Michigan State’s Mel Tucker won’t back down from a higher standard for the Spartans

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker learned a valuable lesson 14 years ago during an NFL training camp.

In 2008, Tucker was the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns under Romeo Crennel. The coaches tried to manage the reps for a veteran defender, and then Crennel forced the issue with Tucker.

“Romeo told me he had to show me he still could do it,” Tucker said at the Big Ten Media Days. “I’ve never forgotten that. It’s a production business. It’s what you did today? Can you still do it? It’s not just players. It’s the coaches.”

Tucker will maintain that standard for the rest of his Michigan State career, and not just because of a winning 11-2 season for the Spartans, who included a memorable comeback win over Michigan and a Chick-fil-A-Peach-Bowl Winning against him saw Pitt in 2021. Michigan State gave Tucker a raise that reset the salary market for coaches.

Tucker signed a 10-year, $95 million, $9.5 million annual deal last season, which is tied with Ohio State’s Ryan Day and LSU’s Brian Kelly. The only coaches making more annually are Georgia’s Kirby Smart at $10.25 million, USC’s Lincoln Riliey at $10 million and Alabama’s Nick Saban at $9.9 million. Tucker is the only coach in this group not to make the college football playoffs.

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He’s expected to join this group at some point, and that’s why Tucker doesn’t mess around and talk about the past too much. Also in Michigan State he has to show every year that he can do it.

“That’s why I keep saying that an 11-2 season is a step in the right direction, but it’s actually in the distant past,” Tucker said. “It’s been a while. There’s more to do. This is a new season. We’re still in proof mode.”

If Tucker proved one thing, it’s that he knows how to use the transfer portal. Tucker has landed 23 players through the transfer portal over the past two seasons, eight of them for the 2022 season.

That group includes a pair of running backs in Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado), a tandem tasked with replacing production Kenneth Walker III, who had 1,636 yards and 18 TDs after joining from Wake Forest put back. This year’s transfer portal finds also include guard Brian Greene (Washington State) and tight end Daniel Barker (Illinois) on offense, as well as cornerback Ameer Speed ​​(Georgia), defensive end Khris Bogle (Florida) and linebacker Jacoby Windomon (UNLV) on the defensive.

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“Will you find another Ken Walker in the portal?” asked Tucker rhetorically. “Probably not. These guys don’t show up on the portal every year.

“The pressure is to be thorough and do our due diligence and make sure we’re doing an excellent job of identifying and evaluating the right people for our program,” Tucker said. “We don’t have to reach for guys in high school, and we don’t have to reach for the portal.”

Tucker also improved Michigan State’s recruiting at the high school level, and that comes with a flash befitting the NIL era. Tucker has a different Twitter personality; one that has Tucker lighting a winner’s cigar, riding a tricycle, or most recently starting an NFT that helps a local charity.

“He’s just trying to show off a little bit, trying to bend over a little bit, and people like that,” said Michigan State Security Officer Xavier Henderson. “This is the world we live in today. Honestly, it helped find recruits. As players, we like to poke fun at him a bit. It’s funny to see him like this and (Michigan State fans) love him. We love him. “

Henderson was also quick to point out that sometimes it’s hard to tell if Tucker is serious or joking — a trait that leads to even better coaching. Take, for example, a get-together gamers had this summer to better understand how to use TikTok to their advantage — something that would have been unfathomable five years ago. Tucker addressed a few players who were having too much fun.

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“He said, ‘These people were there for a reason. “Even when it comes to small things like that, it’s about business for him. It’s about wanting it. I don’t know anyone who wants to win as badly as he does.”

Tucker uses a variation of the formula not too dissimilar to his predecessor, Mark Dantonio. Last year’s 11-win season was the first since the Spartans reached the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs in 2015. Dantonio won three Big Ten championships and posted an 8-5 record against Michigan. Tucker is 2-0 against the Wolverines.

The Michigan rivalry is a big part of it, but Tucker has taken a broader view. The experience is there. Tucker played for Barry Alvarez in Wisconsin when that program was starting in the basement, and he coached in the NFL before working at Saban in Alabama and Smart in Georgia in the CFP era. Where have we heard that before?

“It’s about trust in the process,” Tucker said. “If you can get a football team to stop looking at the scoreboard all the time, you have a chance. You just focus on the next game, the next game, the next game. It’s the cycle of the game.”

The cycle of the season isn’t all that different for Michigan State. The Spartans are picked behind Ohio State and Michigan in most Big Ten predictions. That 37-33 win over the Wolverines was followed by a 56-7 reality check against the Buckeyes. Michigan won the Big Ten and Ohio State went to the Rose Bowl. The Spartans defeated Pitt 31-21 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, but quarterback Payton Thorne had already hit the reset button in the weight room two weeks later.

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“We haven’t won the Big Ten championship since 2015,” Thorne said. “This is too long. As Coach said, ’11-2 last year doesn’t put wins in the win column this year.’ We don’t carry any across.”

The Spartans should be in the Big Ten East mix. Thorne and Jayden Reed will be key players on offense, and defense needs to improve against the pass that Tucker pointed to as a “dead-ass last” in 2021. Tucker helps out with the cornerbacks at fall camp.

He’s also not apologizing — not about ongoing construction at the football facility or the schedule, which is set to heat up against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan in October. After all, at Big Ten Media Day, he shared stories about his shoulders shedding sunburn during a summer construction job during his playing days in Wisconsin. He’s come a long way to get here, and a summer trip to Selma, Alabama, as part of a Big Ten education group validated the importance of Tucker continuing to move forward.

Tucker has no shortage of his own sayings either.

“Keep hacking.”

“Aggregation of marginal profits.”

“You talk about discipline, urgency, attention to detail, when you hear players give it back to you, tell the media, tell each other and hold each other accountable to those standards, you know guys understand.” said Tucker.

Of course there is also: “So what? Now what?”

Tucker learned that from Crennel in the NFL — also known as “Not For Long.” Michigan State is in the big time now, but you can go down very quickly. That hit Henderson when he realized Tucker had slept in his office at times last season.

“He doesn’t let us relax,” Henderson said. “It’s more like a business, the way Coach Tucker runs the NFL. The most exciting part is that we are getting better as a team.”

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