Opening loss aside, Michigan State will be fine under Mel Tucker

Chris Solari
Detroit Free Press

Nick Saban knows exactly what Mel Tucker is feeling. 

A quarter-century ago, the college football legend experienced the same things in the same stadium in the same position as his protege did Saturday. 

In his first game as Michigan State football’s head coach in 1995, Saban’s much-anticipated arrival ended with a thud, a 50-10 home pounding from Nebraska. 

On Saturday, Tucker’s Spartans dropped his debut 38-27 to Rutgers — a far cry in terms of talent from the Cornhuskers who stomped Saban’s squad, but a letdown that nonetheless uneased the fan base. Next up is Michigan at noon Saturday, the rivalry game that often defines MSU legacies. 

First-year Michigan State coach Mel Tucker shouldn't be judged by his team's opening-week loss to Rutgers, former Spartans players say.

But don’t worry about Tucker, said Saban, now the head coach at Alabama — he’ll be just fine. 

“Mel is a very capable guy,” said Saban, who coached at MSU from 1995-99 and had Tucker as a defensive graduate assistant for two seasons. “He did an outstanding job for us, and I think has done a really good job, wherever he’s been, in whatever his responsibility has been.” 

Tucker knows what it is like to win in the Big House. The former Wisconsin defensive back won there as a player in 1994, then helped coach Ohio State to three wins in four games against the Wolverines as an assistant coach from 2001-04. But the two MSU teams he was part of as a graduate assistant in 1997 and ’98 lost both meetings. 

Michigan State:Couch: How Mel Tucker handles the Michigan rivalry will shape his relationship with MSU fans

Still, the 48-year-old witnessed the magnitude of the rivalry game. And he nearly quoted Saban word for word in describing how MSU put the loss to Rutgers in the past. 

“We’ll learn from it,” Tucker said. “We’ve got a young football team that’s bought in and is eager, that’s motivated and wants to do well. We’ve done some good things. And this is a week to get some things cleaned up and improve. 

“I believe that you typically make your most improvement from game 1 to game 2, and that’s really where our focus is.” 

Saban was not alone this week in voicing his support of the Spartans’ new coach, who went 5-7 in his first year as a college head coach last year at Colorado. 

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who never lost to Michigan in three starts for MSU from 2009-11, said he expects the Spartans to put together a competitive performance against the Wolverines, who won 49-24 last week at Minnesota. 

Cousins also expressed confidence in Tucker and his ability to build on what his coach, Mark Dantonio, left behind when he retired Feb. 4. 

“I think he was a great hire. I like his staff a lot,” Cousins said. “As with anything, it takes time. Obviously, the Michigan game is a big game every year and fun for so many people in that state. It’s been fun to see how the history has unfolded over the last couple decades. It’s been a great battle back and forth. So I expect this weekend to be no different.” 

Robaire Smith got to know Tucker during his MSU career from 1996-99 and then played for him in the NFL. The two reunited with the Cleveland Browns when Smith joined the team as a defensive end in 2007 and Tucker was defensive backs coach. A year later, Tucker became defensive coordinator. 

The 12-year NFL veteran said Tucker shares more personality traits with Dantonio but exudes Saban qualities from a football standpoint. 

“As far as knowledge of the game, yes,” Smith said comparing Tucker and Saban. “Their personalities are different. But they both demand (that) you to go out there and compete and do your job, go out there and be accountable and be available. When I see that part of him, that reminds me of Saban.”