Compete to play, compete to stay: Spartans new and old have bought in to Mel Tucker's message
A lot of coaches in Mel Tucker’s situation might try to look for the easy way out. Dealing with all the unique circumstances that arose during his first season in East Lansing, nobody would really criticize him if that was the route he took.
Instead, Tucker stood at the podium at B1G Media Days on Friday and his message echoed through the open air of Lucas Oil Stadium. There is no looking back. There are no excuses.
“People tell me, ‘Coach, for you this is really Year 1.’ No, it’s not Year 1. It’s Year 2,” Tucker said emphatically. “And we’ve got to get this thing moving.”
Tucker was behind the 8-ball when he took over in East Lansing. He was named Mark Dantonio’s replacement in mid-February 2020. A few weeks later, the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having to spend much of his first offseason as the head coach at Michigan State on Zoom, it took some time for Tucker’s message to get across. But midway through the 2020 season, that “Compete to play, compete to stay” mindset reverberated through the locker room.
“What he means by that is he wants everybody to give their best effort,” said senior defensive lineman Drew Beesly. “If you’re gonna come to this program and not give your best effort, he doesn’t want you. He wants guys that want to compete and want to win. He knows what it takes to win.”
Not everyone bought in.
Michigan State saw 20 players who were listed on the 2020 roster enter their name into the NCAA transfer portal between last September and now. Eight started exploring their options after spring football, Tucker’s first with the Spartans.
Wide receiver Jalen Nailor said it was surprising to see so many guys hit the portal over the last 16 months, but also reiterated that everyone on the team needs to be on the same page.
“We would just see guys not in the locker room anymore and it was like, ‘Wow, what happened?'” Nailor said. “But, you gotta compete. And if you’re not gonna compete, someone else out there will. That’s the mindset Coach Tuck has and that’s the mindset that, as a team, we have to have.”
Even through some major changes, Tucker sees the pieces coming together.
During the offseason, Michigan State has welcomed nearly three dozen fresh faces to the program. Whether it’s new recruits or additions via the transfer portal, there’s been plenty of change in the Spartans locker room.
Through that process, though, Tucker has learned a lot about his team. The guys who have stuck around are taking it upon themselves to show the latest arrivals how things are done in East Lansing.
“That’s what I tell guys all the time, If you see a new dude in here, don’t know much, just say, ‘What’s up.’ Ask him his name, ask him where he’s from. It’s not hard,” said defensive back Xavier Henderson. “The best teams I played with have the best chemistry and love each other the most.”
Henderson admits that that love has been tough at times. Occasionally, guys will “go at it,” a product of highly-competitive individuals sharing a locker room. Mostly, though, the relationships between the veteran Spartans and the new guys have been strong.
That’s the kind of attitude Michigan State needs if Tucker plans to move this program forward in Year 2. Last season, the Spartans were 2-5 after enduring one of the crazier offseasons anyone in college football had to endure.
Sure, the two victories came against “that team down the road,” and a Top 10 Northwestern squad were memorable. But the five losses, all of which came by double figures, left a bitter taste in Tucker’s mouth.
All the changes to the roster, and how the team has handled it, is what gives the second-year head coach optimism heading into the 2021 campaign.
“We have built a culture that’s a culture of accountability, attention to detail, a sense of urgency, togetherness, teamwork and being unselfish,” Tucker said. “Our players welcomed the newcomers. They helped these guys understand how we do it here. This is how we’re going to be successful. …The transition has been smooth. It’s been very gratifying to see guys come together in a short period of time. I’m looking forward to seeing these guys compete in fall camp.”
There it is again: Compete to play, compete to stay.
It may have taken some time to get everyone in the locker room to buy in to the message Tucker was trying to send when he first took over the job in East Lansing. On the verge of his second season with the program, it sounds like everyone on the roster understands what the head coach wants to see every single day.
If certain guys haven’t adopted that mindset, it’ll probably be a short stay in East Lansing.
“It’s almost like the NFL. You’ve got to bring something to the table,” Henderson said. “If you’re not bringing anything to the table then why are you here?”