'Changing the culture' on Mel Tucker's to-do list as Michigan State football coach
East Lansing — Mel Tucker has a clear goal at Michigan State: Shift the culture and get the Spartans back to where they’re competing for a Big Ten championship and more on a regular basis.
The first two weeks on the job have been about laying the groundwork, as Tucker took over for Mark Dantonio, who stepped down after 13 seasons as the winningest program in Michigan State history.
“It’s going to be about initially changing the culture, a culture shift,” Tucker said Monday. “That’s going to be really the first order of business. Michigan State football — we all know what it’s supposed to look like — it’s going to be about getting back to that. Whether it’s coaches, whether it’s players, we’re starting at ground zero with an attitude that we have to prove it each and every day.”
What Tucker is trying to get Michigan State back to is not the mediocrity of the last two seasons, when the Spartans finished 7-6 in back-to-back years.
Instead, he’s shooting for a run similar to what Dantonio had from 2013-15 when the Spartans won 36 games, captured a pair of Big Ten championships and reached the College Football Playoff. Along the way, Dantonio took control of the rivalry with Michigan, building the Spartans into a perennial contender.
That feeling around the program left quickly as Michigan State went 3-9 in 2016 and rebounded to 10-3 in 2017 before the consecutive seven-win seasons.
“We have something to prove and we’re going to approach this thing with a chip on our shoulder,” Tucker said. “Michigan State football is about hard work, reflective of the people of the state of Michigan and their mental and physical toughness. We’re going to bring juice.”
Bringing the juice is what Tucker has been doing almost non-stop over the past two weeks, though it can be hard to describe exactly what that means.
“Juice is like relentless, focus, energy, sense of urgency, day-in, day-out, for a common goal where people want to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves, whether it’s coaches or players,” Tucker said. “That’s what I’m looking for in hiring a staff, as we recruit and everything we do is about bringing the juice. It’s been an exciting two weeks, but it's been a blessed two weeks at the same time.”
Tucker has been doing his best to bring that juice when it comes to hiring a staff, getting to know his current players and even continuing to be in contact with prospects on the recruiting trail.
“It’s just day after day after day, you know, one day at a time,” Tucker explained. “It’s just knocking off those priorities off that task list, that to-do list. I get a lot of gratification when making a list and then being able to scratch something off. I think there's something about that. So, we're working through it.”
The hiring of a staff has continued to be the No. 1 priority for Tucker.
After hiring Ted Gilmore as tight ends coach on Friday, Tucker now has seven members of his 10-person on-field coaching staff in place. The group includes Mike Tressel and Ron Burton — holdovers from Dantonio’s staff — as well as former MSU staffer Harlon Barnett, Jay Johnson, Courtney Hawkins and Chris Kapilovic.
Johnson is the offensive coordinator, while Tucker has yet to name a defensive coordinator, a role that has been filled in the past by both Tressel and Barnett.
Tucker also has hired some support staff, including Geoff Martzen as director of player personnel, Cody Cox as director of football operations, and former MSU linebacker Darien Harris as director of player engagement.
“We’re going through the hiring process and being very deliberate and methodical about it with a sense of urgency, and poise,” Tucker said. “It’s starting to come together and I feel good about it, and I don't think it'd be very long before we have the full crew of the 10 coaches.
“The coaches that have been retained like Mike and Coach Burton, or bringing Coach Barnett back is not because of just continuity. Those are good football coaches that I know and I've known for a long time. I know what they can do. I know what they're all about. I know that they can teach, motivate and develop players. And I know that they believe in me and I'm all about. So, that's why they're here.”
As for the current players, Tucker said he’s in the “get-to-know stage” with them all and emphasized to the entire team — including Connor Heyward, who took his name out of the transfer portal and is returning to the Spartans — that they all start with a clean slate.
“Our mentality is going to be an earn-it, prove-it mentality,” Tucker said. “That's going to be our approach as coaches and players. I don't believe in self-imposed limitations. The sky's the limit for what we can do with our guys, and I want our players to feel the same way.”
Tucker confirmed that spring practice will begin on March 17 and that the annual Green and White game will played April 18 at Spartan Stadium.
The game kicks off at 4 p.m. and will be televised live on the Big Ten Network.
“It’s important for us to go through the spring and know who can play football,” Tucker said. “Players play fastest when they know what to do, so I want to know what a player can do when he is playing fast and when he is not thinking too much initially. We will challenge our players from a scheme standpoint and from a volume standpoint so we know what guys can handle.”