Michigan State football: Mel Tucker might have been a better hire than most people realized
With the exception of Bobby Williams — aka Nick Saban’s forgettable successor — Michigan State has seen its share of quick results from new football coaches.
But Mel Tucker’s instant impact might set a new standard if his Spartans keep doing what they’re doing. MSU’s 2nd-year coach is converting doubters into believers faster than Billy Graham at a 1970s southern state revival.
A week ago, ESPN’s Football Power Index projected Michigan State to finish the regular season 6-6. Now, after a 38-17 road victory over then-No. 24 Miami, the FPI has the Spartans going 10-2.
If that happens, Tucker will have left all his recent predecessors in the dust.
A look back
Williams, who took over after Saban left at the end of the 1999 season, went 5-6 in his first year at the helm of the Spartans. In 2001, MSU went 7-5, but Year 3 spelled doom and Morris Watts ended up taking over for the final four games (1-3) until a replacement was found.
Enter John L. Smith. Smith took a team that won only 4 games in 2002 and elevated it to an 8-5 team … then things fell apart during the following 3 years, leading to his departure after the 2006 season.
Mark Dantonio assumed the reins in 2007, quickly winning 7 games and beating Notre Dame on the road. Dantonio went 9-4 and 6-7 before really seeing his vision come to fruition. From 2010 to 2015, the Spartans won 11 or more games 5 times, putting them in the national spotlight and on a pedestal in the Big Ten.
A well-documented collapse led to Dantonio’s demise after signing day 2020 — then it was on to Tucker, a wildcard hire after only 1 previous season as a head coach.
Tucker off and running
But after abruptly leaving Colorado after a 5-7 season in 2019, Tucker immediately made his presence known — in an otherwise throwaway 2-5 COVID season — with great recruiting via the transfer portal and a 27-24 road win at Michigan. Just this past weekend, his Spartans scored 21 fourth-quarter points and forced 4 Miami turnovers in a thorough trouncing of the Hurricanes in south Florida.
Tucker has the Spartans back in the AP Top 25, at No. 20, after a nearly 2-year absence.
Another quick start by a new Spartans coach. Another early season of promise and excitement.
Following Dantonio, Tucker was written off by many as a stopgap until the next miracle worker came to town.
The Spartans had seen this movie before: new guy gains control, has some early success, then wastes away into mediocrity until someone new walks through the door.
A tough act to follow
The Dantonio Era was the best of MSU football since the 1960s under Duffy Daugherty, making it an even tougher act to follow.
There was pressure on Williams to continue the success Saban had built from 1995-1999, an era of hope for an apparent up-and-coming Michigan State program. But Williams couldn’t deliver the same results. And it wasn’t exactly heavy pressure. Saban never had more than 7 wins in a season before going 10-2 in his final year.
There wasn’t much pressure on John L. Smith, either. At that time, MSU just hoped to compete and slowly rebuild — there didn’t seem to be a huge rush to move the needle to unrealistic levels. Everyone knew it’d take some time. But he had a flash-in-the-pan season, then fizzled out like Williams.
Dantonio’s tenure delivered more success than anticipated. By far, really. But even his run took a few years to really get going. In wasn’t until Year 4 under Dantonio that the Spartans made believers out of just about everyone in college football circles. MSU was no longer a surprise.
Wins over Ohio State and Michigan, bowl games, beating Notre Dame with a fake field goal — all of that mounted and created some sort of legend in East Lansing.
The Spartans weren’t just winning games that they were supposed to win, they were also defying odds and growing into a national power — evidenced by the aforementioned laundry list of accomplishments.
Tucker could experience the same thing, if best-case projections play out. If so, the win over the Hurricanes was just a beginning.
“We wanted to drag them into the deep water,” Tucker told reporters post-game, via Football Scoop. “Where we live. With the strain and the struggle and the pressure.”
He later added: “What does [the win] say about our program? It’s going to reinforce all the things that we preach.”
Those are the words of a coach who is keenly aware of the situation at hand. He’s not just a successor to a legendary coach. He’s in position to maintain an empire that remains too close to the edge of collapse. It’ll take more than a victory over the No. 24 team in the nation to overshadow the last few years of the mired-in-controversy Dantonio Era.
A great fit
His coaching style, recruiting tactics and way of explaining his vision appear to be a great fit — maybe the exact fit required for the set of circumstances that awaited him upon his return in East Lansing. (He was a grad assistant under Saban in 1997-98.)
Entering this season, the Spartans were widely viewed as a 5-to-7-win team. However, things are on the rise for the Spartans, at least according to ESPN FPI, which has them losing only to Michigan and Ohio State the rest of the way.
It took Dantonio 4 years to produce a 10-win season.
After 4 year’s worth of 6- and 7-win seasons, Saban, in his 5th year (1999), won 10 games in East Lansing — the program’s first 10-win season since 1965, and only the second in documented school history at the time.
If Tucker were to win 10 games in 2021, he’d likely be a clear candidate for Coach of the Year honors — if not nationally, certainly in the Big Ten.
Michigan State hosts Nebraska and Western Kentucky before going on the road to see Rutgers and Indiana. Already 3-0, wins over Nebraska and Rutgers would mark the first 5-0 start for the Spartans since the 2015 season, in which they went 8-0 before losing on the road to Nebraska.
Imagine 5-0 heading into Rutgers and Indiana, and then emerging 7-0 before hosting in-state rival Michigan on Oct. 30.
This could be a storybook year for Tucker, who has an early edge on his naysayers and critics. In just his 2nd year, Tucker has the Spartans being talked about as a contender in the Big Ten, credited for what some are calling the resurrection of the program.
Tucker has a lot of coaching history to follow in East Lansing. However, he appears ready to construct something of his own, rather than just re-trace the same steps taken by his predecessors.