Mitch Albom: Michigan State's Mel Tucker perfect fit for a volatile football season
Mel Tucker used to drive Nick Saban around. This was 23 years ago, when Saban was the head football coach at Michigan State and Tucker was a first-year graduate assistant. He would marvel at how Saban, sitting next to him, could wedge a briefcase beneath his feet, lift a coffee cup to his mouth and keep a phone to his ear. When he wanted Tucker to go faster, he would bite on the cup, hold it in place, and with his one free hand, wave to change lanes.
Tucker has been hitting turn signals ever since.
Here is the new head coach at Michigan State, a man who can seriously pivot, a savvy defensive mind with a deep laugh and a steely focus who already has made 11 career stops before his 49th birthday. Eleven? A teenage driver hits the brakes less often.
[ Michigan State football 2020: Here are our game-by-game predictions ]
But Tucker has been, since his early days, unafraid to chart a new course. He was about to attend Air Force as an option quarterback until Wisconsin offered him a scholarship and stole him away. He was single until the night he met his wife; he proposed on their first date and she said yes. He has coached in the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the SEC and the MAC, won national championships with the Ohio State and Alabama staffs, been in the AFC East, the AFC South and the NFC North. He went from college assistant to NFL assistant to NFL head coach back to college assistant.
A year ago, Tucker was a first-year head man at the University of Colorado, promising to win big. Today, after following his heart back to the Big Ten — through an avalanche of criticism from the Rocky Mountains — he’s here in East Lansing, about to lead the Spartans into the strangest season in modern memory, one delayed and compressed by a pandemic, laden with testing and protocols, and uncertain what the next day will bring. The Spartans need to be ready, willing, and nimble.
Man, do they have the right guy.
“Change,” Tucker says, smiling, “doesn’t rattle me much.”
We talk for nearly an hour in a one-on-one Zoom conversation, made necessary by COVID-19 which has laid in-person interviews to rest. During this time, Tucker laughs easily, answers every question, isn’t afraid to analyze himself, and now and then throws up impressive personal philosophies that could double as self-help books, including “the illusion of choice” and “the power of neutral thinking.”
“I believe in neutral thinking,” he says. “It means basically I’m not gonna get too high, I’m not gonna get too low, I’m not going to judge the situation as right or wrong or good or bad. It is what it is. Go to the truth. What do I know? What are the facts? Based upon that, what does that tell me that I need to do next?”
And “next,” for Tucker, has long been an operative word. He keeps an eye on the landscape. He’s like a GPS that never shuts off.
When Tucker talks movies, for example, he says he admires "Casino," "The Godfather," and Clint Eastwood pictures. Not because he’s into gangsters or violence, but because he appreciates men who are in control, who see the big picture. Who know what’s coming next.
“(Those characters) have a heightened level of awareness of what’s going on. Kind of seeing things from 10,000 feet as opposed to looking at something through a straw.
“That’s one thing that I really noticed about Nick. He was always — and he still is — three or four steps ahead.”
Saban has been a coaching Yoda for Tucker, always welcoming him back to continue his Jedi training. And given Saban’s success, you could do a lot worse. Tucker worked for Saban at MSU (graduate assistant, 1997-98), at LSU (defensive backs coach, 2000) and at Alabama (assistant head coach, 2015), where together they won a national championship.
“How has Saban changed?” I ask.
“It’s kind of like the iPhone,’’ Tucker says, smiling. “You know how the iPhone 12 just came out? Nick is like that. He’s always getting better. He’s always improving — even though he’s fundamentally the same guy. When I got to Alabama, I was sitting in the staff room, and he’s saying all these things in the staff room that I heard in ’97. He starts a sentence, and in my mind, I’m finishing it.
“But he’s also very progressive. He’s very innovative, yet regimented at the same time. Like De Niro in 'Casino,' how every day it was like clockwork? That’s how Nick is. But, at the same time, he has changed with the times.”
Spartan Nation is hoping Tucker can do the same. People don’t realize how long it has been since a coaching change happened in East Lansing. Mark Dantonio held the reins since George W. Bush was president (2007). The Spartans enjoyed a gallon of success with him — a good deal of it against Michigan — but recent years saw the program unravel into bad headlines and a couple of 7-6 seasons.
Dantonio abruptly stepped aside in early February, after accepting a $4.3 million longevity bonus. It was a jolt. Early February is not a good time to go searching for a head coach.
Enter Tucker, who, as stated, isn’t afraid of change. Frankly, the Spartans wouldn’t have gotten him otherwise.
