'I felt that pride': Mel Tucker back at Michigan State, 'where it all started for me'
East Lansing — The last time Mel Tucker was at Michigan State he was making $400 a month as a graduate assistant sleeping under his desk in the football building.
Back then, the young coach made sure he was there in the morning when head coach Nick Saban showed up and he was there when Saban left.
Nearly 23 years later, with the help of an endorsement from his old boss, Tucker was introduced as the 25th football coach at Michigan State, replacing Mark Dantonio, who stepped down last week after 13 seasons as the winningest coach in program history.
The longtime assistant who began his career in 1997 as a graduate assistant for Saban at Michigan State, decided to leave Colorado after one season as head coach and take over the Spartans.
“I felt Michigan State, man,” Tucker said when asked what it was that convinced him to take the job. “I felt that pride and that hunger and that tradition and I felt a sense of urgency.
“This is where it all started for me and this is a special place. There's very few jobs like this in football that has this type of tradition, history, commitment and resources. And so I feel very blessed to have this opportunity.”
At a special meeting of Michigan State’s Board of Trustees on Wednesday evening, Tucker received unanimous approval to become the next head coach. He agreed to a six-year contract believed to be worth more than $5 million a year. Details weren’t released but his contract is expected to be available in the next day.
Tucker also reportedly was given a hefty pool to pay assistants and said on Wednesday that he wanted his staff finalized “sooner rather than later,” and that there were plenty of qualified coaches who wanted to come to Michigan State.
Tucker spoke with the media briefly after a celebration at the Breslin Center Hall of History, complete with cheerleaders, members of the MSU band and a handful of Michigan State’s other varsity coaches, including men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo, hockey coach Danton Cole and volleyball coach Cathy George.
“I just want to say, you are lucky because I think that you're in a place, like some of us, had many opportunities to leave and never wanted to leave,” Izzo said, “and I hope you feel the same way.”
A handful of members of the current football team were on hand, including linebacker Antjuan Simmons, running back Elijah Collins, safety Xavier Henderson and quarterback Rocky Lombardi. Simmons spoke on behalf of the team and pointed out the fiery meeting the Spartans had with their new coach earlier in the day.
“We’re excited,” Simmons said. “We've been working all week. We've been working hard and we want to thank you for coming. It's an honor to have you and that meeting, it was intense. But we’re ready. We’re going to play for you.
“And like you guys know, the head of the program changes, but the expectations don't. We still are going to have the same expectations for this program and we going to play hard.”
The decision by Tucker to leave Colorado and come to Michigan State capped a whirlwind few days during which Tucker was the first of three candidates interviewed by MSU. He met with athletic director Bill Beekman in Colorado on Friday, before Beekman then flew to San Jose, California, to talk to San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a Dearborn native who didn't consider the job. Beekman then flew to Cincinnati on Saturday night to interview Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, the perceived front-runner, on Sunday morning.
Only Tucker was offered a contract, according to a source close to the situation who spoke to The Detroit News. Tucker was offered the contract Monday night and negotiations continued into Tuesday, the same day he was meeting with Colorado donors in Denver on Tuesday night.
"It's been a very busy eight days," Beekman said at the Board of Trustees meeting.
By late Tuesday, Tucker said he knew he was coming back to where it all started. As his wife JoEllyn pointed out, it was in East Lansing that her husband proposed.
“We actually got engaged right here in East Lansing,” she said. “It was a while ago. Almost 23 years ago now. But we are super excited to come back where it all began and all of our Midwest and Big Ten ties. We are so excited and we can't wait to get here.”
While the family will head back to Colorado soon, Tucker is hitting the ground running. He said he “brought a lot of bags” and has no intention of heading back, saying all the rest of his stuff will be shipped back to Michigan. In the meantime, Tucker will begin the process of getting to know his players, meeting with staff and acclimating himself to a campus that he admits has changed significantly since he was last here.
All of it, though, leads back to his commitment to the game and to Michigan State.
“I love the game of football and I love people who love the game,” Tucker said. “I love people who love the game. My players, coaches, fans, media; if you love it, I'll probably like you. We play it, we coach it, we watch it, we cover it, because we absolutely love it.
“So today I'm excited about Michigan State football because I love football here, right here. We have a strong and rich history under coaches like Biggie Munn, Duffy Daugherty, winning national championships. Coach Saban taking us to the Citrus Bowl and more recently appearances in the College Football Playoffs, the Rose Bowl and three Big Ten championships. That's pretty strong. I love the positives of the Michigan State football legacy. I cannot be more fired up about being part of this culture; this is a winning culture and creating a winning future here in football. I'm excited.”
Before Tucker opted to come to Michigan State, he needed to make the difficult decision to leave Colorado less than two weeks after wrapping up his 2020 recruiting class. He went 5-7 in his one season with the Buffaloes and momentum was building, something that led him to first say he was remaining committed to seeing it through at Colorado.
But after the MSU search circled back to Tucker, things started to shift. Tucker and his wife, JoEllyn, as well as sons Joseph and Christian, had to “huddle up and have some frank conversations.” It wasn’t long before they were “all in” and negotiations wrapped up late Tuesday.
“Leaving Colorado was probably — was actually the toughest thing that I have ever done in my — in my career, in my life, actually,” Tucker said. “But this is the right time for me to be here. That's really what it comes down to. The commitment is here. The resources are here; the want-to; the leadership is here. Everything is here. Everything we need is here right now to get done what we need to get done.”
Some at Colorado are bitter about Tucker’s departure after one season. Tucker said he was not allowed to talk to his players but did talk to his staff. Colorado athletic director Rick George said the reaction from the team was somber.
It confirmed the difficulty of Tucker’s choice, but it’s one the Spartans are feeling good about.
“Meeting Mel in person convinced me he was the right person for the job,” Beekman said. “His energy, his drive, his preparation, his commitment to excellence all showed through almost immediately.
“He's the right coach at the right time to move Michigan State forward with passion and energy. He's Teddy Roosevelt's man in the arena and he's our 25th head coach and we are darned thrilled to have him.”