Do you know Coach Prime?
You may be unfamiliar with the moniker “Coach Prime”, but you assuredly know the man. “Coach Prime” is none other than Deion Sanders the flamboyant athlete who was known as “Prime Time” during his playing days for his stunning athletic achievements: 2-time consensus All American at Florida State, 6-time NFL all pro and for good measure logged 11 years in Major League Baseball.
It would be an understatement to say Deion Sanders is a savvy and street wise man whose capabilities far transcend athletics.
In December 2022, Sanders was named Head Football Coach at University of Colorado the same school where Mel Tucker got his first Head Coaching job in 2019.
Yet, prior to being hired at Colorado, Sanders logged 3 years as Head Football Coach at Jackson State University an historically black college/university (HBCU). His tenure at JSU was preceded by 8 years coaching High School football in Texas and he had success at every stop.
Let’s make this note regarding Jackson State (an FCS school): it would be wrong to disregard its standard of excellence given the fact it has produced 93 NFL players, including Hall of Fame players Lem Barney, Robert Brazile, Walter Payton, and Jackie Slater. In fact, only 13 college football teams at any level can claim more NFL Hall of Fame alumni than Jackson State, so Jackson State historically has competed at an extraordinarily high level.
Nevertheless, given Sanders limited head coaching experience, I thought he would serve as a viable benchmark to measure Mel Tucker who only had one year of head coaching experience at Colorado before being hired as head coach at Michigan State.
Let’s remember, Sanders logged just 3 years as a head coach at JSU (an FCS school) before taking the head job at Colorado, while Mel Tucker only had one year of head coaching experience at Colorado before taking the head job at Michigan State.
At any level, it’s important to have benchmarks to measure success. Indeed, there is an ancient and well-founded adage that states: “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed” and that’s why we have Financial Reports, Profit and Loss statements and the like, and in football we have W/L records and NCAA statistics.
So, let’s compare Sanders and Tucker in 5 key categories even though Sanders previous experience was at Jackson State (an FCS school), while Tucker gained experience at Colorado and Michigan State (both FBS schools).
The comparison is not exactly, “apples to apples” in every aspect, yet the comparison is meaningful and relevant because a coach can only find success (or failure) where he competes, so measurement is meaningful whether it be FCS or FBS.
So, let’s compare Sanders and Tucker in the following categories:
- W-L record and coaching impact.
- Conference Championships
- Statistical Rankings (Offense & Defense)
- Compensation (value per victory)
This missive is lengthy given the broad expanse of its content, yet I hope you find it informative, and even if you don’t agree with my premise, I hope you find it thought provoking.
Let’s start with W-L record and coaching impact:
- Sanders was hired at Jackson State in September 2020, essentially 7 months after Mel Tucker was hired at Michigan State. Sanders inherited a deplorable team which posted a dismal 17-34 record (33%) from 2015 to 2019. Sanders first year was an modest improvement when he posted a 4-3 record in 2020 (COVID year). Yet thereafter, Sanders had an exceedingly positive impact by posting an 11-2 record in 2021 followed by an 12-1 record in 2022 (81% W/L record) which included “back-to-back” Southwestern Athletic Conference Championships and two Top 20 FCS rankings. Somewhere along the line Sanders adopted the moniker “Coach Prime” yet that moniker was certainly well deserved after winning 81% of his games at Jackson State.
- On the other hand, when Mel Tucker arrived at Colorado in 2019, he inherited a team which posted a record of 26-37 (41% W/L record) from 2014 to 2018, yet Mel Tucker did not achieve a positive impact, in fact he posted a record of 5-7 (41%), essentially “break even” when compared to the previous coaching regime.
- At Michigan State, Tucker inherited a solid program from Mark Dantonio which posted a record of 39-26 (60%) from 2015 to 2019 including a 3-1 Bowl record; a Big Ten Championship; an appearance in CFP; a #6 ranking in 2015; and #15 ranking in 2017. Yet, since taking the reins at Michigan State, Tucker has fallen short of expectations by compiling an uninspiring 18-14 W/L record (56%) including 2 losing seasons, and just one bowl appearance.
- So, to recap: Sanders inherited a woeful program at JSU which won just 33% of its games in the previous 5 years but after taking the reins, Sanders posted 3 consecutive winning seasons and improved the W/L record to 81%. By comparison, Mel Tucker did not improve the W/L record at either Colorado or Michigan State, in fact he posted 3 losing seasons in the last 4 years including an overall record of just 23-21 (52%):
- As it relates to coaching impact, the advantage goes to Coach Prime.
