Hayes: Mel Tucker is trusting the Process, and it's paying off for Michigan State
The words flow from Mel Tucker, and it may as well be Nick Saban or Kirby Smart.
A relentless mindset. Accountability. Attention to detail.
The crazy part about Tucker’s quick-turn reclamation project at Michigan State: When November rolled around last season, the Spartans were in the same zip code as Alabama and Georgia.
In Year 2 of the rebuild.
“We have shifted our culture,” Tucker says confidently.
Which, of course, leads us to the biggest step yet in redefining Michigan State.
Making it stick.
Of all the good Tucker has accomplished in 2 seasons in East Lansing, nothing will be more important than backing up the surprising run of 2021. Especially considering the way he did it — and how it might be closer to the rule than the exception.
When Tucker arrived nearly 3 years ago, the roster was a mess. Longtime successful coach Mark Dantonio retired, and the program had tapered to back-to-back 7-6 seasons.
The roster had to be overhauled, and the guts of the program — the fire in the belly attitude that made Dantonio’s tenure so successful — was flickering. Two weeks later, the world stopped from a global pandemic, and any hope of a Year 1 turnaround ended.
Not meeting in-person as a team or with position groups was bad enough. Not working out together at the facility, or going to class, or building chemistry on and off the field, was brutal.
All of those problems were exacerbated by Tucker’s inability to get in front of his new team — players he didn’t know, faces he didn’t recognize, personalities he couldn’t read — and physically interact.
Tucker, like his mentors Saban and Smart, thrives within the psychology of the game. The spoken word away from the field can be as impactful as a raised voice on it.
What buttons to push, when to push, when to pull back, when to grind. Want to know the biggest difference between Year 1 and Year 2? A complete season of physical interaction.
No wonder Michigan State went from 2 wins in Year 1 under Tucker to 11 wins in Year 2. An influx of talent helped, but it wasn’t the be-all, end-all.
Kenneth Walker III transferred from Wake Forest and became an All-American tailback — but he didn’t carry the team.
Michigan State changed everything because of that nebulous catchall called culture. What does it actually mean?
Buy in. That’s it, more than anything.
“Our culture is about how we live and behave every day,” Tucker said. “What are we doing every single day to get better? Aggregation of marginal gains. Everyone just get a little bit better every single day.”
The Spartans bought what Tucker was selling, and the quarterback (Payton Thorne) played smart and efficient, the defense got turnovers (20) and sacks (43), and Walker ran wild.
It’s a fairly basic formula when everyone is on board. No wonder then, that Tucker, when speaking of backing up last season at Big Ten Media Days, made it clear what will be expected.
“Win every game,” Tucker said. “Finish first.”
Thorne is back, a majority of the defense is, too. Walker is in the NFL, but Tucker hit the portal again for 2 legitimate replacements: former Wisconsin starter Jalen Berger, and former Colorado starter Jarek Broussard.
The Spartans were a win away from playing for the Big Ten title and a spot in the Playoff — and didn’t have an elite quarterback. That might change this fall.
Thorne spent time this summer working out in Jacksonville, Fla., with QBs guru Denny Thompson of 6 Points Jax, throwing with NFL, college and high school quarterbacks.
By the time he left, everyone on campus was talking about Thorne.
“He’s a dude. He’s going to have a big year,” Thompson said of Thorne. “I can’t wait to see the jump he makes. We’ve worked with a lot of guys, not many have the skill set he has. But he works at it, too, man. It’s impressive to watch.”
There’s your culture working, everyone. Relentlessness and attention to detail, and being personally accountable to the greater good.
Don’t be shocked if the next big step at Michigan State under Tucker is better than the first two.
The same steps Saban and Smart already have made.