What good college football programs are doing to elevate to elite status

Sports

EAST LANSING, Mich. — After a practice this spring, Michigan State coach Mel Tucker sat in the lounge area of his office, which overlooks Spartan Stadium and the school’s athletic campus.

Four months earlier, Tucker had agreed to a 10-year, $95 million contract with Michigan State. The deal made headlines around college football, and not just because it was the first splash in what became a wild and lucrative coaching carousel. Tucker wouldn’t be the first coach to approach an annual eight-figure salary, but the reaction to his contract was different, primarily for two reasons.

“It’s really changed the perception of our program, not only nationally but even locally,” Tucker told ESPN. “There’s a lot of attention, a lot of eyes on East Lansing right now. People are very curious about what’s going on here, how we’re going about it, and what’s all the buzz about?

“It’s interesting, because being [a former NFL assistant], one transaction can change a lot of things.”

When he received the contract, Tucker had been a head coach for fewer than three seasons. He boasted strong credentials as an assistant, both in college and the NFL. Without an enhanced deal, he could have been in play for LSU and other interested college and pro teams. Still, the Michigan State offer seemed more suited to a coach with multiple conference titles or College Football Playoff appearances.

Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of Tucker’s contact, though, had more to do with what his employer was projecting by offering it. Michigan State had never been viewed as a program seeking to set the market for the coaching cycle. A dominant program throughout the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, Michigan State sprinkled in Big Ten titles during the past half-decade and reached the CFP in 2015, but the Spartans generally occupied a rung below the sport’s elite and operated accordingly.

The Tucker deal represented a financial flex for Michigan State, a commitment not only to Tucker but an attempt to elevate up a tier in a sport with plenty of obstacles. Programs aiming to enhance their status often need outsized investment. Time will tell on how Tucker actually fares, but Michigan State undoubtedly delivered for him.

“Externally, the contract says, ‘Man, they’re serious over there,'” said Saeed Khalif, Michigan State’s general manager and executive director of player personnel and recruiting.

Tucker became the Big Ten’s highest-paid coach — in May, Ohio State coach Ryan Day received an extension that also pays him $9.5 million annually — and ranks among the top-five coaches in salary.

Michigan State is among several Power 5 programs hoping to change its trajectory and reach the next tier. Whether they say it publicly, these teams want to become the next Clemson, which, after zero AP top-15 finishes between 1991 and 2012, successfully made the jump to Tier 1 starting in 2015. The school poured in money into coach Dabo Swinney, his staff, facilities and other infrastructure elements of the program. Clemson went from a frequent Top 25 finisher to an annual top-four team.

“The one school that’s changed considerably over the last six or eight years is Clemson,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told ESPN. “Clemson’s always had tradition, they had won a national championship [in 1981], but I say this respectfully, they had a number of years where they weren’t really as noticeable. For about 20 years, we didn’t see Clemson the way we see them now.

“They came up with a marketing plan; they liked [coach] Dabo [Swinney]; they started doing all these things to raise money and build facilities. They enhanced their recruiting, had a few good years, pumped a ton of money in it. They established themselves.”

The introduction of name, image and likeness, and its importance in recruiting and retaining players, has added a layer of urgency for upwardly mobile programs.

ESPN spoke to Tucker and others about the significance of his Michigan State contract, as well as those at Oklahoma State, Miami and Texas A&M about their efforts to move up.

‘There’s no reason Michigan State University can’t be at that level’

Mat Ishbia was a walk-on basketball player at Michigan State. In 2000, he had the ball when the clock expired in the Spartans’ national championship game win over Florida.

Ishbia built his company, United Wholesale Mortgage, on the principles he learned from Tom Izzo, Michigan State’s basketball coach since 1995. United Wholesale Mortgage, which grew from 12 employees to more than 8,000, went public in January 2021 through a merger that carried a valuation of more than $16 billion. Ishbia, the company’s president and CEO, is also Michigan State’s top athletics benefactor. In February 2021, he donated $32 million to Michigan State — the largest single commitment from an individual in school history — a gift that included expanding the school’s football operations center and naming it, and the Breslin Center court, after Izzo.

Later that year, Ishbia and Steve St. Andre, another Michigan State alum and CEO of the marketing solutions company Shift Digital, became the financial engine behind Tucker’s deal.

“Michigan State is a great destination for great coaches,” Ishbia told ESPN. “Tom Izzo’s proven that you can come to Michigan State and become the elite of the elite, which is what Michigan State basketball is. You can do the same thing with Michigan State football. [Former coach] Mark Dantonio gave us a little glimpse of it, and Mel Tucker is going to take us there and hopefully permanently leave us there.”

