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Meet Harlon Barnett, MSU football's acting head coach amid Mel Tucker suspension

September 12, 2023
<p>MSU cornerbacks coach Harlon Barnett during an October 2020 practice.</p>

MSU cornerbacks coach Harlon Barnett during an October 2020 practice.

Photo by Courtesy of MSU Athletic Communications | The State News

Following the suspension of Michigan State Football Head Coach Mel Tucker, former Spartan defensive back and secondary coach Harlon Barnett was chosen to lead MSU Football through the uncertain time as acting head coach.

The suspension comes after a USA Today Report cited alleged sexual misconduct between Tucker and Brenda Tracy, a sexual assault survivor who now acts as a public speaker on issues regarding sexual violence in sports. Barnett was announced as acting head coach in Sunday’s press conference by Interim President Teresa K. Woodruff and Athletic Director Alan Haller. 

"Coach Barnett has an incredible connection to our university and takes incredible pride in being a Spartan," Haller said during the press conference. "He has established relationships with student-athletes and is focused on their well-being first and foremost.”

Although this coming Saturday’s matchup against the No. 8 Washington Huskies will mark Barnett’s first-ever action as head coach, he has a surplus of experience with the program.

A Cincinnati native, Barnett was a three-year starting defensive back for Michigan State from 1986-1989 and was taken in the fourth round of the 1990 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. In his senior year of college, he was named a captain and earned All-American honors. Barnett’s professional career also included stints with the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings. 

Barnett landed his first collegiate job in 2003 as a graduate assistant at LSU under then-coach Nick Saban. From there, he went to Cincinnati for three years before returning to his alma mater in East Lansing in 2007 as a secondary coach. At both Cincinnati and Michigan State, Barnett worked under former MSU Head Coach Mark Dantonio, who has since been brought back as Associate Head Coach in the wake of Tucker’s suspension.

At his debut press conference Tuesday, Barnett stated the value of bringing Dantonio back after working together for 14 consecutive years. 

“Coach D brings the calming presence, the wisdom, the knowledge of being a head coach," Barnett said. "A very successful coach at that, and so, he’s bringing all that as our associate head coach."

Barnett is in his second coaching tenure with the Spartans. Towards the end of his first stint in 2017, Barnett held other positions such as co-defensive coordinator, assistant head coach and associate head coach. He spent the 2018 and 2019 seasons in Tallahassee as Florida State’s defensive coordinator before returning to MSU as secondary coach under Tucker. 

Barnett referred to himself as “a Spartan through and through” in Tuesday’s press conference and said being at the forefront of MSU’s program has always been a goal of his.  

“I want to be the head coach of Michigan State, but not in this way,” Barnett said, referencing the circumstances under which he was named head coach. “I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to be the head coach here.” 

MSU’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl victory over Pittsburgh in 2021 marked Barnett’s fourth New Year’s Six/BCS bowl game with the Spartans. Over the years, he’s coached three Thorpe Award semifinalists, four All-Americans and 11 defensive backs that reached the NFL.

Barnett has become especially known for his player development at MSU – he took in Darqueze Dennard, a two-star recruit out of high school with limited offers, and guided him toward an eventual unanimous All-American selection and the school’s first Thorpe Award winner. Dennard was a first-round NFL draft pick in 2014.

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