Mel Tucker shows there are no excuses for coaches in today's college football
Leave it to Mel Tucker to ruin it for everyone else.
Normally in college football, a new coach gets 3-4 years to prove himself worthy. The conventional thinking used to be that it takes a full recruiting cycle for a coach to really establish his culture and get his types of players in place. Then, and only then, can a coach be properly evaluated.
While that still may be the fair way to do it, Tucker, the second-year Michigan State head coach, has shattered those norms and laid them to waste. Who needs time? Not Tucker and the No. 8 Spartans (7-0), who host No. 6 Michigan (7-0) in the first meeting between these programs as top-10 teams in 57 years.
And for coaches who haven’t been able to win yet, like Scott Frost at Nebraska, a season like Michigan State is having raises an obvious question: What is taking so long?
Michigan and Michigan State are both great stories in their own right. And it isn’t entirely surprising to see Jim Harbaugh, in his seventh season at Michigan, in this position. But Tucker? No one outside of East Lansing saw this coming. The Spartans were picked last in the Big Ten East Division by the media and most publications in the preseason. That’s because Michigan State went 2-5 last season, getting outscored by an average of 26.3 points per game.
Those who didn’t believe in Michigan State (including yours truly) overlooked how Tucker overhauled the roster entering his second season, using the best program-building tool out there now: the transfer portal. He brought in 20 transfers, including 15 from FBS schools. Kenneth Walker III, a legit Heisman candidate, is a transfer (Wake Forest). Starting left tackle Jarrett Horst is a transfer (Arkansas State). Starting cornerbacks Ronald Williams and Chester Kimbrough are transfers, from Alabama and Florida, respectively. Starting linebacker Quavaris Crouch is a transfer (Tennessee).
You get the point.
Instead of waiting around for a bunch of 18-year-olds to mature and develop, Tucker went out and built himself a football team. He’s tapped into the secret sauce of modern football, the portal. With the 1-time transfer rule allowing players to be eligible immediately with their new program, coaches like Tucker have gotten players who are ready to go and have already experienced the rigors of college football, rather than a high school graduate with an oversized ego who is years away from taking the field.
Frost is an interesting contrast to someone like Tucker. In his fourth season, he hasn’t beaten a single ranked opponent, and his best wins were probably back in 2018 when he beat 7-win Minnesota and 7-win Michigan State. The Spartans, meanwhile, beat 2 ranked teams last year and have beaten 1 this year.
Frost has actually recruited very well in his time at Nebraska, finishing fifth or better in the B1G each of the last 3 years. The problem has been keeping those highly touted guys on campus. Surely the pandemic had something to do with that, as a lot of those guys didn’t get to experience the best parts about being a Husker. There’s been plenty written about Nebraska’s struggles in keeping its best players in the program.
Recently, Frost said he is going to hit the transfer portal hard rather than loading up on freshmen. That seems like a wise move, considering the success programs like Michigan State and Tennessee (the 2 teams with the most transfers) have had this season. Getting mature, ready-to-contribute players makes a big difference.
Of course, it’s no substitute for recruiting. It’s more of a supplement. You’re not going to strike gold in the portal every offseason, and I think Tucker was ahead of the curve on this one, as he has shown coaches everywhere what is possible. He is Billy Beane in Moneyball exploiting an inefficiency.
The good news for Michigan State is that its 2022 class is ranked fourth in the B1G, though that can change. And true to his word, Frost has just 8 commits lined up for 2022, the fewest in the conference.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned here from Tucker. He credits his NFL background in helping identify talent and how the pieces fit together. It’s a balancing act when you have guys who have been in the program 3 or 4 years and then a new guy comes at that position and is ready to play right away. It takes some buy-in from those older guys, and Tucker seems to have walked that line quite well.
It’s why the Spartans are the most-improved team in college football, and it’s why Tucker should be the national Coach of the Year, regardless of what happens against Michigan and regardless of what happens against Ohio State.
With these new rules in college football, coaches will no longer get to go a few years without having a valid excuse for not winning.