Tucker and Ishbia connected shortly after Tucker’s hiring in February 2020. The two “really hit it off,” said Ishbia, who saw many of the same traits in Tucker — “the relentless mentality, the positive attitude, the grind that he’s willing to put in to be great” — that he long admired in Izzo.

“When I talk to a lot of our donors, they communicate to me that what they see us do and what they hear us say from, from their perspective, is very similar to what they’re doing in their businesses,” Tucker said. “That resonates with them and that creates alignment. People tend to get behind things that they believe in, where there’s congruence.”

Contract talks began early last season, Ishbia said, well before Michigan State started 8-0, beat Michigan for the second straight year under Tucker and appeared at No. 3 in the first CFP rankings. By then, LSU had fired Ed Orgeron, and Tucker’s name was surfacing as a candidate to replace him.

Tucker had spent the 2000 season as LSU’s defensive backs coach, working under Nick Saban, who in November 1999 left a top-10 Michigan State team to become Tigers coach. Saban nearly doubled his salary at LSU and won a national title there in 2003. Although talks with Tucker were far down the road, Ishbia, a Michigan State student-athlete when Saban left, heard the buzz about Tucker and LSU.

“The conversation had been going earlier about, ‘Hey, he’s a winner, I feel it, I see it. How do we make sure this guy knows we want him here long term?'” Ishbia recalled. “When it was already pretty much done, then I started hearing LSU come up, and it did make me think of [Saban] a little bit. I’ve seen that happen before, where Michigan State loses a great football coach to LSU, but honestly, [the contract] was already done, at least the conversation I had and the money I was willing to be involved with, before those rumors even started swirling.”

Ishbia acknowledges that tiers exist in college sports. In basketball, Michigan State holds a spot on the top rung with Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Villanova, Kentucky and several others. The Spartans football program has flirted with the top tier, especially from 2013 to 2015, when the team went 36-5 with three AP top-six finishes. But the team didn’t record another top-10 finish until this past season (No. 9).

Moving tiers will take time, and a dip in Michigan State’s wins total this fall won’t shake Ishbia’s faith in Tucker. The scope of Tucker’s contract is designed for the long game, and to touch every area of the program.

“In football, it’s Alabama, it’s Clemson, it’s Ohio State, so how do you get Michigan State to that level? It starts with the leader,” Ishbia said. “There’s no reason Michigan State University can’t be at that level.”

Tucker noted that he had a strong contract when Michigan State hired him (five years, about $5.5 million annually). He said that the enhanced deal won’t change him or the program’s philosophy, behavior and process. The investment is necessary, though, for where he wants to take the program.

“If I want to open a five-star restaurant, do we wait until we turn a profit before we put white tablecloths on and put out the top-shelf silverware and have the best chef and the best servers and decor?” Tucker said. “You’re not going to ever become that if you wait, because how can you get there? You have to invest and you have to bet on yourself and then have a process, have a business plan, have something that’s sound and solid, get the people, and then go for it.

“If you wait and go, ‘When we win some games, then we’ll do this,’ I don’t know how you do that. Especially in this day and age, when everything is accelerated, everything is right now.”

Tucker’s perspective on building Michigan State carries greater credibility because of where he has coached before. After a two-year stint as a graduate assistant at Michigan State under Saban, Tucker landed his first full-time job at Miami (Ohio) in 1999. But from there, he only worked as an assistant at Tier 1 college programs — LSU, Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia — or in the NFL before getting his first head-coaching opportunity at Colorado.

“He had a belief system that doing these things are going to get us there, and then he had experiences and exposures that said, ‘I’ve seen it. I was part of it. I know what that looks like. So I am going to fashion this program to match those things that I’ve seen in the past,'” Khalif said. “Not that we’re going to follow somebody else’s model. We’re going to set our own model based on all of the different experiences and information he had and say, ‘OK, ultimately we’ll be the new model.'”

The contract helped Tucker retain his staff, who other college programs and NFL teams have pursued. Armed with an enhanced salary pool for assistants, Michigan State kept both of its coordinators from 2021 and lost only one assistant to another college program.

The agreement also put to rest some questions about Tucker.

“From a recruiting standpoint, if our competitors are saying, ‘Mel’s a good coach and a good guy, but he’s not going to be there long term, he’s probably going to go somewhere else or go to the NFL,’ [the contract] pretty much takes that off the table,” Tucker said.

Tucker quickly established himself as the face of Michigan State’s program in a way previous Spartans coaches, even more accomplished ones, had not. Even before the breakthrough season of 2021, “Tuck Comin'” became a rallying cry for Spartans fans, as did images like this.

