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An in-depth conversation with Darien Harris — Director of Player Engagement for Michigan State Football

Catching up with the former Spartan linebacker and current director of player engagement on a wide variety of topics.

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Big Ten Championship Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Many Michigan State Spartans fans remember Darien Harris as an excellent “star” linebacker and team captain during the height of MSU football. Harris played under Mark Dantonio from 2011 through 2015. Now, to the delight of many, he finds himself employed by the university on Mel Tucker’s staff as director of player engagement.

I had the pleasure of having an in-depth phone conversation with Harris, and we tackled a wide variety of topics — starting with, well, what exactly does the director of player engagement do and what are Harris’ new responsibilities?

“Essentially, at its core, it’s a player development role,” Harris explained. “Everything that’s off the field is basically what I touch. Obviously, transitioning into school when the players get there as freshmen. Putting together programs as they ascend through their time at Michigan State. Putting in plans so they understand the importance of networking, career services and career development for when football is finally done. Helping them with the transition out of school, whether that is with professional sports or into the workforce. Getting them connected with as many people as possible. Building a huge network with former players, current players, MSU fans and alumni, just to make sure that whole network is ever-growing.

“And just being a resource for the players if they have any questions about how things are going — being their liaison between them, their position coaches and the academic staff as somebody who’s kind of been there and done that and can come with some background knowledge.”

Harris obviously has a clear vision for the role and what he does at Michigan State is going to have a lasting effect on the players. Coach Dino Folino, who spent 25 total years at Michigan State, including serving as the director of player personnel/player development and relations for the past 18 years, served in a similar capacity during Harris’ playing days. Now that Folino is no longer with the program, Harris looks to work with the other staff members in the player development department and build upon it.

“It’s just working with the other people that are within our player development realm,” Harris said, while elaborating on his role. “Elliot Daniels is the assistant athletic director for student-athlete engagement and he was an academic coordinator when I was playing. Now he’s transitioned into this role where he oversees student-athlete engagement across the entire athletic campus. Then Coach Lorenzo Guess, who is one of the assistant strength coaches, is the director of player enrichment. So the three of us are going to be working hand-and-hand with player development for the football team and beyond. We can take it in whichever direction we want to go. What’s great about this role is there are a lot of people across the country that have a lot of experience and knowledge in this space and everybody likes to share ideas. So it’s not about reinventing the wheel, it’s just about taking what’s already in place and adding to it.”

Other duties for Harris include on-campus recruiting (once the Big Ten lifts the moratorium on all team activities, including on-and-off campus recruiting). That means when a group of recruits visits East Lansing, Harris is giving tours of campus, sharing his experience as a player with recruits and showing them around the football facilities, amongst other activities.

While newly appointed director of on-campus recruiting Lisa Ben-Chaim leads the charge, it makes sense for Harris to be involved with the on-campus recruiting efforts. While Tucker, and many of his assistant coaches, have great reputations as recruiters, many of these new coaches haven’t been at MSU long enough to lead tours and direct that kind of thing. Of course, the whole COVID-19 shut down has not helped matters. So Harris is a natural fit there, although he may transition out of that role eventually. But on top of that, Tucker wants his entire staff putting a big emphasis on recruiting.

“Coach Tucker, as I’m sure you can tell, is huge on recruiting,” Harris said. “One of the main things he said at our first staff meetings is ‘Everybody recruits. It’s not just the recruiting staff’s job, or the position coaches’ job, if you’re on staff, you are a recruiter.’ So, we all have different roles to play in that and it’s been enjoyable so far.”

So, how did Harris land this coveted role?

Image courtesy of Austin Flynn, MSU’s director of creative video.

While he had no prior ties to Tucker or the new coaching staff, Harris did have a connection within the MSU athletic department.

Of course, that should come as no surprise for a former third-team All Big-Ten selection, two-time Big Ten champion, Rose Bowl champion and team co-captain. But this wasn’t a position that was just handed to him, either.

“I reached out to the (MSU) athletic department around the week of Valentine’s Day, which was right around the time (Coach Tucker) got hired,” Harris said. “I have a good relationship with some people who are decision-makers within the department, and I knew regardless of who was hired that I wanted to see if there was an opportunity for me to join the staff. I had been wanting to for a while, and there were pushes for me on Twitter, which was great, but for myself personally, I knew I wanted to have this current role that I am in now. But there just wasn’t any opportunity to do so, even under Coach Dantonio, which I understood — that’s how athletics work. It’s not a situation where people are coming and going often, people are cemented in their spots. I knew with a new regime, there might be an opportunity, so I was going to reach out and see if I could help them and join their staff.”

Harris would get that opportunity, which came together quickly. He happened to be in town on Valentine’s Day weekend for his former teammate, Bennie Fowler’s, book signing for “Silver Spoon: The Imperfect Guide to Success.” By the end of the weekend, Harris was filling out hiring paperwork.

“Fortunately, I was able to (join the staff),” Harris said. “I got the go-ahead, before even talking to Coach Tucker, through some resources of my own. They reached out to him and told him about my background. Then he said he wanted to meet me and thought it would be a good fit. So, that Saturday I met with him, and was hired by Sunday. It was a six-day turnaround. It wasn’t something that was on the docket for months or something that was waiting to be announced. It came up really fast and played out really fast, but that’s how athletics works, which I’m learning right now. Everything just kind of worked out and the stars aligned in the best possible way.”

Tucker and Harris didn’t really know each other prior to their introductory meeting. They sat down for about 30 minutes and Tucker went over the role he envisioned for Harris, and it was a wrap from there.

“The only prior relationship we had was them killing us in the playoff game,” Harris said with a laugh, in reference to the 2015 College Football Playoff Cotton Bowl game. The Spartans fell to the Alabama Crimson Tide by a score of 38-0, and Tucker was Alabama’s defensive coordinator at the time.

“He remembered me from that game, and I certainly remembered what they were able to do. But that’s college athletics. It’s about your network and your resources, and making sure you have a good resume, good relationships and great character. All of that goes a long way. That story, and how it all transpired, and the lessons I’ve learned from it, are what I’m going to pass down onto these players now. That’s it in a nutshell — keep your network strong, and use your network to learn why you’re in the position you’re in, and know where you’re going to be even when your playing days are over. Your network is what’s going to help you get there.”

What did Harris think about the hiring of Mel Tucker as the next Michigan State head coach?

Courtesy of @MSU_Football Twitter

When the news came in, what was Harris’ initial reaction to Michigan State hiring Tucker as the next man to lead the football program?

“I thought it was the perfect hire,” Harris exclaimed. “I thought it was a tremendous hire, a hire that was obviously properly vetted. Once I heard his introductory press conference, I knew for sure he was the right guy for the job. I think the way he came off was genuine and honest, which he truly is. Even more so, he made it clear that (Michigan State) is important and special to him. That was something that I was adamant about, verbally, to people I knew and my former teammates when we were discussing who we wanted to see coming in next.

“It had to be somebody who really cared about Michigan State. It’s the only way to have success here. That’s why Coach Dantonio had success here. That’s why Coach (Tom) Izzo had success, and Jud Heathcote, Duffy Daugherty, Biggie Munn, and even Nick Saban, had success, is because they cared about this place. Coach Tucker cares about Michigan State. And just his honesty — he’s extremely real. He’s not going to beat around the bush, he’s going to tell you how it is. That kind of tenacious attitude is what MSU needs, and he’s brought it from day one. I couldn’t be more excited to work on his staff. It’s a dream come true.”

Harris has a strong relationship with Mark Dantonio

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

While Harris is clearly excited to work with Tucker, on the other side of the coin, is Harris’ tight-knit relationship with Dantonio — his former coach and mentor. When fans and pundits grew tired of Michigan State’s struggles over the past couple of seasons, Harris was constantly defending Dantonio — as a coach, a person and a leader.

Harris learned a great deal from Dantonio. Despite their close relationship, Harris was just as blindsided by Dantonio’s seemingly out-of-nowhere decision to retire.

“I had no idea (he was retiring),” Harris said. “I thought it would probably happen in the next couple years, but to have it happen this year was a shock to everybody. But it was a true family decision, as he is a family man. I was excited for him to move onto this next venture of life. I think he gave Michigan State everything he had and I think everybody who doesn’t see that is putting on blinders. But you can’t coach forever, just like you can’t play forever, so we knew eventually his time was coming.”

Harris still is close with Dantonio and talks to him from time to time. He last saw him at the West Michigan Spartans Winter Tailgate event in late February, with other former teammates including Fowler, Darqueze Dennard, Kurtis Drummond, Matt Sokol and Micajah Reynolds. Dantiono gave a speech at the event. Harris was able to talk to him there, and Dantonio reiterated that he is ready for this next step in his life and he’s ready to turn it over to the new regime.

“For all of the scrutiny Coach Dantonio’s taken (over the past couple seasons), and even the scrutiny he took for the timing of his decision, as per usual in true Coach D fashion, everything has worked out just fine, truly. We have a great man (in Tucker) now at the helm who has assembled an unbelievable staff, from his assistant coaches, down to the recruiting staff and operations staff. When you see what we’re building, it’s going to be special. I can see why Coach Dantonio was so close to his staff, and this staff is going to be the same way. We’re already a family.”

