Finding Balance In Transition Difficult But Mel Tucker's Effort Is There

Hondo S. Carpenter

Breslin Center

East Lansing, MI

Mel Tucker has taken over Michigan State football and promptly moved to be his stamp on the program that he is now entrusted to lead. His impact has been a seismic a much-needed shift.

While the Spartans march towards their opener on September 5, 2020, at Spartan Stadium versus Northwestern, much remains to do. Not only is Tucker assembling a staff, but spring ball opens up Tuesday, March 17, and the spring game is on April 18.

In the above video, Tucker discusses finding balance in the midst of rebuilding a program. You can watch the video above or read the transcript below:

Opening statement…

Thanks for coming. I really appreciate it. You know we can't do what we need to do and can't run our program in the matter of which we want to run it without you, and I really appreciate everything you do for us and for our program. Thank you for trusting me with Michigan State football. It's been a great couple of weeks. I think it will be two weeks, maybe on Wednesday, and going to basketball games, hockey games, meeting the players, watching the workouts, hiring coaches, looking for houses... doing all that has been great. Everywhere that I go, I keep hearing the same kind of message from everyone. "We're glad you're here." "We're behind you." "We support you." "Welcome home." And it truly does feel like home to me, so I really appreciate that.

Really, it's going to be about initially changing the culture. A culture shift. That's going to be really the first order of business, and Michigan State football, we all know what it's supposed to look like. So, it's going to be about getting back to that. Whether it's coaches, whether it's players, we're starting at ground zero with an attitude of that we have to prove it each and every day. We have something to prove. We're going to process things with a chip on our shoulder. Michigan State football is about hard work, reflective of the people in the state of Michigan, mental and physical toughness. And we're going to bring juice. I was trying to explain it last night to someone. Someone asked me about... I brought up the word juice and they said, "Well, what is juice?" "How do you describe it?" Juice is like relentless, focus, energy, sense of urgency, day in, day out for a common goal where people want to be a part of something that's bigger than themselves, whether it's coaches or players. So, that's what I'm looking for in hiring the staff. As we recruit and everything we do, it's about bringing the juice. So, it's been an exciting two weeks. I just really appreciate this opportunity. It's been a challenging two weeks, but it's been a blessed two weeks at the same time. So, with that, I'll just open up to questions and you guys can just fire away.

On people who knew him back in the day and his relentless working attitude...

I look for that. I don't expect people to sleep on it. I don't expect anyone to sleep in their office. That's something that I did at times. Again, I like people. I love people that love football, and football is a game that has been great to me. It's the greatest team game in my opinion. It's not for everyone, but I believe it's a great game. And I think the coaching profession is an honorable profession. It's very important what we do, especially for our young people. Our young men teach, motivate, develop. That's really what it's all about. So, when I'm looking for young coaches, I'm looking for guys who feel the same way about football that I feel about.

On impressions of players and what culture shifts need to happen...

I'm still in the 'get to know phase' with the players. We're getting to know them, and they're getting to know us. When you're getting to know players, coming to a new situation, it's about building trust, day in and day out. Using every opportunity, every touchpoint, with a player, a student-athlete, to just let them know how you feel about them. Let them know that you care, and let them know that you want what's best for them on and off the field. So, that's a process, and it's a delicate process. I feel like we're off to a good start so far. Then, what we need to do from a culture standpoint. Obviously, we know what Michigan State football is supposed to look like. We know that there's a strong tradition, rich history. So, everything that we do will be to that goals that get into look like how we know it should look.

On the timeline of hiring coaches and bringing back former MSU staff...

We're going through the hiring process. We're being very deliberate and methodical about it with a sense of urgency and poise. It's starting to come together, and I feel good about it. And, I don't think it'll be very long before we have the full crew of the 10 coaches. Continuity, there's something to be said for that. I think that that does have value, but coaches that have been retained, you know like Mike (Tressel) and coach Burton, or Coach Barnett back is not because of just continuity. Those are good football coaches that I know, that I've known for a long time. I know what they can do. I know what they're all about. I know that they can teach, motivate and develop players. And I know that they believe in me and what I'm all about. So, that's why they're here.

On balancing the priorities...

It's a lot. It's a lot of moving parts. That's why it's important to have a staff. Whether it's coaches, position coaches, coordinators, support staff, operations people, we all work together, so I'm not doing everything alone by myself. Thank God, you know, I've got a lot of help. There's a dead period in recruiting right now, so we're not on the road recruiting and players are not visiting us. It's more receiving phone calls, texting, things like that, reaching out to coaches, and that's a process, but it's an exciting challenge. It's just, day after day after day you know just one day at a time. It takes what it takes. And just knocking off those priorities. Knocking off that task list, that to-do list. I get a lot of gratification on making a list and then being able to scratch something off. I think there's something about that, so we're working through it.

On recruiting style...

Great question. I've never been asked that before. We're looking for... In terms of style, what I'm looking for is, I want players that want to be at Michigan State for all the right reasons. They connect with the coaching staff. They have a great appreciation for the academics, for the requirements, and understand that Michigan State in East Lansing is a special place. So, height, weight, speed... all those things. At the top, we're competing where we aspire to compete. Everyone's recruiting pretty much the same guys, so there's really not a secret about who can play. It's a matter of what's the right fit. Obviously, in recruiting, that's competition. So, we have to be able to put our best foot forward in all aspects of our program to sell Michigan State and all the great things that we have here in the program with athletics and academics. So, my style is to be enthusiastic, to be positive, to be informative, and really be, all in, in terms of answering questions, making sure that people are informed, making sure that parents and coaches and players are comfortable with me and with my staff. So, you know, that's my approach

On Courtney Hawkins and the Jay Johnson offense...