“He’s our John Lennon, he’s our Michael Jackson, he’s the draw, and he has some cool elements to him,” Khalif said. “It gives people a level of comfort and security that there’s going to be some longevity and consistency to what we do.”

Another external benefit to the contract, according to Khalif, was timing. The details leaked days before Penn State signed coach James Franklin to a similar deal, and before Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly made their moves to USC and LSU, respectively.

“It says it’s not the traditional paradigm,” Khalif said. “To be competitive in the marketplace, sometimes we set the market. What [Michigan State] did was actually set the market and made some other programs step up for their own coaches.”

The contract is impacting recruiting, an area where Michigan State is looking to upgrade after using the transfer portal to bolster the 2021 team. ESPN rated Michigan State’s 2022 class at No. 16 nationally, the program’s highest-ever rating. The 2023 class currently ranks 18th.

Current Spartans players also recognize the significance of Tucker’s contract for the program.

“In the national landscape, to see Michigan State pay Coach that much, that puts us up there with the top programs in the country,” quarterback Payton Thorne said. “Last year, we finished in the top 10 in the country. We’re looking to get there in every aspect, in our facilities, in the guys we’re recruiting, obviously on the field. So when a recruit starts high school, Michigan State is right there as one of his dream schools.”

In late April, Michigan State’s trustees approved construction to begin for enhancements at the football operations building as well as Spartan Stadium. Upgrades are coming in other areas of the program as well. Although Michigan State isn’t projected as a Big Ten favorite or CFP contender, “the bull’s eye is on us,” Khalif said.

“There’s no such thing as an overnight success,” Tucker said. “There’s been a lot of work by a lot of people, our donors, our alums, our former players, everyone just making the decision to do everything we can to move the program forward.”

Oklahoma State: Investing to become king of the future Big 12

Mike Gundy and Chad Weiberg are Oklahoma State graduates who have spent the bulk of their professional careers with their alma mater. Gundy, the school’s coach since 2005, has engineered the most consistent run in team history — nine AP top-20 finishes since 2008, and seven 10-win seasons since 2010. Weiberg worked in donor relations at Oklahoma State after graduation, returned as deputy athletic director in 2017 and became athletic director last July.

Both men are aligned about what lies ahead for Oklahoma State, especially after a 12-win season and major changes coming to the Big 12 in the coming years.

“We’ve got to seize this opportunity,” Weiberg told ESPN. “You cannot stand still because if you’re standing still, you’re getting passed. We know that. Now’s the time to lean in and keep moving forward.”

Weiberg had recently left Oklahoma State for Kansas State when T. Boone Pickens, the oil magnate and Oklahoma State alum, donated $165 million to his alma mater in 2006. The largest single donation to a college program at the time went toward renovating the football stadium, building a new indoor practice facility and other projects.

Oklahoma State, which hadn’t won 10 games since Gundy quarterbacked the team in 1988, soon saw an uptick. The team went 41-11 from 2008 to 2011. In 2011, the Cowboys nearly reached the national championship game but still won the Big 12 and finished No. 3 nationally.

“Boone was instrumental,” Weiberg said. “Obviously, the financial gifts are well known, but the bigger impact he made was shifting the paradigm here and changing the way we think and what we believe, collectively, is possible, because he proved that it is and got that started.”

Weiberg and Gundy are focused on new possibilities for Oklahoma State football. The facility surge that Pickens helped orchestrate is now about 14 years old and needs some upgrades. Staffing is another area of focus. After losing defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to Ohio State, Oklahoma State responded by hiring Auburn‘s Derek Mason, the former Vanderbilt head coach. The school in March responded to the Supreme Court’s NCAA vs. Alston decision — the court unanimously ruled that the NCAA limiting education-related compensation violated antitrust law — by announcing that it would pay all scholarship athletes $5,980, the maximum allowed.

“If you’re looking at the step that we had to take 20 years ago, when we opened the new stadium, versus from where we are now, the next step, I think comparatively speaking, isn’t as big,” Weiberg said. “We’ve taken the biggest steps. Now we’ve just got to keep taking the important steps.”

In January, Gundy spoke to ESPN about his plan to become the Big 12’s best and most recognizable brand when Texas and Oklahoma leave for the SEC. Gundy also highlighted a program Oklahoma State and others seeking to move up a tier can use as a model.

Both Gundy and Weiberg think Oklahoma State has the donor base and motivation to make similar gains, even though Pickens died in 2019. They also both feel Oklahoma State needs a branding boost.

