Couch: How Mel Tucker handles the Michigan rivalry will shape his relationship with MSU fans
Mel Tucker’s introduction to Michigan State football fans, thus far, is akin to a relationship that begins well online and over the phone but then turns into a clumsy first date — clammy hands, food in your teeth, credit card declined, too much like your ex. The whole gamut.
And somehow, when all you want next is a walk in the park, the second date is a high-stakes afternoon with both sets of parents. Or, in this case, rival Michigan, at noon on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Tucker’s debut was a mess. It was not a disaster. A disaster implies lasting consequences. Nothing that happens in Game 1 of Year 1 — even against Rutgers — is going to determine the tenure of a coach with a six-year contact who’s yet to sign his first recruiting class.
But what happens this week will begin to set the mood. How Tucker handles rival Michigan — in rhetoric and results — will set the tone for his relationship with MSU fans.
This is what his predecessor did so well right from the start.
Mark Dantonio knew when to bite back, when to needle the Wolverines and when to let the play on the field do the talking. He read the room. Having been at MSU for six years as an assistant, he knew the insecurities of the MSU fan base in this rivalry, and so when Mike Hart chuckled and called MSU “little brother,” Dantonio responded exactly how every MSU fan needed him to respond in that moment.
“Let's just remember, pride comes before the fall,” he said in 2007 after a 28-24 loss at Spartan Stadium. “This game is an important game. If they want to mock us all they want to mock us, I'm telling ’em, it’s not over. … It’s not over and it'll never be over here ... It’s just starting.”
And then he backed it up, winning eight of the next 10 years, including the following year by two touchdowns in Ann Arbor, after which Dantonio said exactly what MSU fans wanted to hear again: “I’ll go on the record as saying this one counts as more than one. We took a step forward in the eyes of the people in Michigan and toward changing the culture in this state.”
Dantonio didn’t leave Tucker much. But he left him a blueprint for how to handle a rivalry with deep feelings, including a message after a win in 2009: “This game has a way of defining you.”
Before Dantonio won three Big Ten championships in six years, took MSU to the Rose Bowl and to the College Football Playoff, he had MSU fans in his corner because of how he’d dealt with the Wolverines.
Tucker knows this rivalry, too. He was a grad assistant at Michigan State under Nick Saban in 1997 and ’98, the ’97 loss to the Wolverines particularly dispiriting. He knows the venom that comes with a fierce rivalry with Michigan, having grown up an Ohio State fan and coaching on the Buckeyes' defensive staff for four seasons, from 2001-04.
Tucker also knows how to burrow under the skin of a rival. Here’s what he said in his postgame press conference a year ago after his first home game as coach of Colorado, a come-from-behind 34-31 overtime win over the program's biggest traditional rival, Nebraska:
“We were (the) best-conditioned football team,” he said. “We knew that if we continued to play, just continued to play the next play, keep fighting, keep scratching, keep clawing, that we would get back in it and then eventually we would wear them down and then break them at the end. And that’s what happened.”
Nothing offensive. But a not-so-subtle statement about the strength and stamina of one program compared to the other.
Tucker would be nuts to say something like that about Michigan this week ahead of time. He likely won’t get to say it afterward, either. Nothing about how either one of these teams looked in Week 1 suggests this encounter in a mostly empty Big House is going to go well for the Spartans.
How MSU competes and comports itself will stick with MSU fans, though. If the execution is better than a week ago, the turnovers subtracted by five or so, if there is no sign of withering, if the score is respectable, that’ll set an important tone. MSU fans will appreciate it and be back on board with Tucker. After all, it’s not Rutgers-loving snobs that MSU fans have to deal with in their daily lives. This is a save-face, show-enough-teeth-for-respect kind of year in this rivalry for MSU.
And afterward, read the room. If there are no insults from the other side, if your team fought the good fight, you tip your cap and promise a battle in Spartan Stadium in 2021. If smugness seeps into the postgame discourse, be ready for that, too.
For MSU fans, the rivalry cuts deep. You’ve got to feel that with them.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.