Spartan dogs: Meet KJ and PJ, the labs helping to create Mel Tucker's new MSU football workspace
Back in February, when the world still allowed for trivial things, newly-hired Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker had a press conference to lead, a coaching staff to build and a new house to buy with one question sitting at the front of his mind:
“How are we going to get the dogs there?”
For three years, Tucker has brought the same family along for these moves up the coaching ladder, from Athens, Georgia; to Boulder, Colorado; to East Lansing, Michigan. He’s had his wife, JoJo; his sons, 18-year-old Joseph and 16-year-old Christian; and his mother-in-law.
And he’s had two English white labs, KJ and PJ.
At 5 and 3 years old, respectively, the dogs have lived a fraction of the family journey, but they’ve become a force in making a new place feel like home. And so once the Tuckers got them to East Lansing by car, Mel Tucker brought them inside a large home in a woodsy setting and set them free among his family. Two dogs pushing 100 pounds each sniffed the carpeted edges, darted across a back wooden deck and down a grassy hill to find the deer, chipmunks, rabbits and turkeys who call the place home.
When they made their way out of the yard and around the neighborhood one day, Tucker knew they had begun to settle into East Lansing.
Now, it was time for him to do the same.
Tucker didn’t always get to see so much of his pups. A man doesn’t rise from position coach at Alabama to coordinator at Georgia, to head coach at Colorado and Michigan State by staying at home all day. He isn’t supposed to rebuild a program that way, either.
Now, thanks to the coronavirus, he is.
On March 12, exactly one month to the day of Tucker’s introductory press conference as Michigan State’s new football coach, the university announced it was pressing pause on all athletic team functions. That included the spring football practices set to begin in five days, and it wiped out the spring game scheduled for mid-April.
Nine weeks later, everything is still on pause. Tucker has yet to coach his team in a live practice, and he hasn’t been to the football office in about two months.
Like many Americans, he spends his days working from home.
He sits in a black, wheeled chair in a corner office with a flat-screen TV, two laptops, an iPad at his fingertips and two English white labs at his feet.
KJ and PJ will lay as close as they can to him whenever he lets them inside, which is whenever he doesn't have to lead a Zoom meeting.
Occasionally, he’ll have to pause a conversation with a recruit to keep one of them from digging in the trash can.
“You know how labs are, man,” Tucker said. “They’re always grabbing stuff, trying to steal food off the table and grab the shoes and socks and everything.
“The dogs are everywhere."
KJ and PJ scheme for the attention of a coach who has long loved dogs despite the fact he’s allergic to them. These days, that gives him one more reason to constantly wash his hands.
Over time, the dogs have become like glue to keep this family unit so tight while constantly on the move.
Tucker first bought a family dog around 2005, when he was an assistant with the Cleveland Browns. Niko was a yellow lab and he was a companion for the two boys as they moved through elementary school. They always asked for a second one.
In 2015, Tucker finally agreed. He was an assistant head coach and defensive backs coach on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama when he drove to an area breeder and picked out a white puppy small enough to carry in the palm of his hand.
The kids named that one King Julien, after the Netflix show “All Hail King Julien.” When they moved to Georgia so Tucker could become a defensive coordinator under Kirby Smart, Niko showed KJ the ropes until his health failed. One day, Tucker had to drive Niko to the vet to put him down.
"It was very, very tough," Tucker said. "It was just me and him."
It was harder than they saw coming. Joseph and Christian weren’t even in high school yet, and they’d already lived in Cleveland, Jacksonville, Chicago, Tuscaloosa and Athens, and now their dog was gone. Tucker made mention of the struggle to the breeder he bought KJ from.
A few months later, that breeder called about another litter. He was willing to drive this one to Georgia himself if it would cheer the boys up.
Another tiny puppy arrived, and they named this one Prince Jaxson, after Jaguars mascot Jaxson de Ville. Jacksonville was the one town the boys got to live in for four consecutive years.
Now, each boy had a dog to hold and help raise. They shortened their names to KJ and PJ.
"They're family," Tucker said. "We talk to them like they're humans. And they're really smart, so they can actually understand you."
The dogs now travel everywhere together. If one isn’t with the other, the Tuckers will know he’s likely up to no good and will send the other in search of him.
It’s a dynamic that’s formed between cross-country moves, largely in the training of JoJo, Joseph and Christian.
These days, Tucker is getting to see more of it than he ever quite knew was there.
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Tucker’s new normal isn’t that different from the rest of America. Workplaces everywhere are turning virtual. Additionally, unemployment has risen to more than 20% and thousands of people are stuck at home recovering from the virus.
In a dangerous and uncertain time, dogs are becoming the winners.
Their owners are home, and they have time to train puppies now. More than 3,000 animals have been adopted over the past month through the Bissell Pet Foundation.
“Most of us live such busy lifestyles. We love our pets, but we don’t maybe spend as much time as we’d like to with them,” said Julia Wilson, president and CEO of the Capital Area Humane Society in Lansing. “It’s putting a real spotlight on the relationship we’re having with our pets.”
It’s one of the few relationships Tucker has right now that isn't through a screen or a phone. He’s kept plenty busy along the way, hiring coaching and support staff and teaching new playbooks over Zoom. He's secured all 12 of Michigan State’s 2021 commitments during the past five weeks of quarantine.
But there's no virtual supplement for the adrenaline rush of practice. He should be on a field somewhere, yelling instructions for players to chase a ball and molding them in his culture of "#Relentless."
The dogs are never far away.
When he’s set up with his laptop on the back deck of his home, KJ and PJ will nudge a ball at his feet until he reacts. Tucker will grip the ball, turn to the railing and uncork a throw through the grass and toward the trees. The dogs will tear off in a race down the hill. Then they'll scramble back for the next rep.
Eventually, they will tire out. Then it’s time come inside the office and plop down at Tucker's feet, and then a film session can begin.
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