- In Sanders second season at JSU, he guided his team to an 11-2 record, followed by a 12-1 record in 2022 and that earned “back-to-back” Southwestern Athletic Conference Championships, so Sanders captured 2 conference titles in just 3 years.
- By comparison, after 4 years as a Head Coach (1 yr at Colorado and 3 yrs at Michigan State), Mel Tucker has yet to claim a conference championship of any kind.
- So, as it relates to measuring Conference Championships the advantage goes to Coach Prime.
Statistical rankings (Offense & Defense):
- The team Sanders inherited at Jackson State posted woeful stats in 2019 given its Offense ranked #55 FCS averaging just 388 YPG, while its Defense ranked #80 yielding a whopping 408 YPG (a negative margin of 20 YPG). Yet, in just his first season, Sanders achieved an impressive improvement: his Offense ranked #20 averaging 414 YPG, while his Defense ranked #62 yielding 378 YPG (or a positive margin of 36 YPG). The improvement continued and 2 years later his Offense ranked #14 averaging 446 YPG while his Defense ranked #1 (best in FCS) yielding just 252 YPG (or a stunningly positive margin of 194 YPG).
- Meanwhile, Mel Tucker did not achieve a positive impact statistically at either Colorado or Michigan State, in fact his stats were worse than his predecessors at both schools.
- At Colorado, Tucker inherited a team that averaged 393 Yards on Offense while yielding 380 Yards on Defense (a modest yet positive margin of 13 YPG). Yet in 2019, Tucker’s team averaged a tepid 389 Yards on Offense while his Defense yielded an eye glazing 442 YPG (or an upside-down margin of 53 YPG).
- At Michigan State, Tucker inherited a team that averaged 372 Yards on Offense in 2019 while yielding just 322 Yards on Defense (a positive margin of 50 YPG). Meanwhile, in Tucker’s first season, his Offense averaged just 330 YPG while his Defense yielded 397 Yards (or an upside-down margin of 67 YPG).
- Then, in 2022, Tucker’s Offense averaged 353 Yards per game while his Defense yielded a whopping 417 YPG (or an upside-down margin of 64 YPG)
- As it relates to statistical rankings and achieving a positive margin of Offense vs Defense, the hands down advantage goes to Coach Prime.
- It’s a bit difficult to assess Sanders recruiting acumen at Jackson State because JSU is an FCS school (Football Championship Series as opposed to FBS school or Football Bowl Subdivision) because major recruiting services focus upon ranking130 FBS schools in lieu of ranking FCS schools, so I will forego any discussion regarding recruiting at Jackson State. Nevertheless, Sanders recruiting impact at Colorado has been swift and positive. Let’s remember, Sanders inherited a team with one of the worst recruiting track records in all of college football over the past 5 years. In fact, Colorado’s average recruiting class over the past 5 years ranked #52 (amongst the worse in Power 5) including classes ranked #65 (2021) and #58 (2022). Then Sanders arrived at Colorado in December 2022 (less than 3 months ago), and with very little time to recruit, Sanders recruited 19 players from High School via conventional recruiting, including 1 “5-Star” and 2 “4-Stars”, and then recruited 25 players via the Transfer Portal including 1 “5-Star” and 3 “4-Stars”. In all, Sanders recruited 44 players in less than 3 months, including 2 “5-Stars” and it’s worth noting, his recruiting class from the Transfer Portal ranked #1 in the land. By all measures an incredible recruiting impact.
- Meanwhile, Mel Tucker’s recruiting achievements over 5 years (1 year at Colorado and 4 years at Michigan State) has been tepid at best. Tucker’s average recruiting class ranked #37 (certainly not championship caliber). Although Tucker has recruited 16 “4-Stars” in the last 3 years, which is notable, yet none have proven to be game breakers, and we can comfortably make this point: recruiting is only as good as player development and it would be hard to give Mel Tucker and his staff a “Gold Star” for player development. So, either the Recruiting services were wrong (highly unlikely), or player development is lacking because other than Kenneth Walker III, Spartan Football has failed to develop game breaking players during Tucker’s tenure. Moreover, logic tells us if a team can’t recruit amongst the best, then it can’t consistently compete against the best. We were told Mel Tucker would be an excellent recruiter…but we have yet to see the results.
- In summary, as it relates to recruiting, the early advantage goes to Coach Prime!
Compensation (value per victory)
- Jackson State got great value for the dollar when it hired Deion Sanders. His compensation at JSU was a mere $300,000 per yr which is meager compensation for a head football coach especially given Sanders “Hall of Fame” pedigree. Of course, Sander’s compensation increased at Colorado to $5.9 Mn per yr, but that still only ranks #15 or so amongst the highest paid coaches. Nevertheless, Colorado placed a bet that Sanders will replicate his great success at Jackson State and resurrect Colorado Football, and for $5.9 Mn per year, that’s arguably a solid bet.
- Meanwhile, Mel Tucker’s compensation package at Michigan State is an “eye glazing” $95 Mn over 10 years, or a whopping $9.5 Mn per yr which is nearly $4 Mn per year more than Sanders. Moreover, Tucker’s compensation ranks #6 in the land while only Brian Kelly, Lincoln Riley, Kirby Smart, Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban earn more, yet Kelly, Riley, Smart, Swinney and Saban have earned multiple trips to the College Football Playoff, while Smart, Swinney and Saban can all boast multiple National Titles. Sadly, Mel Tucker can only boast a single winning season over the past 4 years and for that reason most observers believe Mel Tucker and Jimbo Fisher are the two most overpaid coaches in college football and that’s a solid argument. In fact, Tucker is the only coach amongst the Top 15 highest paid coaches in the land who claim 3 losing seasons in the last 4 years and that’s hardly a Badge of Honor.
- Given that Deion Sanders won 81% of his games at Jackson State while earning just $300,000 per yr, and given that Mel Tucker has only won 52% of his games combined at Colorado and Michigan State while earning $9.5 Mn per yr, when we measure value per victory (and you can do the math) Deion Sanders has proven to be tremendous value for the dollar, while Mel Tucker is deemed overpaid. According to value per victory, Deion Sanders enjoys a solid advantage.
At the bottom line:
Who will have the better coaching career over time: Coach Prime or Mel Tucker?
The jury is out!
Of course, the preceding comparison is not exactly “apples to apples” in every aspect, yet it is instructive by way of providing meaningful metrics and indicators. After all, in 5 critical categories, Coach Prime has clearly outdistanced Mel Tucker.
Of course, results will continue to roll in as future seasons play out, but early results suggest Coach Prime has stepped boldly into his role as a Head Football Coach while Mel Tucker has tip toed lightly trying to find his footing and to most observers, Mel Tucker seems tentative.
Moreover, it’s troubling to me (and it should be to most Spartan partisans) that Sanders was available as a coaching prospect when Mel Tucker was hired at Michigan State in 2020, yet Sanders was never considered a candidate.
By all accounts, Sanders did not appear on either at “long list” of coaching candidates at Michigan State or a “short list” of candidates, and so it’s inconceivable to me how Ashley Robinson, AD at tiny Jackson State (just 7000 students) did his homework and reeled in Coach Prime for a meager $300,000 per yr, while Michigan State was caught totally off guard when Mark Dantonio stepped down, did not have a “short list” of candidates at the ready, and failed to identify Deion Sanders as a viable coaching candidate.
It’s also curious to me that Michigan State placed a bet on Mel Tucker as their head coach after he posted a miserable 5-7 losing record at Colorado, and what do they say about “past being prologue”? So, it’s no surprise that Mel Tucker has posted 2 losing seasons in just 3 years at Michigan State, and that means we have to ask another question: what does Michigan State expect in return for its $95 Mn Investment? What do Spartan fans expect?
If Michigan State’s goal is to win Big Ten and National Championships (and let’s hope it is) then both Alan Haller and Mel Tucker need to lay out a plan to take corrective action, because they can’t keep doing the same thing “over and over” and expect a better result.
In fact, the comparison with Coach Prime should be humbling to Mel Tucker and Alan Haller.
And let’s be clear, after posting 3 losing seasons over the past 4 years (1 yr at Colorado and 2 yrs at Michigan State), it is hard to envision Mel Tucker suddenly rising to the top as a Championship caliber coach, or even rising to the top of the Big Ten East ahead of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State if a major plan to take corrective action is not put in place.
So let’s ask this question: what metrics of success has Alan Haller laid out for Mel Tucker? Or has he? Or is Mel Tucker untouchable?
Coach Prime makes a lot less money than Mel Tucker, yet he has demonstrated his plan for success and it’s a fair bet Coach Prime will resurrect Colorado Football.
What can we say about Mel Tucker?
You be the judge!
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