“Football has given me everything I have," said Mel Tucker, after being introduced as Michigan State's next football coach The Detroit News
That new Michigan State coach Mel Tucker has only one year of head coaching experience could raise eyebrows, but several college football analysts said not only has he learned from the best, but now he has considerable financial resources to hire a top-notch staff, and he has the Big Ten in his blood.
Tucker, 48, was hired in the wee hours Wednesday morning from Colorado to replace Mark Dantonio, who retired last week after 13 seasons with the Spartans. Tucker, who began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1997, also coached at Ohio State and more recently at Alabama and Georgia. He went 5-7 last season with the Buffaloes.
Early in Michigan State’s search for a new coach, Tucker said he planned to stay at Colorado. That changed late Tuesday and part of the appeal reportedly was MSU's promise to provide a large pool of money allocated for assistant coaches.
“I think those watching saw Mel had the chops to handle a big job, a head-coaching job,” former coach Rick Neuheisel, who hosts "Full Ride" on SiriusXM’s ESPNU radio channel, told The Detroit News. “Certainly, he has the background from the programs that he’s been part of, both Alabama with Nick Saban and previous to that Michigan State with Nick Saban, and also Kirby Smart at Georgia as defensive coordinator going to the college football playoffs that he has what it takes to go to the highest level.
“The thing about both those programs is they want for nothing in terms of resources. I think he was a little frustrated at times at Colorado that the resources were not nearly as plentiful as the programs from which he had come. While he spurned the offer from Michigan State at first, when he threw out the wish list and they came back saying yes, I think he said I can’t turn this down because this provides the easel for which to paint the program I desire.”
Neuheisel was an offensive coordinator at Colorado and head coach there from 1995-1998, one of his three college head coaching stops, so he has a keen interest in the program.
“He’s more of a fit (at Michigan State), frankly, than he was a fit at Colorado having never (worked on) the west coast, and Colorado is a Pac-12 team now,” Neuheisel said. “The reason they moved to the Pac-12 is because of the amount of alums they had in California. That’s not his backyard. This actually fits better given his background than the Colorado post. I don’t think there’s any worries along the lines of will he will acclimate quickly to his surroundings.”
Analysts said it’s important not to get hung up on whether he has enough head coaching experience as he takes over Michigan State.
“I don’t think we can predict just because Mel was 5-7 (last season) and just because he doesn’t have a long track record as a head coach, whether he will have success or not,” said the Big Ten Network’s Gerry DiNardo, a former head coach at LSU.
Neuheisel liked what he observed last season.
“Whether or not one year is enough to be judging whether or not if he has what it takes is anybody’s guess. I think the way he performed in Year 1 from a game-management standpoint, from handling adversity and coming back from adversity, I think there was enough stuff there to merit further inquiry and when you get to know Mel, I think you go, ‘OK, I’m buying this. This can work,’ ” he said.
Smart and Tucker worked together on Saban’s staff at Alabama. When Smart became Georgia head coach, it was important for him to hire Tucker as defensive coordinator in 2016.
“In his three years at UGA, he was a great coach, trusted friend and colleague, and role model for our players,” Smart said in a statement to The Detroit News. “Mel helped us build the foundation of the program we have at Georgia and I’m confident he’ll be a great fit for the Spartans.”
Howard Griffith, a standout at Illinois and Super Bowl champion, is a Big Ten Network analyst and knows Tucker. He thinks Tucker brings an advantage in terms of already knowing the recruiting geography. Early Wednesday, Griffith took to social media to suggest Tucker might pursue Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, who has deep ties in the Midwest, especially Ohio.
“It’s an exciting hire for Michigan State, something that they sorely needed to jump start, because they’ve got to get back to getting those players out of Ohio that Ohio State doesn’t get,” Griffith said. “If he’s able to get Vince away from Kentucky, that’s going to be huge. I know he’ll put a strong staff together now.”
DiNardo was also impressed by how much money Michigan State reportedly was willing to spend on the hire and its pledge to increase the budget for assistant coaches.
“They have certainly made a turn in regard to a financial commitment,” DiNardo said.
While Tucker has only one year of head-coaching experience, he’s got a strong coaching background and has been part of coaching blueprints that have worked with great success.
“If you’ve been a coach and you’ve been in a system, in a program, you’ve been with Saban, you’ve been with Kirby, you know what you want your program to look like if you have the resources,” Griffith said. “It looks like he’s going to have the resources that he wants to be able to go out and hire the best coaches he can, not the best coaches he can get for the salary, but the best coaches that are out there. For Michigan State, it’s what they need.”