Mel Tucker‘s last winter as Michigan State University’s head football coach was a busy one.
He flew around the country via private jet at least 17 times, documents show, en route to inking one of the team’s best recruiting classes in a decade.
He attended at least four Spartans men’s basketball games, including one at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where Twitter users captured him courtside, wearing a large Spartan Dawgs for Life medallion and holding a beverage in a clear plastic cup.
He also gave multiple on-camera interviews to media outlets.
All the while behind the scenes, Tucker was claiming to be in a state of such extreme mental distress that he could not speak to the outside attorney investigating him for sexual harassment, emails obtained by USA TODAY show.
Throughout the campus case brought by rape survivor and anti-sexual violence activist Brenda Tracy, a vendor he had hired to speak to his players about sexual violence prevention, Tucker repeatedly claimed that a serious medical condition prevented his participation. His health issues, he asserted, necessitated weeks-long delays in the case, while he continued to collect a $750,000 monthly paycheck.
But Tucker’s actions around the time of those emails – part of a more than 1,000-page case file that MSU has kept out of the public eye – bring those claims’ legitimacy into question.
Under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, the file is supposed to be open to the public once the case ends. But in response to a Jan. 16 records request from USA TODAY, MSU this week said it would charge the news organization at least $5,400 for the roughly 160 hours it would take to review and redact private information from the records. That process, the school said, would take 51 weeks.
USA TODAY obtained the file directly from Tracy. It has shed light on many crucial aspects of the case that led to Tucker’s firing through details contained in lengthy written reports by the investigator, hearing officer and appeal officer, interview summaries and hundreds of pages of exhibits. Those include correspondence between Tucker’s attorney and university officials and documentary evidence.
The records also go a long way toward solving some lingering mysteries.
They provide insight into MSU’s response to Tucker’s various health claims, which helps explain why the case dragged on so long. Although MSU’s sexual harassment policy says cases should generally be completed within six months after the a formal complaint is filed, the case against Tucker lasted more than a year.
Tucker’s assertions of health problems put MSU between a rock and a hard place, said David Ring, a Los Angeles-based attorney who represents sexual abuse victims. Even if the investigator believed he was fabricating a medical condition to obstruct the investigation, had she pressed on without interviewing him, it could have created a perception of unfair treatment – one that Tucker later could have used against the school.
Regardless, Tucker’s questionable health claim further damages his credibility in the court of public opinion, Ring told USA TODAY.
“It’s kind of an eye-roller for a person to say, ‘I’m in such distress, there’s no way I can participate in an interview,’ and at the same time they’re out making public appearances, traveling, giving interviews,” Ring said.
Michigan State declined to comment for this story. Tucker and his attorney, Jennifer Belveal, did not return messages seeking comment.
Tucker first invoked mental health claims in January 2023, emails show – three weeks after Tracy filed a complaint with MSU’s Title IX office. Tracy’s complaint alleged Tucker masturbated and made sexual comments without her consent during an April 2022 phone call.
The university’s outside investigator, Rebecca Leitman Veidlinger, had conducted interviews with Tracy and all six witnesses in the case by the end of January 2023 – but not with Tucker. Belveal told Veidlinger that Tucker needed to postpone his interview indefinitely because of his extreme mental distress.
Veidlinger responded that Tucker could request accommodations through Michigan State’s disability office, emails show. But Tucker does not appear to have done so. On Feb. 3, Belveal wrote that Tucker’s next availability would be in nearly two months, on the last day of March. He ultimately sat for an interview on March 22, 2023.
Tucker again invoked a health condition the following September, after Tracy went public with her allegations in a USA TODAY investigation. MSU suspended Tucker without pay hours after the news broke, then moved to fire him for cause a week later.
In a Sept. 25 letter to athletic director Alan Haller, Tucker argued that MSU could not fire him because he had requested a medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act for a “serious health condition” days before MSU told him of its intent to fire him. It is unclear if that condition is the mental distress he cited in January.
MSU fired Tucker anyway on Sept. 26, canceling the roughly $80 million left on his record-setting contract.
A health condition also prevented Tucker from participating in the hearing for the sexual harassment case on Oct. 5, Belveal wrote in a Sept. 20 letter to the school’s Title IX office seeking another delay.
Katie Bylenga, the university’s hearing administrator, responded that Tucker would need to submit documentation of the condition to demonstrate good cause for the delay. Belveal did not do so, records indicate, and Tucker did not attend the hearing.
Belveal ultimately submitted a doctor’s note on Tucker’s behalf dated Oct. 27 – three weeks after the hearing. By then, the university’s hearing officer had already issued her decision, concluding that Tucker sexually harassed and exploited Tracy on numerous occasions over their year-long business relationship.
Tucker’s appeal of the findings in November included that doctor’s note, addressed to Belveal. It said that Tucker had been admitted for treatment on Sept. 15, with a planned discharge date of Oct. 29. Black boxes cover the doctor’s last name – “Dr. James [REDACTED], MD” – title, and the name of the treatment center.
“Due to his medical illnesses and treatment needed during this time Mr. Tucker was unable to attend to any legal or administrative matters,” the note said. “In addition, the stress and psychological and emotional impact of participating in these matters would likely exacerbate his illness.”
The case officially ended on Jan. 11, when the school’s outside review officer denied Tucker’s appeal, concluding the findings were reasonable based on the facts. The 24-page decision made no mention of any medical condition.
Kenny Jacoby is an investigative reporter for USA TODAY covering sexual misconduct and Title IX. Contact him by email at email@example.com or follow him on X @kennyjacoby.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ex-MSU football coach Mel Tucker’s actions undercut health issue claim