East Lansing — When Mark Dantonio arrived at Michigan State, he made it clear that beating Michigan was a priority.
On Friday, Dantonio’s successor, Mel Tucker, echoed that belief, reminding everyone that the Michigan-Michigan State game is no ordinary affair.
“The Michigan game is not just another game,” Tucker said on “The Drive With Jack,” an online radio show with longtime Lansing journalist Jack Ebling. “That’s something that we embrace. I don’t believe in downplaying expectations — that’s useless. It is what it is.”
Dantonio had his share of success against Michigan, going 8-5 against the Wolverines, including seven victories in eight seasons from 2008-15. It was after Dantonio’s first game against Michigan — a 28-24 loss in 2006 — that Michigan running back Mike Hart called Michigan State his “little brother,” helping spark the intensity in the rivalry.
That intensity is something Tucker embraces, having spent the first two years of his coaching career at Michigan State as a graduate assistant in 1997-98 while building up a healthy distaste for Michigan as an assistant at Ohio State from 2001-04.
“There’s rivalry games that are different than other games,” Tucker said. “You can say that a game is a game, and they’re all the same, we want to win every game but, hey, let’s be honest, Michigan State-Michigan is different. And I understand that.”
Dantonio helped Michigan State shift the momentum in the rivalry by building off the perceived lack of respect the Spartans felt they received from their rivals down the road. Tucker, it sounds like, is on the same path.
“I feel like we’ve got something to prove, there’s no doubt about that,” Tucker said. “We’ve got a chip on our shoulders. … (Fans) are gonna see is a brand of football they can be proud of. We gotta look on the field and say, ‘Those guys are playing hard, they care, they’re all-in.’ It’s one thing to play the game for what the game can do for you, but it’s another thing to play the game because you love it. That’s the way the game is supposed to be played.”
Tucker was also asked in the interview about the legendary head coaches he’s worked with. He was on staff with Dantonio at Michigan State in 1997-98 and again at Ohio State from 2001-03.
“Coach Dantonio is very highly competitive, ultra-competitive, a hard worker and very loyal,” Tucker said. “He was a good teacher. He’s a family man. He cared about his players, he cared about the coaches, and he was always looking to help. That was the thing, he was always looking to help any way he could, whoever he could, and he was just a pleasure to work with.”
Tucker was part of Jim Tressel’s staff at Ohio State from 2001-04, a stretch that included a national championship.
“Coach Tress, he’s a very special man,” Tucker said. “I was very privileged and blessed to be able to work with him. He would talk to us about being servant leaders. We were there at Ohio State to serve that state and that university and that university community. And that was our purpose. He taught us that and we bought into it, and that’s been part of my philosophy and what I’ve believed in ever since then.”
Tucker twice worked with Nick Saban, in 2000 as defensive backs coach at LSU and again in 2015 as assistant head coach and defensive backs coach at Alabama.
“Coach Saban taught me everything,” Tucker said. “Coach Saban gave me my start and helped lay the foundation for me in terms of football philosophy for offense, defense and special teams, strength and conditioning, recruiting was really big. I tried to soak it all in.”
And Tucker played for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin.
“He always talked to us about what’s important now, it was W-I-N,” Tucker said. “It was all over the locker room. I use it every day — ‘What’s important now?’ Whether that’s something with coaching or something that’s personal, prioritizing, being where your feet are.”