As quickly as the golden age came to East Lansing, it was gone. Once juggernauts on the college football landscape, the Spartans have fallen. And now it’s up to Mel Tucker to resurrect a fading Michigan State.
From 2010 to 2015, the Michigan State Spartans eclipsed the 11-win mark five times, earning a composite record of 65-16 over that time span. Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans made the College Football Playoffs in 2015 and established themselves as consistent playoff contenders in a Big Ten featuring the infallible Ohio State Buckeyes and the formidable Penn State Nittany Lions.
The emergence of Michigan State as a college football blue-blood was especially abrupt for a program that had lingered around the .500 mark for decades beforehand, and the dynasty’s grueling collapse was equally enthralling. After the team’s College Football Playoff appearance, the green and white subsequently went 27-24 over the next four seasons. Reports maligned the campus culture, and amidst a covert replacement search and a lawsuit, Mark Dantonio retired in a news conference, 24 hours after signing day.
The sudden task of replacing Mark Dantonio left Michigan State’s board scrambling, and after instituting Mike Tressel as interim head coach, they quickly realized that their once-great football program wasn’t as attractive as it had been in the past. Productive Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, the initial top candidate, turned down the Michigan State job to stay in the AAC. His rejection served as an indictment of the program’s current state, and in a bid to prove wrong the perception, the board targeted Colorado head football coach, Mel Tucker.
Initially, Tucker brushed aside whispers of his interest in the Spartans’ job, displaying no desire to leave Colorado. But not long after reaffirming his commitment to the Buffaloes, the fading promise of Michigan State tantalized him enough to go back on his word. Now, amidst controversy and crushing pressure, Mel Tucker is the head coach of the Michigan State Spartans. And he has a lot of work to do.
Mel Tucker’s hiring at Michigan State
The timing of Tucker’s hiring was not lost among onlookers. Many, including Pro Football Network Senior Draft Analyst Tony Pauline, regarded the hire as rushed and panicked. The Spartans seemingly had no options in the wake of Dantonio’s retirement, and Tucker’s addition is a reflection of that. Tucker has an intriguing resume, but he’s not the kind of candidate a former College Football Playoff contender should have to settle for.
Tucker himself has also received vitriol for the way he left Colorado. Shortly after reaffirming his commitment to the program, Tucker left for Michigan State. In hindsight, one can understand why he did it; Tucker will have an exponentially larger trove of financial and relational resources in East Lansing, and he also has history there as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban. The circumstances placed Tucker into a tough situation, which yielded a difficult choice. Tucker can quell the noise by accomplishing what he was hired to do, but if he fails, it’ll only get louder.
Tucker doesn’t have extensive head coaching experience, which makes his hire all the more precarious for Michigan State, but he does bring some tangible improvement to the table in terms of recruiting. In his only season with the Buffaloes, Tucker managed to increase the school’s four-star yield from three prospects to five prospects, scoring players from pipeline states like Georgia and Texas.
Tucker has also been renowned as one of the nation’s top recruiters, spending time at schools such as LSU, Alabama, Ohio State, and Georgia. Michigan State hired Tucker for his presence in the mid-west and beyond; they didn’t swing for the fences, but solid recruiting is one of the few things that can save the Spartans from withstanding mediocrity, and climbing out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves.
Michigan State’s steady decline as a recruiting presence has been evident in the NFL talent they’ve generated in recent years. In 2016, five Spartans players were drafted, and from 2014 to 2016, the Spartans saw ten players earn selections from NFL teams. In the three years since then, from 2017 to 2019, Michigan State has only seen five players drafted, and their yield figures to be just as uninspiring this offseason.
Tucker has the recruiting background to fix this, but recruiting is just one of many internal problems facing Michigan State’s football program. Ultimately, to alleviate these symptoms, and to get the Spartans back on the right track, a recruiting overhaul isn’t enough. A charismatic head coach isn’t enough. And a pile of cash isn’t enough, either. The perception at Michigan State has to change, and the culture has to change. If Mel Tucker can facilitate that kind of rebirth at Michigan State, then he’ll have earned the right to forge his own destiny.
It’s a right few in college football have risen to take. But Tucker, having burned the bridges behind him, has no other choice to make. Michigan State was his choice, and now, it’s up to Mel Tucker to prove it was the right one.