Niyo: Ex-Spartan Darien Harris finds his calling back at Michigan State

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The way Darien Harris sees it, there’s no better time to reconnect than now, really.

But even before this public health crisis threw everything into disarray, that was his plan, one that came together quickly this winter as Michigan State’s football program found a new leader in Mel Tucker and Harris soon found himself with a new job.

Darien Harris

Harris, a former Michigan State linebacker who captained the 2015 team that won a Big Ten championship and reached the College Football Playoff, is the Spartans’ new director of player engagement. It’s a multifaceted role, focused mainly on player development, and it seems tailor-made for Harris, as he explained Wednesday, “My job is to make sure that our student-athletes are maximizing their time on campus.”

There aren't many that have done that better than Harris did during his Michigan State playing career, which partly explains why it took little more than a half-hour interview for Tucker to hire him. 

But at the same time, even with players scattered across the country, and a new staff in East Lansing forced to introduce itself — and a new playbook — virtually this spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris says he already can feel a different kind of engagement in and around the program, less than three months after Mark Dantonio’s abrupt retirement and Tucker’s tumultuous hiring.

“It’s in great hands,” said Harris, 27, who worked as a Big Ten Network analyst while earning his master’s degree at Michigan State last spring. “I feel great about the direction of the program. Coach Tucker has done an unbelievable job of coming in and setting a precedent, setting a standard and giving us direction of where he sees the program going.

"Things are kind of gauged by social media nowadays — good, bad or indifferent. But there’s an excitement around Michigan State football again, maybe that we haven’t seen in the last few years. So I’m excited to be a part of that.”

Bridging the gap

As for the part he’ll play, maybe the best way to describe it is to consider Harris — one of Dantonio's vocal supporters in recent years — a bridge. From the players to the coaches, from the locker room to the classroom, and from the past to the present, which is one area Tucker has made a point of emphasis early on in his tenure.

The 48-year-old Tucker, who got his coaching start at Michigan State as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban in 1997-98, made it clear at his introductory press conference back in February that he wanted former players to play an integral role in his program. He reiterated that recently when he hosted a Facebook Live session with a large group of them, extending an open invitation to attend practices — “You can stand next to me and hold the whistle if you want to,” he told the players — and adding, “You're my guys, whether you played for me or not."

Darien Harris played at Michigan State from 2012-15.

“And we’re excited about that,” Harris said, speaking not just for his fellow Dantonio-era alums. “There’s a new buzz and excitement with them as well.”

One that he hopes to capitalize on with various parts of Michigan State’s “Overtime” program, the platform created by Lorenzo Guess, MSU’s director of player enrichment and longtime associate strength and conditioning coach. Whether that’s hosting one-on-one interviews with former players like Jack Conklin or William Gholston, developing mentorships and networking opportunities, or through job fairs like the one that had been scheduled for MSU athletes this spring before the shutdown, “I think it’s incredibly important,” Harris said, “and I definitely will be serving as that bridge, or that liaison, between former players and our current team.”

He’s also ideally suited to lend a hand when it comes to future Spartans. Harris isn’t allowed to recruit off-campus like others on Tucker’s expanded staff, but he’s already working with Scott Aligo, the new director of player personnel, and Lisa Ben-Chaim, the new on-campus recruiting director, in other ways. All of them following Tucker's lead by utilizing social media in ways his predecessor did not. 

Michigan State just added a ninth commitment to Tucker’s first recruiting class Wednesday with Kameron Allen, a three-star tight end from suburban Dallas. That came on the heels of another Texas commit, three-star quarterback Hampton Fay from Fort Worth, who announced his decision Saturday. Last week, Tucker also landed a cornerback, Antoine Booth, who plays for the same DeMatha Catholic powerhouse in Maryland that Harris once did.

“The great thing about Coach Tucker, and I think you all are probably seeing that now, is that everybody’s involved with recruiting,” Harris said. “He’s got a pretty simple phrase that’s powerful, and it’s, ‘We will recruit every day, Sunday to Sunday.’ And everybody’s gonna be involved. … I’m definitely having a great time with that, and talking to recruits and their parents and their families about the experience that I hope they have at Michigan State.”

Path to purpose

Still, his primary task is to help the ones that are already in the program. Particularly now, with so much uncertainty in the air, communication is key, and Harris said that's been a daily reminder throughout the staff.

"We’re obviously in the middle of a pandemic, and there’s things out there that are way bigger and way more important than winning a couple football games," Harris said. "But if you just look at the way that we as an organization have handled this and how we’ve adapted, I think that’s a sign of good things to come."

Darien Harris left a marketing job with Quicken Loans to return to Michigan State.

Meanwhile, for Harris, who left a marketing job with Quicken Loans in Detroit to return to Michigan State, there’s no sign he's looking at this job as a stepping stone to a coaching position. Not anytime soon, at least.

“I’ve been telling people this is where my life’s passion is, this is where I feel like my life’s purpose is: It’s in player development,” said Harris, who’s still deciding on a plan to pursue his doctorate degree now that he’s back on campus. “I think it always has been, and that was actually pointed out to me by Coach (Mark) Tressel the other day. I’ve kind of been working toward this moment and this opportunity since I stepped foot on campus. I put a lot of emphasis on succeeding off the field as well as on the field.”

That wasn’t simply a means to an end for Harris, whose family tree is built on higher education — his grandmother was a university professor, his mother an attorney for the U.S. Department of Education, and his brother is graduating from Yale. Truth is, now that he has ended up back where he started at Michigan State, it just might mean a little more.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo