In 2020, there were no Big Ten Media Days. So, on the morning of Day Two of Big Ten Media Days in 2021, Michigan State University’s second-year head Coach Mel Tucker took to the podium for the first time.
Getting Back to Normal
Coach Tucker opened the 15-minute press conference with a long monologue reflecting on the state of the program. Tucker started by expressing how excited he was for things to finally be getting back to normal.
“I’m really excited about the season for a lot of reasons,” Tucker said. “I’m excited to finally be in Spartan Stadium with our fans. We have some of the most passionate fans in the country and there’s a lot of pent up demand for Spartan football and I can’t wait to get in there with the fans, the band, the cheer team, Sparty, and our players feel the same way.”
Coach Tucker went on to add, “Our fans, our alums, 550,000-plus living alumni, our former players, the Spartan Dawgs, they deserve winning football, the brand of football that they expect, tough, physical, relentless. That’s what our fans deserve. That’s what Spartan football is all about and it’s my job to get to get that done.”
Road Map to Success
But after a tough first campaign in East Lansing, the obvious question is how does Michigan State return to the winning ways that fans have come to expect following the high level of success enjoyed at the peak of the Mark Dantonio era. Here is how Coach Tucker mapped it out.
“We have gained ground in our program,” Tucker said. “Since the end of the season our objective was to aggregate marginal gains across the board in our organization. Coaching, support staff, players, strength and conditioning, nutrition, training room, equipment room, everyone just get a little bit better. Do your job a little bit better. You add that up and that’s how you get better fast and that’s what we have to do. I feel the momentum in our program in every aspect.”
Coach Tucker went on to say, “As a program, we believe in process. We’re not focused on the outcome. The process of things that you have to do, the behaviors that you have to exhibit day-in and day-out to build a winning organization, to have consistency and performance, attention to detail, sense of urgency, teamwork, togetherness, a culture of accountability. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Coach Tucker continued, “We have got a lot of work to do and we’re a work in progress, but the process of day-to-day cementing that culture of accountability is — I feel the momentum — It’s coming together. Our players can feel it. Our coaches can feel it. Our donors can feel it. They’re excited and we can’t wait to get going.”
What should MSU fans expect to see from the Spartans going forward under his watch? Coach Tucker summed it up as follows:
“When you think about Michigan State football, you think of tough, hard-nosed, physical, meat and potatoes, not a lot of French pastries, all-weather football,” Tucker said. “That’s what Michigan State football is all about. Rugged, lunch pail, it’s a working program. It’s for the people. It’s for the fans. There’s a certain brand of football that’s expected at Michigan State. We recruit to it. We coach to it. That’s our culture. That’s what we have to look forward to this fall.”
Lots of New Faces
Part of the evolution of Spartan football in 2021 involves the inclusion of several new players to the roster. Coach Tucker described it like this:
“We have 34 new players on our roster that we did not have at the end of last season,” Tucker noted. “Some of those players came midyear. Some of those guys came this summer — 15 transfers. Our roster is stronger, it’s more competitive, and it’s going to lead to a better brand of football.”
When a reporter asked Tucker about the challenges of incorporating the all those new players onto the roster, he said this:
“Michigan State is a family. “It’s a family atmosphere. It’s always been that way...We were very intentional in the very beginning when we arrived at East Lansing about building a winning culture, a culture of connection, connecting with our players, players connecting with each other and building trust and having real authentic relationships.
“Throughout the COVID season, we did that. We established the culture, the winning culture, that will allow us to have, to give us the ability to be successful. So that culture was in place by the end of the season. So when (the new players arrived) they came to Michigan State because of the culture because of what they saw, what they heard, what they felt. And then when they got to East Lansing, they were welcomed with open arms with the current players, by the current players.”
Coach Tucker added, “There wasn’t a lot of sharp elbows in that locker room. We knew we needed some more good players. We knew we needed to gain ground and it was just a matter of, come on in, let’s show you how we do it here. And the new players embraced that. The existing players taught that. So because of that culture and because of that atmosphere, the environment and the expectations, we have been able to indoctrinate the new players to our program. Now, at this point in the summer we’re all moving forward together, united and as a football team, not just a collection of players.”
In the mind of Coach Mel Tucker, this roster turn overall will only lead to more competition, which will make the program stronger. Coach Tucker even seemed to borrow a “Tom Izzo-ism.” He said, “We stress competition at Michigan State, compete to play, compete to stay. Either you like it, you love it or you live it. You’re at Michigan State, as a player or coach, you better live it because that’s what it takes to get to where we need to go.”
He continued, “Guys know that they’re going to have to bring it each and every day in order to get on the field, and that’s what we want. Guys are embracing that. They know they’re getting better. They know they’re going to have to compete. We’re just going to keep our head down and continue to go to work. We do have a chip on our shoulder. We really do. We have got a lot to prove...We need to gain ground. We’re behind. We’re playing catchup...There’s a sense of urgency in our program and our building and I’m excited about that.”
Lessons from the past
Tucker has one of the more interesting resumes in the Big Ten. He was a player at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez and his first job was as a “graduate assistant in ‘97 to ‘98 making $400 a month for two seasons” under then Michigan State head coach Nick Saban. When asked (by yours truly) about the lessons that he learned from these two great coaches, Coach Tucker had a lot to say.
As for his time in Madison, he said, “I was from Coach Alvarez’s first recruiting class in 1990. We were 1-10, 5-6, 5-6, then in the Rose Bowl. I learned from Coach Alvarez how to build a program from the ground up and be relentless in that pursuit and resiliency. Coach Alvarez gave us T-shirts after our first season, after our 1-10 season, that said, ‘We Will Win.’ And he told us, You better wear them on campus. He made us wear those T-shirts. He had a process. He believed in it. He was resilient and relentless, and we were table to get it done and the rest is history.”
Then, as for his first tour of duty in East Lansing, he said, “Coach Saban, I’ve known him since I was 17. He recruited me when he was the head coach at Toledo where my dad played. I got a call from Coach Saban when I came home one day from high school, picked up the phone, he said, ‘Hey this is, this is Coach Saban from the Houston Oilers.’
“I’m, like, ‘Houston Oilers? I’m a senior in high school.’ He said, ‘I just got the job at Toledo, where your dad played, and you’re one of my top recruits,’ and that’s when I got to know Coach Saban. I knew at that time that he was very, very special. So what I learned from Coach Saban, I learned how to coach. I learned how to recruit. He told me the first day, he said, ‘Listen, the best players don’t necessarily make the best coaches. Oftentimes the best players are not the best coaches. You’re going to have to learn how to coach. You’re going to have to learn how to recruit. If you pay attention you’ll do fine.’”
In the afternoon session, media has addition chances to speak to Coach Mel Tucker, as well as veteran players Drew Beesley, Xavier Henderson and Jalen Nailor. Stay tuned for continuing coverage of Big Ten Media Days, live from Indianapolis.