Mel Tucker embraces 'small victories' while never losing sight of big picture at Michigan State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Considering Michigan State has reached the halfway point of the season, it can be a good time to assess where Mel Tucker is in his first season as the Spartans’ head coach.

Of course, it’s fair to point out that up until this point, Tucker and his staff have needed all of this time to start drawing conclusions about the roster they inherited back when Tucker was hired in early February. Although a later start than usual for most first-year coaches, it was expected that Tucker would have spring practice to begin to evaluate his players and have a better understanding of what he had.

It wasn’t long before those plans were derailed as the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out spring practice. So Tucker, without the benefit of winter conditioning or spring practice, forged ahead in a virtual world, unable to get on the field with his team until late summer. Even then, a two-week shutdown hampered things after a rise on positive COVID tests.

Mel Tucker

However, as Michigan State gets set to host No. 11 Northwestern at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, a clearer picture is starting to emerge.

“Midway through the season, we have a much better indication of who we have in terms of our roster,” Tucker said. “What guys can do, what they can’t do, or what they’re not willing to do. Who loves football, who wants to be here, who’s on the fence, who’s in and who’s out. We have a pretty good indication of that now when, typically, we would have known that coming out of spring ball and would have been able to make those adjustments on the roster at that point.”

Some of those adjustments have already started to happen as two players – redshirt freshman linebacker Marcel Lewis and sophomore running back Anthony Williams – have entered the transfer portal with the expectation they won’t be the last. It’s not all that uncommon for there to be roster turnover when there is a coaching change and Tucker said he expects it. He also expects to scour the portal himself after the season as he supplements his first recruiting class.

It’s all par for the course in the first year for a new staff, something Tucker is uniquely prepared for. This week Tucker said he’s been part of nine first-year staffs, dating back to high school and going through now as he takes over the Spartans. In between he played for Barry Alvarez in his first season at Wisconsin and coached with the likes of Nick Saban in the first year at LSU, Jim Tressel in the first season at Ohio State and Kirby Smart at Georgia, not to mention in the NFL with Marc Trestman and the Chicago Bears.

More: Detroit News scouting report: Northwestern at Michigan State

“There are a lot of similarities, so I know really what to expect,” Tucker said. “There’s a process in place and I don't accept it, but I understand what's happening and what's going to happen and I'm not surprised by very much. There's going to be some very, very disappointing times. There’s going to be some frustrating times. There’s going to be times when you're just totally outraged, and there’s also gonna be times when you can see that things are taking hold. You’re always looking for a small victory, some things that you can see behind the scenes that you don't necessarily see out in the open and everyone else doesn't see it.

“Those are the things that we're working to build upon every day and hammer on our culture.”

That means there will be a fair share of losing and a decent amount of hand-wringing from both the coaching staff and the fan base, in general.

Payton Thorne could get the nod Saturday as MSU hosts Northwestern.

There’s been plenty of both so far for the Spartans (1-3). The lone victory was a big one, coming against their chief rival, Michigan. But the rest of the season has been a mixed bag of mostly frustrating results.

Tucker, though, believes he’s the perfect leader to see the program through to what he is sure will be bigger and better things.

“Everyone doesn't have the stomach for it,” Tucker said. “I happen to have the stomach for it. I actually enjoy it because I know once you get it turned and you get it the way you want it to be, there's nothing like that.”

And that means not only improving on this season but improving on the last few seasons. Michigan State was 7-6 in each of Mark Dantonio’s final two seasons as a program that had regularly been competing for Big Ten championships fell back to the middle of the pack.

Subscription: Detroit News predictions: Northwestern at Michigan State

Tucker’s goal is to get back to that championship level. It might not be clear today, but it’s a process that is ongoing and Tucker believes it’s a one-way street.

“It requires a culture shift and it requires a different type of mindset,” Tucker said. “That’s what we're hammering, but that does not happen overnight. I wish it did, but I know that it doesn't. … We talked about the illusion of choice. If you want to be successful and you want to be able to compete at a high level, then you really don't have a choice. Choice is the illusion. If you want to be good and you want to be among the best, there are certain things you have to do day-in and day-out on the field and off the field, and there are very few choices.

“There’s a difference between choices and options. An option is when you go to the cafeteria and say, ‘Do I want chicken or beef or do I want a salad? Do I want chocolate chip cookies or do I want oatmeal raisin cookies or do I just get a Jello? Those are options. When we're talking about football and being successful and building a program, we don't have options and the choices are very limited.”

No. 11 Northwestern at Michigan State

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Records: Northwestern 5-0, Michigan State 1-3

Line: Northwestern by 13.5

Twitter: @mattcharboneau