Gundy called Oklahoma State’s story “a little bit of a mystery” to many, even those connected to the program. He said because Oklahoma State isn’t a traditional blue blood, it doesn’t get the benefits those programs enjoy, like being reflexively ranked in preseason Top 25 polls.

“We need to reach a new group of people out there that are willing to say, ‘We love what has been accomplished in football,'” Gundy said. “We’ve got to find those people, they really haven’t been involved as much, who are appreciative and understand the commitment it’s going to take as we move forward in new waters. And they’re willing to say, ‘I want to be a part. I want to help.’

“They’re out there.”

Gundy at times clashed with longtime athletic director Mike Holder and Pickens over various elements of the program. But Oklahoma State seems to have found the type of alignment — between Gundy, Weiberg and president Kayse Shrum — that propelled Clemson’s rise and is needed for continued growth. Weiberg ticks off the topics he and Gundy have discussed extensively in the past year: facilities, staff, recruiting, development, the transfer portal and NIL.

“Those are exactly the conversations we’ve had,” Weiberg said. “The program clearly has grown significantly, and we’ve had significant success here under his leadership, but what is it that we need to do to not only continue that, but take it to the next level? We’ve proven that we can, we’ve been on that doorstep.

“We’ve got to keep knocking on the door.”

Miami: Finances no longer an obstacle for ex-powerhouse

Miami’s quest to move up a tier is fascinating because of what the program was not so long ago. The Hurricanes reached the sport’s pinnacle somewhat recently, winning a national title in 2001, competing for another in 2002 and recording a fourth straight AP top-five finish in 2003. Miami also was the nation’s preeminent program for much of the 1980s and early 1990s, collecting four national titles and eight top-three finishes.

But the past 19 seasons have brought zero conference titles and only one division championship to the U. The program cycled through coaches but never made the investments needed to keep pace with a shifting college football landscape. That all changed late last fall, as Miami pursued and ultimately plucked coach Mario Cristobal from Oregon and athletic director Dan Radakovich from Clemson.

Cristobal’s Miami roots run deep — he won two national championships as a Hurricanes offensive lineman and worked as an assistant coach from 2004 to 2006. Radakovich began his administrative career at Miami in the 1980s. But without Miami’s newfound commitment to upgrade facilities and other areas of the program, Cristobal and Radakovich wouldn’t have left great situations for Coral Gables.

“If you don’t have campus backing and buy-in today, I don’t know how a lot of schools can survive,” Radakovich told ESPN. “We’ve talked about how many schools are really tubs on their own bottom, that financially do this stuff on their own, and there are just not many. I was really focused on what their plans were for the future, how they were going to get there, how they were going to expand the resources for the program.”

Miami is delivering on its promises, as ESPN’s Andrea Adelson wrote last month. Cristobal assembled a strong staff and facilities plans are coming together. As soon as NIL went into effect last July, Miami became a major player in the space.

When it came to football, the school might not have had an alignment problem as much as an indifference problem. But everything changed last fall. The pursuit of Cristobal wasn’t the cleanest process — former coach Manny Diaz was left hanging for several days until Cristobal agreed to take the job — but Miami’s boldness, a defining trait during the program’s heyday, paid off.

“One of our board members who played an integral role in this says, ‘We’re not spending money, we’re investing money, and we expect a return over time,'” Rudy Fernandez, Miami’s executive vice president for external affairs and strategic initiatives and chief of staff, told Adelson. “It’s not a Year 1 return on the financial standpoint, but we expect a return, and that will be increased revenue, and the brand lift and marketing lift that comes from being successful in college football.”

Cristobal is at the center of Miami’s push to move up, but Radakovich also occupies a key role. He took over at Clemson in 2012, and saw the program’s rise to annual championship contender. While he did not hire Swinney, he spearheaded infrastructure elements for the program, including a $55 million football operations building and other facilities upgrades.

“Your facilities show that an institution has made an investment and that this sport is important and football will be important here at the University of Miami,” Radakovich said. “It’s easy to say that, and there’s banners and pictures and trophies here and there, but when a prospect and their parents come here and they see the facility and what the campus has pulled together for this particular sport, it makes a huge impression.

“That’s the next thing we need to do.”

Radakovich pointed out that every school has its own realities and challenges, but his experience in seeing Clemson become a top-tier program can inform what Miami does next. Clemson sunk money into football like it never had before, but so have other programs.

The difference, according to Radakovich, was the alignment between Swinney, the athletic department and the university administration and board, which allowed the program to not only elevate but sustain.

