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As Big Ten returns to play, Mel Tucker's first season at Michigan State back on track

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It looks like Mel Tucker’s first season as Michigan State’s football coach is finally ready to get started.

The Big Ten on Wednesday announced a return to the field beginning next month, and barring any setbacks or spikes in COVID-19 cases, the Spartans will begin a new era as Tucker takes over for Mark Dantonio, who became the program’s winningest coach during a 13-year tenure.

Mel Tucker is entering his first season at Michigan State's head football coach.

“From daily antigen testing for all of our players, coaches and staff to extensive cardiac protocols and protection, the Big Ten Conference and Michigan State are leading the charge to put our players on the field safely and competitively,” Tucker said in a statement. “Our players have been relentlessly training in our strength and conditioning program and we will be ready to compete. Thank you to all our Spartan fans for your support and the Big Ten Task Force and the medical leaders who got us here today. Go Green!”

There have been multiple hurdles to overcome for Tucker, who wasn’t hired until Feb. 12, putting him a tough spot as he had to quickly assemble a staff and prepare for the start of spring practice. Of course, spring practice never happened as the sporting world shut down as the coronavirus overtook the country.

When Michigan State’s players did return to campus in mid-June for voluntary workouts, the Spartans’ football team ended up enduring a 14-day quarantine after two staffers tested positive for COVID-19. They returned to the field two days before preseason camp began, only to see the Big Ten announce the postponement on Aug. 11, just five days after camp began.

Throughout the ups and downs, Tucker has maintained a positive approach.

“I know Coach Mel Tucker is eager to begin his first season as Michigan State’s football coach, and I’ve been extremely impressed by the way he’s kept our guys motivated throughout the summer and fall, even when the season was postponed,” Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said in a statement. “And most importantly, I must reiterate how happy I am for our student-athletes. They always work hard, but this year has been an offseason like none other, and still they’ve persevered and never lost their focus. While football games will definitely look different this fall, I know I will still have immense pride as I watch the Spartans run through the tunnel at Spartan Stadium.”

Since the shutdown in early August, Michigan State’s football program has been following what essentially amounts to an offseason conditioning program. Along the way, the Spartans have been doing their best to continue to learn a new system under a nearly completely new staff as Tucker retained just two assistants from Dantonio’s staff — defensive line coach Ron Burton and safeties coach Mike Tressel, who had been the defensive coordinator.

Michigan State said on Wednesday that, in accordance with the Big Ten announcement, fans will not be allowed in attendance this season, with a possible exception of student-athlete or staff family members. In addition, tailgating will not be permitted on the Michigan State campus.

The outline of an eight-game schedule has been agreed to by the conference’s schools with plans for a ninth game for each team the same week as the Big Ten championship game. That schedule will likely be released by the end of the week.

When the Big Ten initially decided to postpone the fall season, MSU President Samuel Stanley was among the 11 presidents and chancellors that opted to hold off. On Wednesday, Stanley was on board as all 14 universities chose to bring back football while holding off on a decision on the rest of the fall sports.

“I support this decision to allow a modified fall football season,” Stanley said in a statement. “With all that we’ve learned in the past month about rapid response testing, and from other athletic leagues both professional and collegiate, I feel more confident that we can collectively play football while still keeping our student athletes, coaches and staff safe. MSU will adhere to the regulations put forth by the Big Ten Conference to move forward in a safe and thoughtful manner.”

Following its most recent testing that was conducted Aug. 29-Sept. 6, Michigan State Athletics had conducted more than 1,550 COVID-19 tests on student-athletes and staff members. There were more than 1,240 tests on student-athletes, with 48 positive results. Since June 15, there had been more than 300 tests on staff members, at locations both on and off campus, with five positive results.

“As an athletic department our goal is to provide opportunities for student-athletes and I’m thrilled that our football student-athletes will have the opportunity to play this fall,” Beekman said. “In pursuit of those goals, the first priority is always the health and safety of our student-athletes. With the recent advances in rapid response testing and with stringent medical protocols in place, we are able to provide athletic opportunities while keeping the health of our student-athletes as a foremost principle.

“I’m grateful that the COP/C (Council of Presidents and Chancellors) was willing to revisit their decision when presented with updated information, and I’m appreciative of the effort put in by both the medical community and my fellow athletic directors across the conference in gathering and presenting that information.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau