For Mel Tucker, it's 'battle and build' as he shapes Michigan State's roster
It’s not quite the “my way or the highway” mantra announced by Sparky Anderson in his early days managing the Detroit Tigers, but Mel Tucker made it clear what his approach is this year at Michigan State.
The first-year coach of the Spartans is dealing with the expected growing pains included in taking over a program in transition. There’s the adjustment to a new style of play, the shift in culture and a change in tone and voice for a team that had seen very little alterations over the previous 13 seasons with Mark Dantonio at the helm.
But four weeks into the season with losses mounting, playing time altered and some movement toward the transfer portal, Tucker is making it clear what he’s looking for. Standing with a previous coaching staff means nothing. For this team, everything will be earned — for next week, for next year, for the next four years.
“Nothing's set in stone,” Tucker said. “I mean, it's compete and show us what you can do and earn your spot, earn your playing time, earn your right to be able to even stay on the team. Because this is not like a recreational type of situation. This is compete to play, compete to stay.”
Considering there’s not a single player on Michigan State’s roster that Tucker recruited, that statement should be seen as notice being given. Either players are buying in to what Tucker and his staff are trying to implement, or they’ll be allowed to leave.
Tucker’s comments come as two Michigan State players in three days have entered the transfer portal. First was redshirt freshman linebacker Marcel Lewis on Monday followed by sophomore running back Anthony Williams on Wednesday.
“There’s a certain type of culture and a certain type of player we need to have here and that's really non-negotiable,” Tucker said. “Everything's an evaluation and halfway through the season, at this point we have a pretty good idea of who can do what. So yeah, obviously you can anticipate seeing some movement on our roster, whether it's portal related or otherwise.”
It would seem likely the departure of Lewis and Williams won’t be the last for the Spartans (1-3), who have scored only seven points in the last two games as they prepare to head to Maryland on Saturday. It’s a game that remains up in the air as the Terrapins grapple with a COVID-19 outbreak that forced them to cancel last week’s game with Ohio State and has kept them off the practice field Monday and Tuesday.
But Tucker’s message this week had little to do with one game. He’s looking to rebuild a program that had fallen off the previous for season from one that competed regularly to win the Big Ten to one that was just hoping to become bowl eligible.
That’s meant not only a focus on the recruiting trail, but evaluating the current roster and identifying who can help the Spartans now and in the long run.
“We're battling and building at the same time,” Tucker said. “It's battle and build, battle and build. So as we're developing the team that we have, we're also recruiting every single day to bring in players that we feel like can help us be successful on and off the field. And, obviously, the portal is part of college football. You’ve got the high school kids, and then you’ve got the undergrad portal guys, you got grad transfers, you have junior college guys. We look everywhere for players that we believe are a good fit for us, and we look to acquire those players.
“At the same time, when you evaluate your current team, ultimately you're deciding who's a good fit on this team. Who has the traits and the characteristics, talent, mental and physical toughness, the attention to detail, a sense of urgency, love of the game? Who has those traits, those characteristics that you need to have on your team to be successful? Ultimately, there's transition in not only acquiring guys to the team, but there's also guys that ultimately may a transition out.”
Of course, not everyone will be on their way out. There is some talent on the roster, and those players will be counted on to help Michigan State become a contender once again.
Figuring out which players will be around for the long haul is what Tucker and his staff will focus on over the final four games.
“If there's an attention issue or you're not motivated, you're not gonna be even at practice, you're not gonna be in the game, you're not even traveling,” Tucker said. “You're not gonna be on the team, because it's not about having to talk you into playing or motivating you to play and things like that. That's not what this is. That's not even part of it. Guys that are here want to play, they want to practice.
“Guys are going to give effort, and if they don't give effort, then they’re gonna be excused, they're gonna be removed. We don't have time for that. This is Big Ten football, you're here for a reason — to play. This is not an optional situation. It's a requirement that you go out there and you give great effort to get better. If you're not out there to get better, if you're not out there to compete and be the best, then you're wasting time. So why waste time? Just cut bait.”
Tucker said that hasn’t happened to this point. Even as the losses have mounted, Tucker believes his team will continue to show up, continue to try and get better.
“These guys will not quit,” Tucker said. “They're engaged.”