Couch: With Mel Tucker hire and a flood of cash, Michigan State football turns up the volume on hope and expectations

Graham Couch
Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING – “Think of three things and three things only,” Mel Tucker told his players as he was introduced Wednesday night as Michigan State’s football coach, “your god, your family and the Green Bay Packers.”

Wait, wrong notepad. 

“We have much to live up to and much to prove and I believe the time is right now,” Tucker said, “Gratitude, responsibility and loving Spartan Football.”

There it is. 

If you’re looking for inspiring messages, Tucker’s introductory press conference had them. He didn’t sound over-rehearsed Wednesday night at Breslin Center. There’s no used car salesman in him. Even if there was, you wouldn’t say that to his face. Tucker is a presence of a man at a time MSU’s football program could use a little presence, and some inspiring.

There’s no way to know on Day 1 if an unproven head coach will for sure be successful at a given school. But Tucker was for sure the right hire for Day 1.

There is a healthy uneasiness to what’s ahead for MSU football, an energy and optimism that’d been lost in the comfort, repetitiveness and stubbornness of the previous regime. Mark Dantonio will go down as the greatest coach MSU football has ever known. But he hadn’t been that in some time.

Of course, he wasn’t coaching this same program, either.

MSU turned up the volume in hiring Tucker and did so by pumping resources into him that are unprecedented to Spartan football: A $5.5-million annual compensation package, a six-year contract, a salary pool for assistant coaches nearing $6 million, with additional funds for strength and conditioning. The entire contract is expected to be made public shortly.

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New Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker hugs his wife Jo-Ellyn after she introduced him to MSU staff and fans at Gilbert Pavilion in the Breslin Center Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

It’s a lot of money — expectation-changing money. Money that gives you a right to expect MSU will be able to run the football, money that gives you a chance to do new things, if you’ve got the right people. Again, Tucker is the right person for right now, at least.

If you want to criticize the contract — and it is an absurd amount of money — criticize the market. This is the game they play at Clemson and Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State. Maybe the game should be changed, but you’re not going to do that from a pedestal in East Lansing. You either get on board or book more tickets to the Pinstripe Bowl.

“There’s a going rate, just like in your jobs, just like in my job,” MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo said after Tucker’s introduction ceremony. “I think Michigan State did a great job of trying to meet those standards.”

Izzo, who’s been to eight Final Fours, makes $4.4 million annually. Tucker, who went 5-7 last season in his only season at Colorado, will get more than $1 million more. Different sports. Different going rate.

Tucker is still only the 12th-highest paid head coach in college football and the fourth-richest in the Big Ten — behind Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and Penn State’s James Franklin. Purdue gets it. Not everyone is in position to make the ethical stand. 

MSU, though, is now in position to hope differently. Because it can afford to chase assistants like Kentucky recruiting guru Vince Marrow, who MSU is reportedly prepared to offer nearly $1 million a year to join Tucker’s staff. Marrow isn’t even a coordinator.

Tucker is a determined recruiter, who doesn’t sound like he’ll settle for MSU’s current place in the pecking order. 

“We are going to be efficient, we are going to be effective in everything that we do,” Tucker said. “We are going to recruit. We are going to identify the players that we feel like can help us and then we are going to target them. We are going to recruit them with the intent of signing those guys.”

For $33 million over six years, there can be no settling. For $33 million, you don’t get to be the plucky program known for turning two-star recruits into four-star players, or taking Ohio State’s leftovers as the main course.

One could argue that Dantonio might have done more in recent years with some of these resources, though he wasn’t up for changing his staff, so I don’t know what MSU would have gotten out of it other than a higher-paid Jim Bollman. But he might have been able to hire more support staff — the sort of support staff Nick Saban has at Alabama, the sort of staff that keeps a watchful eye on players, the sort of watchful eyes MSU could have used in 2016, after Dantonio and Co. did land 10 four-star recruits.

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New Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker approaches the podium for his first official press conference as leader of the football program, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, at the Gilbert Pavilion in Michigan State's Breslin Center.

“We knew that we were probably thin. We were thin in the coaches salary, relative to peers,” athletic director Bill Beekman said Wednesday. 

“Analyzing where we were at, where the rest of the Big Ten is at, what we need to do to be successful, the conversations we had with the various coaches were helpful throughout the process, conversations with our consultants. Then the interview process. It was just sort of an evolutionary thing.”

Tucker — who’s coached under Saban three times, including in 2015 at Alabama, and spent three seasons at Georgia after that — knows the resources that are needed. He pushed for them.

Saban was high on Tucker in conversations with MSU deputy athletic director Alan Haller, though careful not to tip the scales.

Tucker did the rest.

“Mel’s interview to me was unique in that it was clear that he had done an extraordinary amount of homework on Michigan State and our program,” Beekman said. “He had a clear working knowledge of our roster. Maybe he didn’t know names and faces, but he knew individuals and he knew about where they were at. He’d clearly done his homework.

“Then we talked about his life, his personal process, how he leads. From the detail to the philosophical, he was just extraordinarily impressive.”

You could see that on Wednesday evening at Breslin, barely 18 hours after he’d agreed to take the job. 

He promised hard-nosed, physical football and said it in a way that made you think he could speak it into existence. He spoke to MSU’s team and had the players pledging to play for him. That’s essential — early buy-in. These guys are losing the staff that brought them in and believed in them. That’s an uncomfortable feeling. Perhaps needed right now. 

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“You know we hear a lot about what coaches might have, a secret sauce to win,” Tucker said. “Who they worked for, what coaching tree they came from. Well, to me, there's no secret sauce. There's just people who taught me the responsibilities that we have as coaches.”

Then he mentioned Barry Alvarez (whom he played for at Wisconsin), Saban, whom he coached under — including as a grad assistant at MSU — Jim Tressell and Romeo Crennel.

“These men shaped me,” Tucker continued. “They shaped my coaching path. They not only taught me the Xs and the Os, but they taught me the intangibles of creating a winning mindset in a winning culture.”

There’s nothing else you want to hear on Day 1. This was an irrefutably strong Day 1 hire. Worth the cash and the Luke Fickell headache. Let’s see what Day 2 brings.

RELATED:How does Mel Tucker's MSU salary compare to other Big Ten coaches?

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Contact Graham Couch at Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.