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Former Seminoles defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett named interim head coach at Michigan State

Barnett, who spent 2 years as defensive coordinator under Willie Taggart, elevated to role after Mel Tucker suspended without pay
Michigan State secondary coach Harlon Barnett named interim head coach of Spartans in 2023
Posted at 11:56 AM, Sep 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-11 12:09:01-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Former Florida State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett will serve as interim head coach at Michigan State after the unpaid suspension of Mel Tucker, who is alleged to have sexually harassed an activist and rape survivor during a telephone call last year.

Michigan State University President Teresa K. Woodruff and athletic director Alan Haller announced the suspension Sunday pending the results of an outside investigation into the allegations.

The university hired a Title IX attorney to investigate Tracy's complaint and the investigation concluded July 25. A hearing is scheduled for the week of Oct. 5 to determine if Tucker violated the school's sexual harassment and exploitation policy.

When the investigative report was finished, Tucker was told not to have contact with Tracy and that Haller would increase his oversight of him and the program, Haller said at a news conference Sunday evening.

USA Today was the first to report the allegation, which was made by Brenda Tracy.

Brenda Tracy, sexual assault victim at Michigan Stadium in 2018
Brenda Tracy, a sexual assault survivor and activist, waits on the field at Michigan Stadium for the pregame coin toss before a game between Michigan and Western Michigan, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Haller said he didn't immediately suspend Tucker in July because the entire process of the investigation was not completed.

Barnett is a former Michigan State defensive back and longtime assistant at his alma mater.

The 56-year-old secondary coach has spent 15 of the past 17 seasons at Michigan State. His only two years away were in 2018 and 2019 when he was defensive coordinator for the Seminoles under Willie Taggart.

Taggart was fired after just 21 games, and Barnett was not retained by current Florida State head coach Mike Norvell.

Florida State Seminoles head coach Willie Taggart on sideline with defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett in 2018
Florida State head coach Willie Taggart, left, watches a replay beside defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett in the fourth quarter of a loss at Syracuse, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in Syracuse, N.Y.

Tucker is in the third year of a $95 million, 10-year contract and if he is fired for cause, the school would not have to pay him what's remaining on his deal.

Michigan State may fire Tucker for cause if he "engages in any conduct which constitutes moral turpitude or which, in the university's sole judgement, would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule upon the university," according to his contract.

Tracy became friends with Tucker over her advocacy work, but that relationship took a turn in April 2022 when Tucker masturbated during a phone call with her, according to USA Today.

Tucker acknowledged to investigators last spring that he masturbated during the phone call with Tracy, but he said they had consensual "phone sex."

"Ms. Tracy's distortion of our mutually consensual and intimate relationship into allegations of sexual exploitation has really affected me," Tucker wrote in a March 22 letter to the Title IX investigator. "I am not proud of my judgment and I am having difficulty forgiving myself for getting into this situation, but I did not engage in misconduct by any definition."

Tucker, 51, is married and has two children. He spent the 2019 season as head coach at Colorado before leaving for the Michigan State job. After Jack Del Rio was fired, he also served as interim head coach of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars for the final five games of the 2011 season.

Michigan State Spartans head coach Mel Tucker on sideline, Sept. 9, 2023
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker walks the sideline during the second half against Richmond, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in East Lansing, Mich.

Tracy is known for her work with college teams, educating athletes about sexual violence. She has spoken to Michigan State's football team multiple times.

Barnett was a three-year starter at Michigan State. A fourth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1990, Barnett spent three seasons in Cleveland (1990-92), two seasons with the New England Patriots (1993-94) and two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings (1995-96).

He returned to his alma mater as defensive backs coach under Mark Dantonio in 2007 before being promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2015.

When he left for Tallahassee in 2018, it was Barnett's first opportunity to have full control of a defense. But the results weren't good. The defense allowed 31.5 points per game in 2018 (90th nationally) and 28.5 points per game in 2019 (72nd).

"I thought we'd be preparing for a national championship, but things will all work together for good," Barnett told The Athletic after Taggart was let go in 2019.

When Tucker was hired by Michigan State in 2020, he brought back Barnett.