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Wojo: For Spartans, fired-up Tucker arrives at just the right time

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The Spartans didn’t want a consolation prize, so they didn’t settle for one. They needed a fresh face — and a face-saver — and against the odds, with risk abounding and pressure mounting, they got what they wanted. Maybe not the way they wanted, or the name they initially wanted, or the price they preferred, but they got it.

Mel Tucker is here to fix it up and stir it up, and to calm it down. He left Colorado about as abruptly as Mark Dantonio retired from Michigan State. In the aftermath, the unpleasant issues with timing and decorum will fade, part of the business of the game. In the meantime, Tucker has work to do, and began with a solid introduction Wednesday night at Breslin Center.

He was emotional at times, choking back tears, and seemed nervous at times. But his message and intentions were clear.

Mel Tucker was emotional at times, choking back tears, and seemed nervous at times. But his message and intentions were clear.

“Leaving Colorado was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my career, in my life actually,” Tucker said. “But this is the right time for me to be here, that’s what it comes down to. The commitment is here, the resources are here, the want-to is here, the leadership is here. We all have to make tough decision at times, but it was the right decision, no doubt in my mind. I needed to be here.”

In a one-week search that probably seemed longer, doubt had to creep into a few minds at Michigan State and elsewhere. AD Bill Beekman and the Board of Trustees deserve credit for shutting out the noise just before it got deafening.

This is where desperation and commitment meet. The Spartans anted up a huge pile of commitment, doubling Tucker’s salary to $5.5 million in a six-year deal, and doubling the money pool for assistant coaches to $6 million. Of course, paying more never guarantees you’ll get more, but it’s what Michigan State had to do — take a shot by giving a shot.

What Tucker lacks in head-coaching experience, he gains with charisma, Midwest connections and valuable recruiting touch. Michigan State slipped in the final years under Dantonio, then seemed wrecked by the circumstances of his sudden retirement. After other purported candidates removed their names and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell turned the Spartans away, it was fair to wonder if they could land a suitable replacement at this late date.

Tucker, 48, is several notches above suitable, although too inexperienced to be considered a perfect hire. He began his career as a graduate assistant in 1997 at Michigan State, but has served only one year as a college head coach, last season at Colorado. Considering his strong reputation, and considering the situation — many people, locally and nationally, lampooned the search — Michigan State did well.

No one was beaming more broadly than Beekman, who said Tucker was the only candidate officially offered the job. He and his search committee interviewed Tucker late last week and  connected again Monday morning, shortly after Fickell dropped out. At 12:50 a.m. Wednesday, Beekman got the call he wanted, that Tucker had accepted.

“I don’t know if we were ever worried he wasn’t going to come,” Beekman said. “He was our guy. I think we got a very favorable outcome. With all due respect to what you people do, I don’t pay that much attention. I tried to be very methodical, very analytical about it.”

Tucker has an extensive, impressive track record, learning and advancing under great coaches. He played for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, coached with Dantonio at Michigan State and Ohio State, coached under Jim Tressel at Ohio State, and was hired three times by Nick Saban, who called him “one of the best and brightest coaches in our profession.”

Tucker has been an assistant or interim head coach at 10 stops in the NFL and college, and guided a downtrodden Colorado program to a 5-7 record last year. But this isn’t about a record. It’s about pedigree and a plan.

After playing defensive back at Wisconsin, Tucker served at Michigan State as a graduate assistant under Saban. And pieces of Dantonio, Tressel and Saban were apparent in his demeanor and his philosophy, as he went down the list of his coaching tenets — accountability, hard work, selflessness, physical play.

“These men shaped me, as they shaped my coaching path,” Tucker said. “They taught me not only the Xs and Os but the intangibles of creating a winning mindset and winning culture. You have to love the game, and I love the game of football. And I love people who love the game of football!”

He pounded the podium several times but barely raised his voice. This was a show of composure and determination, and a glimpse at who he is. He said he worked 19-hour days during his two years at Michigan State, and laughed that he’d sleep under his desk so Saban wouldn’t see him.

Tucker’s only other head-coaching experience was in the NFL, as a five-game interim for Jacksonville, and that void gives you some pause. But the list of his stops in 22 years reads like college football lore: Michigan State, LSU, Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia. He was a member of national championship teams for the Buckeyes and the Crimson Tide.

The resume isn’t lacking, outside of the head-coaching experience. He’s considered a masterful recruiter and had upgraded Colorado’s talent with its best class in a while. He hasn’t stayed at one place longer than three years, which either means he gets antsy, or he’s frequently courted.

Beekman was unconcerned about that pattern, but could see why he’s been courted before. Before the news conference, Tucker conducted a team meeting, and players afterward sounded inspired by his message and his manner.

In one regard, it was a contrast to Dantonio.

“He’s a little different personality than they’re used to, a little more fire,” Beekman said. “His interview was unique. It was clear he’d done an extraordinary amount of work and preparation, and knew all about our roster. I walked out of this sterile conference room and I was ready to suit up. He’s a really inspiring guy.”

Invigoration is one thing the Spartans need, besides a fresh face and a fresh look. There’s risk, sure, there always is. But it was one Michigan State had to take.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski