Michigan State coach Mel Tucker always on brand to promote

Nick King/Lansing State Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Mel Tucker smokes cigars and poses with expensive cars on social media, hoping to grab the attention of recruits from coast to coast and perhaps pique interest of fans near and far.

The third-year football coach for No. 15 Michigan State, hoping more people would get to know him better, invited five reporters to spend a day with him on a golf course, at a restaurant, in the team’s football facility and into his home.

While a Group of Five football coach may provide similar access, it’s rare that the leader of a Power Five program would give media members about 12 hours of his time in pursuit of publicity.

“I tell the recruits and their parents that we’re an open book – what you see is what you get,” Tucker said in an interview with The Associated Press in his on-campus office. “Allowing access, to kind of go behind the curtain, behind the scenes, I think is a good thing. We don’t have anything to hide here. I don’t have anything to hide.”

Tucker always seems to be on brand, going outside the ordinary box most college football coaches stay confined to, in a calculated quest to promote himself and the program as he chases a championship.

“We recruit nationally so anything we can do on social media to sell our program, we’re going to do it,” he said simply.

The Spartans were one of college football’s biggest surprises last year, winning 11 games, including a New Year’s Six bowl game. It was quite a turnaround after going 2-5 in the pandemic-shortened year that stunted Tucker’s debut season as Mark Dantonio‘s successor.

Making a proactive move to keep a coach who potentially could have left for LSU or the NFL, donors decided to give him a raise as part of a 10-year, $95 million contract to stay.

What Michigan State did on the field last year, though, was not good enough for Tucker. He is relentlessly working toward winning a national championship, which only the school’s 1952 team achieved as recognized by the AP.

To win it all at Michigan State, Tucker knows he has to do more.

Much more.

Instead of relegating himself to the media relations help that Michigan State’s athletic department provides, earlier this year Tucker hired a public relations and marketing firm that has clients such as Amazon to assist him with branding.

“He was so different than any entrepreneur I’ve ever been around that I said, `We need to work together,”‘ said Shelley Reinstein, whose company, Autumn Communications, assisted with Tucker’s charity work and media opportunities this offseason. “I’m blown away by how smart and eager to learn he is.”

A certified cigar sommelier is, too.

Tables were set up on the upper level of Tucker’s sprawling deck to display an array of cigars and bourbons while he hosted a small group of reporters to wrap up a long day.

While Tucker occasionally enjoys a cigar, sometimes in a room downstairs that is ventilated and decorated with a painting of him and Sparty, the school’s mascot, he is not an aficionado.

In what was called Cigar 101, the 50-year-old Clevelander peppered certified cigar sommelier Dillon Rodriguez with inquisitive questions.

“He wanted to know all kinds of things like how long it takes a seed to grow,” Rodriguez recalled. “You would think guys at that stage in life wouldn’t have time for a little guy like me, but he listened to every word and gave me respect.

“After the reporters left, he invited me and the two people I was with to stay for a cigar and a pour. We would’ve loved to because he’s so down to earth, but we were on the clock.”

Tucker always seems to be working.

While he was spending time with reporters, his wife, a travel advisor, and their two sons were on a trip in Mexico. When his football players had a day off earlier this month, Tucker joined basketball coach Tom Izzo to be the grand marshals of a NASCAR race in southern Michigan.

Much of what Tucker does is designed to attract talent, from high schools or via the transfer portal, but he clearly cares about his current players as well.

Michigan State linebacker Darius Snow said Tucker has helped him pursue his dreams on and off the field.

“I like to call him a contemporary because he embraces social media and NIL and that clicks with young men our age,” Snow said in a telephone interview. “He knows I’m a graphic designer, so he has created opportunities for me to have my work put out there on the team’s social media accounts. I’m not sure there would be many, if any, other coaches that would do that.”

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.