“There have been a lot of schools over the last couple of decades that have spent a ton of money and haven’t really gotten results that maybe they would have thought they should get,” Radakovich said. “You need to have a little bit of patience, keep the task primary, keep that alignment together. Those three things, along with the investment, are going to help you move forward.”

Texas A&M: Aligning to maximize massive resources

Radakovich’s point about big spenders with small returns likely resonates more at Texas A&M than anywhere else. Texas A&M seemingly has the ingredients of a championship program — massive stadium, top-notch support facilities, large and dedicated fan base, sizable coaching salary pool and favorable recruiting location. But the Aggies have zero conference titles since 1998 and no national titles since 1939. They finished No. 4 nationally in 2020, but they have only one other top-10 finish (No. 5 in 2012) since 1994.

Athletic director Ross Bjork’s mission is to unite the university’s constituents around a vision that ultimately will bring championships to College Station.

“Alignment of vision is the most critical thing, and then you need to have a plan,” Bjork told ESPN. “If there’s alignment here at Texas A&M, to me, there’s no ceiling on our program. We’re the largest university in the country; the alumni base is 540,000 people. There’s tremendous resources, and not just money, but people and vision and research and the power of the Texas A&M brand that, if we can get the alignment right, we can build buildings, we can make sure we have the right coaches, which means you can win games and win championships.”

In 2017, Bjork’s predecessor Scott Woodward hired away coach Jimbo Fisher from Florida State with a contract that reflected Texas A&M’s all-in nature: 10 years, $75 million, fully guaranteed. Fisher hasn’t won any titles yet but guided Texas A&M to a 9-1 record in 2020 and last year became the first former Nick Saban assistant to beat a Saban-coached Alabama team. He followed by signing the consensus No. 1 recruiting class, headlined by quite possibly the best-ever collection of defensive line prospects in a single class.

Texas A&M’s recruiting and connection to NIL has become a major offseason topic, but Bjork disagrees with the belief “that it’s all about NIL” in Aggieland. He believes that players still desire coaching and comprehensive development, and Texas A&M is steering its investments to meet those needs. Bjork noted how the facilities philosophy has shifted even since Clemson opened its complex, a football fun house complete with an indoor slide, a mini golf course and a wiffle ball diamond.

“The building modes of today are not necessarily the bells and whistles we saw at Clemson — the slide and putt-putt [golf course],” Bjork said. “What we’re looking at when building our buildings are the teaching spaces, the team meeting rooms, the film rooms, walk-through rooms, making sure that the indoor practice facility has enough space for the entire team. And then the nutrition spaces, the sports psychology spaces.

“Players want to be coached, and you have to have the tools to coach and perform at the highest level.”

Texas A&M is prioritizing efficiency with its upcoming investments. The school currently has academic and nutrition hubs for all athletes in its football operations building, but it is building a separate complex for non-football athletes.

“We’re actually economizing for all student-athletes, while then taking our football building and making it exclusively football,” Bjork said. “Talking to Jimbo, those are the things that evolved in the conversation, because you have that 20-hour rule [NCAA limit on weekly athletics participation]. Getting from the team meeting room to the individual breakout rooms to the practice field, or to the weight room, that was really, really important, the efficiency of time.”

Selling the vision to the 12th Man Foundation, Texas A&M’s fundraising arm, hasn’t been difficult.

“Aggies think differently,” Bjork said. “They want to know, ‘What’s the plan?’ And they want to make it better. They could have easily renovated Kyle Field, but they built it from scratch. That’s the mentality, and it’s really our job to perpetuate it.”

Texas A&M is a decade into its SEC membership. Although there have been no division or league championships, the program has two top-five finishes, four top-20 finishes and no losing seasons. In the previous decade (2002 to 2011), the Aggies had only one top-20 finish, zero 10-win seasons and three losing seasons.

The program is improving, but the league remains extremely competitive. Texas A&M is one of many deep-pocketed programs, and others — Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Florida and now Georgia — have won national titles in the past 15 years. Bjork, who spent seven years as Ole Miss athletic director before coming to Texas A&M, understands that “no one in the SEC sits still.” Texas A&M will keep pushing, and, with the right spending strategy and outlook, the results eventually will come.

“If you put a timetable on it, that’s where it gets dangerous,” Bjork said. “If people see tangible things happening, like a recruiting class, like hiring really good assistant coaches for your program, like investing in facilities, that’s where they start to have hope. They start to believe that things can happen here. Ultimately, you do have to produce.

“But sharing the vision, the plan, and actually seeing those things actually happen along the way, that provides the confidence people need to say, ‘Hey, I’m in. Tell me what you need.'”

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