How the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Michigan State football

The new “family” Harris mentions above, is now having to deal with unprecedented times through this COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, this is not an ideal scenario for a new football staff that hasn’t had a chance to implement its new offensive and defensive schemes and evaluate the talent on the roster. That process should be playing out now during spring practices, but all football activities are currently shut down by the Big Ten (rightfully so).

While this is putting Michigan State behind the eight-ball, so to speak, from a physical perspective, Harris and the staff are highly confident in what the program currently has in place from mental and organizational aspects.

“We’ve talked to some people across the country, and they don’t yet have a plan in a place (regarding COVID-19),” Harris said. “We have a great plan in place for how we’re handling being away from our players. From an operations role, our director of football operations Cody Cox has really adjusted to his new role and taken it by storm. The operations staff has done a tremendous job of setting us up for success during this difficult time. It’s unbelievable working with this group.”

With campus shut down, the majority of players are back home at their primary residences. Meanwhile, the MSU football staff has been working diligently, using the Zoom application to conduct meetings from the safety of their own homes. This hasn’t stopped them from running normal staff meetings, positional group meetings with coaches and players, or even finding unconventional ways to hold strength and conditioning workouts with players through the online medium.

“The football side of things is actually pretty easy,” Harris elaborated. “Thankfully it’s 2020 and we have the technology with Zoom meetings every day. The coaches can hold film sessions with players and that’s what’s important right now. Every football program in the country is struggling with this in different ways. For us, the issue is with a new coaching staff in place, we needed spring ball. The players haven’t learned the new system on the field yet. What they are able to do is have positional meetings and learn the system remotely. The coaches have been great (teaching) and the players have been great attending every meeting. We haven’t had any misses yet or technical difficulties. We’re really relying on on our Eagle leadership team that we still have in place to hold each other accountable. So that part of this is going well.”

With team facilities and local gym beings closed, the players obviously aren’t able to work out like they’re used to. They can do their online group workouts, but this isn’t ideal for players looking to get into football shape. Harris believes one positive out of all of this, though, is that the players are not going to take things for granted moving forward — they’ll appreciate the opportunity more. Nobody will be complaining about 6 a.m. workouts anymore, as he says the players are really missing it right now.

Unfortunately, every school has to deal with this pandemic. Harris doesn’t necessarily think it puts Michigan State behind more so than other programs.

“You have to put this stuff in perspective,” Harris said. “We’re just playing football games. There’s people whose lives are truly being affected by (COVID-19) in many different ways that are way more important and much harder to manage than just going out and playing football. That puts our minds a little more at ease, and if we’re able to help out along the way, we’re going to do that.”

Once it is safe, and football activities have been approved to resume, Harris does anticipate the NCAA to work with each conference to come to a universal resolution about rescheduling spring practices. He targets the summer and thinks it’s important to get on the field prior to fall camp, especially for schools like MSU with new coaching staffs. However, Harris says there are contingency plans in place and they’re preparing to move on without spring ball.

What does the future hold for the Michigan State football program?

Big Ten Championship Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

To put it bluntly, Harris is excited for the future.

“The only direction we’re going is up,” Harris said. “I see us continuing to climb back to prominence. In terms of what needs to be done, it’s all happening right now. The leadership of the staff and Coach Tucker — following his lead and his guidance — and reenergizing this program, the fanbase and the players, which is definitely happening. We were really about to get rolling for spring ball.”

Harris also said the late winter workouts with new head strength and conditioning coach Steve Novak were intense and going great. Additionally, he mentioned how proud he was of the players from an academic standpoint. Michigan State ranks in the top-two or three in the Big Ten in several academics categories, as well as ranking highly nationally. The Spartans have incredibly smart players on the roster.

What about his favorite memory during his playing days at Michigan State?

Big Ten Championship Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This much is clear: Harris absolutely bleeds green. His time as a player in East Lansing will always be remembered, and his vision for his new role with the staff is going to have a lasting impact on both current and former players.

When asked about his personal favorite memory from his playing days, which was filled with all kinds of program highs, Harris had an immediate answer:

“The Big Ten Championship in 2015,” Harris exclaimed. “It was my senior year and it was a culmination of a lot of years in the past. It seemed like we were doing a great service to the guys who came before us. From the 2010 class right before us, through the Rose Bowl class, up through the Cotton Bowl. It was really a culmination of all the work that was put in before us and we were able to reach that mountain top. It was just a special year for all of us. We had a special class and all of us are still extremely close. It was just a really good time. So that’s always stuck out in my head.”