Mel Tucker brings an intensity with him when he walks into a room.
At his weekly press conference, the head coach is prepared, composed and even-keeled. But it’s clear that the neutral vibe that Tucker gives off is purposeful. He’s got a job to do, and he doesn’t have time for nonsense, laziness or entitlement.
That’s how he approaches life, that’s how he approaches the game of football and that’s what he expects from his staff and players at Michigan State University.
“Everything’s in evaluation,” Tucker said. “You get an opportunity throughout the season to see who can get it done and who can’t. Who’s in, who’s not? If you’re not going to compete, you’re not a competitor, you’re not going to give extreme effort – I don’t know how you can play football here. I mean, you can’t. You can’t even be here. You can’t be in the building. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to see your face.”
This is Tucker’s vision for Michigan State football. The foundation was laid during a difficult debut season in 2020 that saw the Spartans finish with a 2-5 record. In a lot of ways, the struggles of 2020 were the first steps toward turning this program into what Tucker wants it to be.
Last year was hard – both on the football field and in everyday life. It took strength and perseverance to push through those struggles, and the individuals that it left behind in East Lansing are the type that Tucker wants to continue to build his program with.
“That’s what we have in everybody who’s here right now,” Tucker said. “They’re competitors, and they’re going to go out there and play hard. That’s who we are. It’s not pretty. We don’t have a pretty football team. It’s meat and potatoes. It’s rugged. We’re going to play hard. We’re going to play physical.”
A year after all that struggle, the Spartans have morphed into a hardened, veteran team capable of competing for the top spot in college football’s toughest division.
But there’s work left to do, and the biggest challenge lies in front of Michigan State this week as they prepare for a showdown with No. 4 Ohio State.
In this type of game, in the environment the Spartans will find themselves in at ‘The Horseshoe’, Tucker needs everyone to fill their role.
“I told them today, ‘If you travel to the game, even if you know you’re not going to go in the game unless a grenade goes off, you’ve still got to have a positive influence on someone playing in the game,” he said.
“You’ve got to have some kind of clear and defined role, to help someone at your position, to help the team, help coach somebody up. You’re there for a reason. We’re not just taking extra dudes down there, whether it’s staff or players or anything like that.”
For home games, Michigan State gets to dress more guys than they do for games on the road. Tucker and his staff take that opportunity to reward practice squad players for their efforts throughout the week.
“We try to dress guys for the game because you want to reward guys for practicing and giving us a look and things like that,” Tucker said. “At home you can pretty much dress about as many guys as you can fit down there, and I don’t like having all those extra guys down there.”
Tucker has an expectation for these players too, and he won’t accept a standard that doesn’t fit within the culture he’s established.
“We try to reward guys, and we’re out there and during a TV timeout, I look back and we’ve got guys on the bench sitting down because they’re cold. I said, ‘Write their names down.’ If you’re not up, you need to get out of here. Go sit in the locker room or go sit in the stands or go to ‘The Deep End.”
What Tucker saw wasn’t acceptable. Not this week. Not ahead of this game – the game that likely will determine Michigan State’s shot at a championship.
The Buckeyes have been the kings of the Big Ten for much of the past two decades. Ohio State has won four Big Ten championships in a row, five of the last seven, and won or shared 10 of the past 20 league titles.
As an assistant in his early coaching years, Tucker spent four seasons in Columbus under former Buckeye head coach Jim Tressel. He was part of the staff that won a national championship in 2002.
“I know what it’s like to coach there,” Tucker said. “I know the environment, and I know the expectations there. I have an idea about the atmosphere there.”
Obviously, Tucker would like to have the type of success in East Lansing that has been experienced in Columbus. But even after the Spartans were walloped by the Buckeyes last season, 52-12, Tucker didn't change the approach in his rebuild.
He’s not trying to recreate Michigan State in Ohio State’s image.
“It didn’t really affect very much, in terms of what we were doing, our program, our culture and what we need to build. That really wasn’t a factor for us,” Tucker said.
“The measuring stick is the standard that I have for the team – what my expectations are. I communicate that to the staff, and then it [goes] to the players. It doesn’t have anything to do with Ohio State or anybody else.”
Tucker’s coaching pedigree is well-documented. He was a Nick Saban disciple both before and after his tenure with Tressel. He’s worked in the NFL. He’s worked under Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, whose Bulldogs are currently ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Tucker knows what a winning culture looks like. He’s brought that vision to Michigan State, and the results on the football field so far have been good.
The Spartans are 9-1 and ranked in the Top 10. But Tucker’s vision goes beyond what happens between the lines on the playing field.
The head coach noticed Michigan State’s student section, The Deep End, had started to empty after halftime of MSU’s 40-21 victory over Maryland, and Tucker took to Twitter to share his thoughts on that.
“You can’t lead unless people know where you stand,” Tucker said. “You’ve got to tell them what you’re looking for, and I can imagine when we come back in a couple weeks we’ll probably have more of that.”
That’s the standard Tucker is trying to set at Michigan State. He knows that it takes time, that there is a process involved in establishing the type of culture he envisions in East Lansing. But he won’t let the time it takes to complete a task deter him from taking on the task.
“It’s just like when you ask me what type of team we’re trying to build,” Tucker said. “What we will have here at some point is a campus that’s packed, and people will be there with us from start to finish. Win, lose or draw. Rain, sleet or snow. That’s what we’ll have.”
Recently, rumors of a contract extension for Tucker have surfaced. Michigan State knows its head coach has become a hot target for some of the top coaching positions across the country. Assuming the rumors of a pending extension are true, the university also knows it needs to do whatever it takes to keep him here.
Tucker has a vision for what Michigan State football can become, and there are clear signs that the process he’s taking in East Lansing could turn that vision into reality.