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The Dichotomy of Michigan State’s transition from Mark Dantonio to Mel Tucker

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

I was in attendance when former Michigan State football head coach Mark Dantonio retired, and again when current head coach Mel Tucker was hired.

The monotone Dantonio uttered short phrases, as those like “This is a celebration” — brief as usual, but lacking his vintage substance and vigor — ironically capped his coaching tenure. It felt so sudden, unfitting and contrary to how his exit should have, or rather could have been.

I once belonged to the revisionist historians lamenting what Dantonio could have accomplished with a top-20 recruiting class following a College Football Playoff appearance. Of course, the “dream team” 2016 class saw its top-three recruits dismissed in a year’s time, and Dantonio never regained that momentum after posting a 3-9 record that year.

At his introductory presser, Tucker’s enthusiasm was apparent, but substantially, his comments didn’t really inform of his ambitions for the program. He sounded like a coach excited for a new opportunity, but the ambiguity in comments like “I love football here” seemed fitting shortly after he affirmed his plans to stay in Colorado. Given Michigan State’s apparent swing-and-miss in their pursuit of Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, who at least seemed like the MSU athletics department’s obvious first choice at the time, and Tucker’s departure from Boulder after MSU evidently upped its ante, it didn’t have the feel of a start of a prosperous era.

To Tucker’s credit, Dantonio’s infamous “Pride comes before the fall” prophecy many associate with the beginning of his tenure actually came a few months into his first season, following a loss to Michigan in November of 2007.

Until Michigan State football’s 2022 spring game, I thought the opportunity to speak with Tucker then was the only chance I’d get. The world stopped a month later, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, roughly a month or so after Tucker was hired by MSU. The out-of-nowhere, seemingly last resort hire had little-to-no opportunity to recruit, get to know his current players or implement his schemes.

I got just one chance to speak with former head coach Mark Dantonio in the fall of 2018, however, but I didn’t think the same of that interaction.

Needless to say, Dantonio embodied the program — the toughness, grit and humility many associated with Michigan State athletics — and I thought he’d be around a while longer. I didn’t think MSU football would touch the level it reached in the mid-2010s for a while, if ever again, following his retirement. I thought Dantonio was the Spartans’ best shot at entering the conversation as a true national power.

I felt like it would never be the same. And maybe I was right about that.

The same could be said during and after Dantonio garnered his best class in 2016. No longer would MSU rely on “diamonds in the rough.” But after the fallout of his most heralded recruiting class, it seemed the program missed its window to enter the national power discussion.

Now, Tucker seems to be reopening that window just as it was creaking shut.

His focus on recruiting is apparent, whether its appealing to the younger generation through social media, making recruits feel special on official visits featuring luxury vehicles and animals, or hiring top-tier talent in assistant coaches like Brandon Jordan, who recruits also seem to be enamored with.

It’s apparent that it truly will not be the same as the past — Michigan State will not rely on “diamonds in the rough,” as Dantonio so often did. Tucker’s emphasis on speed and size is becoming ever-more apparent as well (look at four-star talent such as Bai Jobe, Jordan Hall, Andrew Daepape, etc.).

As of press time, Michigan State’s 2023 class currently includes 12 total committed players, including eight four-star players, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Tucker has shown that he is not afraid to go after the best players in the country and take on the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Miami (FL.), Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Oregon or any of the other national recruiting powerhouse programs.

He brings in a traditional coaching style while also implementing a new-age perspective to recruiting and maybe more importantly the transfer portal.

Shortly after he arrived at MSU, Tucker described his method of handling every situation objectively, with an “open perspective, clean slate” approach, and this tactic became the biggest factor in Connor Heyward’s return after a brief stint in the portal.

You can see the uptick in all aspects of the program already, as Heyward, for instance, likely would not have been drafted at all had he remained in the portal and transferred out prior to the 2020 season. Now, Heyward exits college football as a Spartan and continues a family legacy with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“He was actually in the portal before I got here,” Tucker said. “And so when I got here, he came to see me. He said he wanted to be on team… I said, ‘you’ve got a clean slate here.’

“He trusted the process. He worked really hard. All the credit really goes to him because he put the work in and we provided the process, and he was part of the culture building. He became a culture warrior for us. That’s what our players are going to get out of our program.”

Tucker also didn’t shy away from roster turnover either, as we saw a plethora of what remained of Dantonio’s tenure exit for the portal prior to the 2021 football season. The adaptability Tucker exhibited in revamping the roster is something Dantonio showed he was unwilling to do in his waning years.

And now Michigan State, which enjoyed a brief stint of elite status under Dantonio, is arguably recruiting better than it ever has before.

Dantonio raised the program’s floor and even extended the ceiling past the point most thought it could ever go. Tucker may well be the perfect extension of Dantonio. MSU’s former players and coach alike are buying into Tucker’s program, and he seems able to expand that ceiling higher.