With Courtney, I mean, football is football, whether it's high school, college or pro. I will tell you what, just having been in this for 23 years and seeing what high school coaches have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. I still think coaching high school ball is more difficult than coaching college or pro. That's my opinion. They have to do everything. So, he's done a phenomenal job. He knows the game. He knows what Michigan State is all about. He played the game at the highest level. That's why I wanted him here. He's going to be a tremendous asset for Michigan State.

Jay Johnson, in terms of his offense... One of the things I like about Jay is that Jay is very adaptable. He's multiple, and he's got great experience and wisdom. He's kind of been there, done that. So, we see football the same way, and he understands that you have to do what your players can do. You never want to try to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak. So, part of what we're doing now is getting to know our players. We'll see them work out. Then, we'll go through spring ball. We'll be able to evaluate in the spring. It's going to be very important for us to install our base schemes on offense, defense, especially on things that we know we're going to do. At the same time, evaluate the guys that we have, so we can go into the summer programs and say 'okay, this is what we think we can do with this group of guys right now.' So, Jay, he's been through that and what he did at Colorado was somewhat a reflection of that.

On commitment from Jordon Simmons...

I just think that not to go into a whole lot of details about the behind the scenes, I think when people have been around me, and previously, they know what they're going to get. I'm the same guy, each and every day, and it doesn't change. In terms of coaching philosophy, or how I treat players or other coaches and how I go about my business, people that know me, they know what to expect.

On learning personnel at MSU and defense...

You're taking me back. I'm kind of going through my mind thinking about walking into Baton Rouge with Coach Saban back in 2000 and some of the things that we did and it was very similar. Just really trying to figure out what the players can do and then trying to fit the scheme to that because you know we were multiple then, and I'm multiple now. I think you have to be that way, whether I was at Alabama, Georgia or Colorado. We were three down. We were four down. We were in and out of those deals based upon the personnel we had and what offenses we were facing. So, we'll have a very good ability to do that here, and I'm not married to any type of scheme in particular. For me, I know that if you get really good players at buying in, they run to the ball. They play hard and have technique and fundamentals. They play together and they're unselfish...You can play good ball and you can play good defense. I've coordinated a 4-3 in the NFL. I've coordinated 3-4 in the NFL, and they've both worked. So, we'll do what the players can do best.

On evaluating players before they play...

I want as much information as I can get on players. I think just gathering information is what it's all about, so you can make informed decisions. I told all the players on my first day on the job here is that everyone's got a clean slate with me. Our mentality is going to be our earn it, prove it mentality. That's going to be our approach as coaches and players. I don't believe in self-imposed limitations. The sky's the limit for what we can do with our guys. I want our players to feel the same way. We have an opportunity now to reset the standard of performance and work to achieve it at a high level. So, input from coaches that were on staff before, along with what we see as we go here and put from the strength and conditioning staff, the trainers and training room. All of those areas are very, very helpful in trying to get the total picture of what type of young men we have here and where they are and where they need to go.

On finding players threshold for what they can handle before adding on...

It's important for us to go through the spring and know who can play football. Players play the fastest when they know what to do. So, I want to know what a player can do when he is playing fast, and when he has not thinking too much initially. We will challenge our players from a scheme standpoint. You have to know, from a volume standpoint, what guys can handle. There is a process, and when we go into our summer program, I want to know who can do what, who are our best players at each position. Who are the guys that we feel like we can really develop, who are our guys that maybe need a position change, if any? Things like that. So, in order to do that, we have to be very strategic in how much we install in the spring just to make sure that we can get a pretty good picture of all of those things going into the summer. So, a big part of that is just planning and then experience in coming into new situations.

On MSU's traditional emphasis on defense and vision for offense...

First and foremost, our team has to be the best-conditioned team. That's the foundation. Our team is built in the weight room. On offense, we want a team that's going to be smart. We're not going to beat ourselves. Execution at a high level rooted in technique and fundamentals at every position. An offense that plays fast, and an offense that plays physical. Now, obviously we need to be able to run the ball on our terms. That doesn't mean three runs and a cloud of dust. That means when we want to run it, we can. When we need to run it, we can. That's critically important. We need to make sure that we can protect the quarterback. Whatever pass-game concepts that we have... being able to protect the quarterback is crucial. We need to be able to take care of the football. The biggest determination of winning and losing in college and pro is the turnover margin. So, we need to be able to protect the football. We need to be versed in all of the special situations, whether it's short yardage, goal line, third down, red zone, two minutes before the end of the half, two minutes at the end of the game, backed up, coming out, whatever that is. We need to be versed in those things and be proficient. Then, we need to be explosive. Being able to create big plays in a running game and the passing game, and maybe even use the finesse to do that at sometimes. It's really hard to every series, you know, 13 or 14 play drives. Being able to be explosive on offense is I think really the way to go. So, that's kind of in a nutshell what I'm looking for offensively.

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