Mel Tucker's mission at Michigan State football: Build on Mark Dantonio's success
Antjuan Simmons barely could contain his excitement. The thought of Michigan State football finally taking the Spartan Stadium field again — after one of most uncertain offseasons in the sport's history — created as much enthusiasm for the MSU linebacker as the thought of finally getting to play for his new head coach:
“He’s been everything we want in a coach,” Simmons said, “and plus some.”
The Tucker Era begins Saturday as the Spartans host Rutgers to kick off an eight-game conference-only schedule. It has been a daunting eight and a half months since Tucker was hired, filled with navigating the complexities of COVID-19 and having no spring practice. But now comes Tucker’s opportunity to take over at the place where his coaching career began and to follow the winningest head coach in program history — and build on that success.
“Changes can be uncomfortable. But we've told our players that they have to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Tucker said Tuesday. “And so we've done that. Our players have embraced us, we've embraced them, we've connected with our players. We feel we feel very good about the process.”
Replacing a legend
It is important to understand what Mark Dantonio inherited vs. what he leaves for Tucker.
The Spartans spent 40 years mired in mediocrity, with occasional sparks of competitiveness, after becoming a national powerhouse in the 1950s and '60s. Duffy Daugherty’s final few years after the 1966 national championship — a season that included the legendary 10-10 tie with Notre Dame — triggered the erosion, with scandals hampering Denny Stolz and limiting Darryl Rogers, who won a share of the 1978 Big Ten title but could not go to the Rose Bowl due to sanctions.
George Perles brought stability in the 1980s and took MSU back to a Rose Bowl after winning the 1987 Big Ten title, but his program took a nosedive after sharing the 1990 conference championship. Nick Saban resurrected the Spartans before leaving for LSU. But MSU bottomed out as Bobby Williams and John L. Smith struggled to field competitive teams in the early 2000s.
Enter Dantonio, who arrived in late 2006 with talk of competing for Big Ten and national titles. What seemed to be nominal promises of a new coach came to fruition. MSU earned a share of the 2010 Big Ten title, earned a spot in the inaugural conference championship game in 2011, then won it outright in 2013 and 2015. The Spartans returned to the Rose Bowl and won it in 2014. They followed that by winning the 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic in the first year of the New Year's Six bowl arrangement, then earned a spot in the 2016 College Football Playoff the following season.
Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told The Columbus Dispatch in February that Dantonio was “one of the best tacticians in the game of football that I ever coached against.”
“Arguably the greatest era of Michigan State football — the modern era — is Mark Dantonio’s,” Meyer said.
But MSU quickly went stagnant. The Spartans nosedived to 3-9 the season after reaching the playoff — the only time Dantonio did not make a bowl game in his tenure. After a surprising 10-3 season in 2017, the Spartans finished 7-6 in each of the past two seasons as injuries mounted. The energy from a fanbase that had watched the Spartans blossom for much of the early part of the decade had slipped into a malaise.
“I'm always excited about the future, to be honest with you. I always look forward to the next challenge, next goal in your life, bringing people with you,” Dantonio said after the Spartans beat Wake Forest at the Pinstripe Bowl in New York on Dec. 27. “I think that's something that you always do. I think that's a natural progression for every football coach or every CEO maybe in the country: What's next?”
What came next, a little more than a month later, was Dantonio’s sudden retirement. He finished his tenure with a school-best 114-57 record and left MSU to answer the very question he had posed in December"
'Home run' hire
MSU’s first choice, Luke Fickell, opted to remain at Cincinnati. And once that happened, it did not take athletic director Bill Beekman long to hire Tucker. On Feb. 12, just two days after being turned down, the Spartans pried Tucker, the 48-year-old Cleveland native, away from Colorado after one season with a lucrative $5.5 million, six-year contract.
Tucker — a former Wisconsin defensive back who has admitted to being a fan of "The Godfather" movies — told ESPN.com after he was hired that MSU “made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.”
The move drew rave reviews, particularly because of how late in the offseason MSU had to move to find a new coach.
“This is almost like hiring someone who was an assistant coach but is a head coach,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said the day Tucker was hired. “Interim (head coach) in the NFL, one year at Colorado. So if you look at his resume, this is a home run.”
That resume ties directly to two of the Spartans’ best coaches.
Tucker’s coaching roots trace back to MSU in 1997-98, when served as a graduate assistant under Saban and worked alongside Dantonio, who coached defensive backs at the time. Tucker joined Saban at LSU before reuniting with Dantonio at Ohio State, coaching DBs under the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator and helping OSU win the 2002 national championship. He took over co-coordinator duties in 2004 after Dantonio left for Cincinnati’s head coaching job.
After venturing to the NFL for a decade, Tucker returned to Saban’s staff at Alabama in 2015 that crushed Dantonio’s Spartans in the CFP semifinal and went on to win the national title. Tucker moved on to run Georgia’s defense for three years before getting his first college head coaching job last year at Colorado.
In short, Tucker knows winning at the college level. The teams Tucker has been associated with as an assistant and head coach own a 106-36 record, have won two national championships and appeared in a third title game.
“Our fans deserve to see a brand of football that they that they can believe in and they can be proud of,” Tucker said Tuesday. “And we're certainly preparing for a matchup to show what we're all about.”
Return to relentlessness
Tucker’s previous success obviously has not been all his doing. But his next step in his career is to channel what he learned from his mentors to his understudies as a head coach. He went 5-7 at Colorado but re-energized the program before bolting for East Lansing.
“The name of the game is hit. And that's never gonna change,” Tucker said. “So being physical and playing tough, hard-nosed football, that's not a new concept for me. And it's not a new concept for Michigan State.”
That, in particular, was one of the big things that sold Antjuan Simmons and continues to get the returning Spartans to buy in to Tucker’s vision.
“Coach Tuck is a phys-i-cal dude. Like, very physical,” the senior linebacker said. “if there's one thing we're gonna do during practice is hit people. He tells us all the time, 'If you don't know what to do, just hit somebody. We can live with that. But if you're out there and you got your palms to the side, you're looking around, you're not pulling your trigger on thing, I don't know if we're gonna be able to have you out there.' He's a guy who wants people to run fast, he wants you to strike people, he wants you to show up with the right attitude, the right mindset.”
One of Tucker’s most-used phrases is “relentless.” And that is something senior center Matt Allen has seen and felt during practices this month.
“And I can tell just, by the way we've been practicing and by the way he's been taking control of things and having us do certain drills, we're going to be relentless,” Allen said. “And we're going to stay after the ball and stay after guys through the end of the whistle and through the end of the fourth quarter.”
Tucker and his assistants spent all offseason focusing on communicating with their players via video conference calls, after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports in March and delayed Tucker's ability to implement his vision in person. Players didn't reconvene on campus until June.
“We have a new coaching staff, and we have a different way of doing some things. And that's part of the culture,” Tucker said. “How do you live? How do you do what you do? Why do you do it that way? And making sure that everyone understands that and understands why it's important. And so our players have embraced that.”
By the time kickoff arrives Saturday against Rutgers, it will have been more than 300 days since MSU last played a football game. It has felt like an eternity with all that has transpired in the interim, but one thing Tucker knows for sure about his team is “our guys love to play football."
"I can tell by the way they behave," he said. "And behavior has a lot to do with the results that you get.”
His players feel the same about their new coach and the program’s direction.
“I'm excited to see how this team is going to develop and grow,” Simmons said. “I know we've got the pieces. We've been working our butts off. Now, the time has come to put it all together.”