PHOTO: Mel Tucker
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By TOM SHANAHAN
What I’ve learned about Mel Tucker: He doesn’t hedge his bets.
That was my primary takeaway from have the privilege to join a recent Zoom call that featured Michigan State president Samuel L. Stanley discussing the Spartans’ athletic program with four coaches, Tucker, basketball’s Tom Izzo, women’s basketball’s Suzy Merchant and women’s golf’s Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll.
Tucker answered a Stanley question about recruiting and what Michigan State offers its athletes. He gave more than the usual platitudes.
“I’ll tell you what, in order to be the best and to win a Big Ten championship and to win national championship, I believe you have to have as good of people as you compete against, week in and week out. In order to do that, you have to recruit them.
“So, you have to identify them, evaluate them. If guys pass the evaluation, we look at them and ask, ‘Can we beat Michigan with this guy? Can we beat Penn State with this guy? Can we beat Ohio State with this guy? If the answer is yes, we offer a scholarship. The guys we offer, they’ve got 20 great offers. They’re comparing Michigan State to other schools that offered a scholarship.
“I tell our coaches we have to recruit every single day, never take a day off recruiting. We have to get out there and fight for the best players in the nation. We’ve got to get in a battle and see if we can find a way to get these guys. That’s what we have to do. We have to sell Michigan State, sell academics, sell branding, NIL (Name Image and Likeness) and all of the things we can do for them on the field and off the field.
“But we’ve got to get in on the fight. We’ve got to beat Ohio State on players. We’ve got to beat Penn State on players. We’ve got to beat Michigan on players. We’ve got to beat Alabama. We’ve got to beat Georgia. We got to beat other teams on players.”
Well, as I started writing this story, I didn’t plan on posting with this timing that has resulted, but I learned 4-star defensive tackle Alex VanSumeren of Essexville (Mich.) Garver today announced his oral commitment. He picked the Spartans over offers from, among others, Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Penn State.
“There are only two teams in the Big Ten that have been to the (College Football) Playoffs and only 11 (overall) that have been to the playoffs,” Tucker added in his Zoom comment. “We’re one of them. Why not Michigan State? We’ve got six national championships. There are a lot that don’t have any. We’ve got to get in there and fight. We’ve got the coaching staff; we’ve got the culture. You get the players, now you’ve got a chance. I really believe we can get the players here. We just have to get out there and fight.”
Whew! That was a lot to take in. And he expressed it before is boss, president Stanley, not a backyard barbecue.
My mind raced to my first experience as a sportswriter around a new Michigan State coach charged with rebuilding the program, Darryl Rogers, 1976. I was a kid at the State News. The great Fred Stabley, Michigan State’s Hall-of-Fame sports information director, staged a press gathering to kick off fall camp at the MSU Union.
Rogers’ opening remarks included saying it would take seven years for him to rebuild the program and contend for championships.
In other words, he hedged his bets.
Keep in mind, Rogers inherited a talented roster from Denny Stolz, who was fired for recruiting violations (not to mention a smug personality). Stolz’s 1974 Spartans upset No. 1-ranked Ohio State in an epic game. If not for a tie against Illinois, the Spartans (7-3-1, 6-1-1 Big Ten) would have finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten title and gone to the Rose Bowl as the school with the most years between trips. Stolz’ 1975 team was a disappointing 7-5 and 4-4, but the Spartans won at Notre Dame.
As it turned out, Rogers, with Stolz’s players, won a Big Ten title in just his third year, 1978. And that’s not all. His 1977 team (7-3-1, 6-1-1) would have shared a three-way Big Ten title with Ohio State and Michigan and gained a Rose Bowl trip if not for a 13-13 tie at Indiana (same reason as 1974), but the coaches bungled the halftime clock. The Hoosiers, without a timeout remaining in the first half, received a gift to kick a field goal as time expired. MSU defensive coordinator Bob Padilla inexplicably called a timeout.
Rogers’ seven-year building project was actually left for Frank “Muddy” Waters (1980-82) and George Perles (1983-94). Rogers, who had alienated Detroit’s high school coaches, left the cupboard bare. He saw the writing on the wall and bolted for Arizona State after a backslide to 5-6, 3-5 in 1979.
Waters turned out to be a disaster with a 14-23 record, 2-9 in 1982. It was also a disgrace Michigan State hired Waters, then 57 years old, over two Duffy Daugherty legacies, Jimmy Raye and Sherman Lewis. Raye was in the NFL by then, while Lewis had been an MSU assistant since 1969. Raye and Lewis went on to be mentioned as NFL head coach candidates in the 1980s and 1990s, but were denied opportunities with the reluctance of NFL owners to consider African-Americans.
George Perles took over as an MSU alumnus in 1983 with four Super Bowl rings on his resume as a Pittsburgh Steelers assistant. He took on a monumental rebuilding task. By 1987, though, he had his seniors in place, including Heisman Trophy candidate Lorenzo White. Optimism among fans was high.
I remember attending a Big Ten alumni gathering at hotel ballroom in San Diego, where I then worked in the newspaper business before the 21st century of the shrinking industry. San Diego Chargers players from Big Ten schools attended. The event organizers had arranged to air a Big Ten preseason video produced by the conference – the only kind of link fans had before the growth of cable TV and the Internet. Each Big Ten coach gave a spiel with varying degrees of anticipation. Perles, though, sat there with little enthusiasm.
By 1987, expectations had been rising. The Spartans upset Notre in 1983, Michigan in 1984 and posted a 7-5 record in a 1985 with White earning All-American honors as a sophomore. But the Spartans were coming off a 1986 black slide to 6-5. Perles downplayed expectations, saying nothing more than the Spartans had a chance if they play well.
In other words, he hedged his bets.
That explains why Tucker stands out for not being afraid to set the bar high – even before his boss. Something else to note: Tucker spoke of Michigan State as a dream job. It was his first job as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban, in 1997.
The same Nick Saban who left the Spartans after the 1999 season for LSU in part for recruiting reasons. At LSU, he didn’t have to compete with an in-state Power 5 rival.
Mark Dantonio, similar to Tucker, described Michigan State as a “destination job” when, after Michigan State’s 2013 Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory, he was considered a candidate for the vacant Texas job. Dantonio shut down speculation quickly with his destination comment.
That was a contrast to Perles, who annually leveraged NFL speculation for more money and power as athletic director, and Saban, who annually flirted with college and NFL opportunities.
Mel Tucker turned 49 in January, which means he’s young enough to draw college and NFL offers. And he will if he has the kind of success Dantonio managed.
But what I will always remember about Tucker is he arrived not afraid to envision Michigan State as a national power as it was under Biggie Munn (1947-53) and Duffy Daugherty (1954-72).
He has a tough task to recruit against Ohio State and Michigan. Saban couldn’t do it, and it’s arguably a tougher task now in the social media world. Alabama and Clemson, with their national titles and dominating a CFP format limited to four entries, draw 5-stars and 4-star following each other like lemmings. Kids think there are only four or five schools that can win a national title. Saban’s roster is a national 5-star/4-star all-star team with recruits ranging from California to Florida.
But, as Tucker told his boss with alums listening in, he isn’t afraid to get in there and fight.
He ISN’T hedging his bets.
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