

Along with its search for a new football coach, the university also is in the process of searching for a new president. Woodruff has said publicly she isn’t interested in the position permanently.

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