'I'm a Big Ten guy'
“Leaving Colorado was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make in my professional career,” he admits. There was no way to spin it. He had just arrived with great fanfare to the Buffaloes, had a promising first season, and initially tweeted that he wasn’t going anywhere, including East Lansing. But the desperate Spartans came after him hard, with a six-year package that essentially doubled his pay at Colorado — and exceeded what they had been paying Dantonio.
More than that, it was a chance to go back home, the Midwest, the place Tucker got started, the school where he used to shovel snow, pick up dry cleaning and steer the head coach around while taking hand signals on his driving.
“I just looked at the opportunity — the pros and cons. I’m from Cleveland. My parents are still in Cleveland. My mom is not in good health. My wife is from Chicago, so her family is right here. I’m a Big Ten guy — Wisconsin, and my wife went to Illinois — this is like home for me. Literally everything started for me here. It was a natural fit for me — and I knew that.”
He also knew he’d take a lot of heat. One year and then gone? In February?
“Yeah. I knew that. But my family was very supportive, and I knew what I was getting into.”
Maybe a less-experienced guy would have declined. Been overwhelmed by the speed of it all. But here’s where the highways and byways of Mel Tucker’s well-traveled life were an asset.
Remember, this is a man who went to the NFL essentially “to learn the 3-4 defense” and kept getting new offers. He wound up staying 10 years. He was an assistant coach in Jacksonville in 2011 when suddenly, head coach Jack Del Rio was fired. The Jaguars owner, Tucker recalls, asked whether he would take over for the rest of the season “and then we’ll give you a shot at the job.”
So Tucker said yes. A few hours later, the team was sold to a new owner. A new owner? The same day? Yes. Tucker nonetheless coached the last five games of the season, went 2-3, and was let go in favor of Mike Mularkey, who promptly went 2-14 the next year.
So you can’t blame Tucker for knowing that opportunities arrive, depart, get offered and get yanked away. Coaching can mean chaos and chaos requires a steady hand. There's been too much chaos in recent years at Michigan State. Tucker's hand is on a green and white wheel now.
And no one is signaling him to switch lanes.
Move. Next move. Pivot.
Which brings us to this season. The experts aren’t expecting much from MSU in 2020, casting it as a rebuilding year. And certainly, given the timing of everything — Tucker arrived in February; by mid-March, college sports were shut down — nobody would fault the new guy if the wins didn’t exactly stack up.
But Tucker is waving one of his unique philosophies in front of his players — “the illusion of choice” — and letting them know the coronavirus will not be an excuse for mediocrity, and stretching the rules, whether it be with masks, social distancing or campus mingling, will have serious consequences.
“If you wanna play — if you’re serious about being a good player and having a good team — there’s an illusion that you have all these choices. There are no choices. It takes what it takes. So this is what you have to do. This is what’s required in order to make this work.”
He also understands that much of what he does this first year will be measured by the game against Michigan, coming up on Halloween.
“I embrace it. It’s not just another game. I’ve been fortunate to be part of Alabama-Auburn, Cleveland-Pittsburgh, Chicago-Green Bay, Ohio State-Michigan, Colorado-Nebraska. I don’t believe in trying to downplay expectations. I think that’s just a waste of time. I believe you embrace it. You treat it special. And you know, ultimately, you’re gonna be judged as a player by how you play in those games — and as a coach by how you coach in those games.
“When you play in those games, you feel like your life is on the line. So if you start trying to say it’s just another game, you’re kidding yourself. Come on, really? Alabama-Auburn is not just another game. Florida-Georgia is not just another game.”
Neither is Michigan-Michigan State. Normally, both teams get five or six games in before the annual showdown. But this year, it’s coming in less than two weeks.
Don’t expect Tucker to complain. The day after Big Ten sports shut down, he was learning the ins and outs of Zoom conferencing. Two days later, he was using it with his staff and players. Move. Next move. Adjust. Readjust. The illusion of choice holds for Tucker as well. To him, there is no option, no sympathy, and no excuses. This is the lane he's driving in now.
“People come to me all the time and they say, ‘Man, I can’t believe the hand that you’ve been dealt (at Michigan State). This is like the absolute worst situation that you can be in. You don’t get here until Feb. 12 — the class is already signed — you’re trying to yank coaches off of staffs and get ‘em right before spring ball. You’re about to start spring ball and COVID hits. Everybody goes home. How do you deal with it?' ”
That’s easy. He's Mel Tucker.
Like I said, they got the right guy.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.