Just now, Michigan State’s new head football coach addressed the media for the first time, as Mel Tucker accepted a renewed offer from the Spartans barely a week after Mark Dantonio’s unexpected retirement.
Less than a day after Michigan State was humiliatingly spurned by Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, rumors began swirling that the Spartans had circled back to Tucker, who had previously withdrawn his name from consideration. Those rumors quickly ceased to be rumors, and Tucker became the man to succeed Mark Dantonio in East Lansing.
His resume has plenty of substance, and a lot of the connections that seem to be mandatory for coaching hires at MSU: he began as a grad assistant with Nick Saban and spent time with Mark Dantonio on Jim Tressel’s Ohio State teams in the early 2000s. He then pivoted to the NFL for a number of years, first as a position coach and ultimately serving as defensive coordinator for the Browns, Jaguars and Bears, also including an interim head coach stint with the Jags.
Saban then brought him back to the college ranks as part of his Alabama machine in 2015. He was then scooped up by Kirby Smart, spending a couple of years as Georgia’s defensive coordinator before getting his first collegiate head coaching job at Colorado, where he went 5-7 in his only season before leaving for Michigan State.
There are plenty of pros and cons to the Tucker hire on paper. As noted, he has familiarity with Michigan State, and is thus likely not under any delusions about how difficult this job will be. However, his connections are also far enough in the past that he should have some insulation from the miasma of scandal that hangs over everything this university has done for the last several years.
He’s also regarded as an ace recruiter, making major contributions to three consecutive top-3 classes in his return to college at Alabama and Georgia and inking a #35 class to Colorado last year (substantially above-average for Boulder).
Moving between as many jobs as he has, one assumes he knows a lot of capable assistant candidates in both pro and college circles that he can contact while building his staff. Beyond more than doubling Tucker’s Colorado salary, MSU is making an enormous assistant coach salary pool available to Tucker, a step that Mark Dantonio presumably never felt was necessary to retain his coterie of trusted friends (who no one was exactly lining up to poach away). That certainly leads to optimism that Tucker plans to do what is necessary to attract top-flight assistants, something that has been sorely lacking in East Lansing for years now.
However, it’s fair to say that as a head coach, Tucker is still a relative unknown, and the Big Ten East is a helluva place to make or break your legacy. Hopping between jobs as frequently as he has makes it kind of difficult to evaluate his abilities versus the existing quality of the places he’s been.
He’s also working with a talent-depleted roster, and thanks to Dantonio’s extremely late retirement decision, Tucker will be hard-pressed to even assemble his staff in time for spring practice, let alone consider and land any transfers or late recruits he might have wanted. Even if he gets near-complete buy-in from the existing players and his planned systems are compatible with them, MSU is miles behind the division powers in terms of guys on the field.
Finally, it’s far from clear, long-term, if Bill Beekman will remain MSU’s athletic director. However involved in this search the Board of Trustees was, if there’s a new athletic director within a year or two and the results aren’t there on the field, it’s easy to envision that as-yet-unknown administrator getting an itchy trigger finger.
All these things considered, MSU still made the best possible hire it could have, given the situation they were in once Fickell told them no.
Tucker’s ceiling is sky-high given his recruiting chops and obvious intent to line his staff with great assistants. Of the three major concerns noted above, two - the state of the roster and the potential instability in the athletic department - would have existed for any hire.
Consider the alternatives that were being bandied about after MSU missed on Fickell, before Tucker came back into the picture. Bret Bielema. Pat Shurmur. Interim Head Coach Mike Tressel. So...a guy who bombed out of his last college job, an NFL castoff, and a holdover from the previous, nose-diving regime.
Nah. Welcome aboard, Coach Tucker. The odds that he duplicates or even approaches Dantonio’s accomplishments are pretty long, but I’ll take him over any of the available alternatives, and his potential should give Michigan State fans genuine reason to hope for the future.