Tucker seeks “character, unselfishness, teamwork, discipline, and maturity” for Spartan Football
On this edition of MSU Today, Bill Beekman, Vice President and Director of Athletics at MSU, welcomes Spartans Head Football Coach Mel Tucker to the program.
Tucker recalls the challenges of being hired on February 12, 2020 and then shutting down the program a few weeks later due to the pandemic.
“I was just in the final stages of assembling the staff and had just put the strength coach in place and got everyone under contract,” Tucker tells Beekman. “We were actually going to start spring ball the following Tuesday. I was going to make a trip down to Indianapolis for the Big Ten basketball tournament, and I got word that they weren't going to have fans. And then a couple hours later, I got word the team was headed back to East Lansing. And at that point, that's when my world had changed forever.
“Our staff did a great job adapting quickly to the situation. I sent everyone home and said that we're going to be working from home for a while so get with the IT guys to get packed up and get your laptops and whatever you need to work from home. Then we started talking to our academic folks about what our players were going to do and they started mentioning something called Zoom. They said that the professors on campus were using Zoom and they recommended that we do the same. And so, we're all saying, ‘What the heck is Zoom? I've never heard of that.’
“So our first challenge was to figure out how to use Zoom to communicate with our players and have team meetings, have unit meetings, individual meetings, figuring out how to put a background on the Zoom, Zoom etiquette, lighting, auto mute, all of those deals, and it was fun. We recognized right away that that was going to be our most daunting challenge. How do we connect with our players when we're a new staff? All the players have been sent back to their permanent homes and they don't know us and we don't know them. Take out the X’s and O's, just to introduce ourselves and just get to know each other as people was done completely over Zoom and FaceTime and phone calls and text.
“And then we needed to install our playbook on defense and special teams and so we did that through Zoom and our coaches became very creative on how to incorporate chalkboards and telestrating and unit meetings with guys in various places in the country. And it was just fascinating how quickly the players and the coaching staff adapted. And now you look, Zoom is like walking the dog now. It's like riding a bike; it's just normal. But at that time, it was not, and there was a learning curve. Some of the learning curve for some of our coaches was steeper than some of the others,” Tucker quips.
“You started your early coaching career as a graduate assistant at MSU back in 1997. So now going on 24 years ago, when you think about what it was like back then in the football program and across campus, what's changed? What's the same? What were some of the things that you've noticed as you've been back on campus,” asks Beekman?
“Those were great memories,” Tucker continues. “I remember I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity that Coach Saban gave me to come here and start my coaching career at a great university with the football tradition. I mean, it was just huge. When I got here, my focus was, ‘what do I need to do to make Nick Saban happy?’ That was my goal every day. ‘What do I have to do to get the job done? What does he need done? What do the coaches need done?’ And so my focus and my world was very, very small. It was pretty much the Duffy Building and Kellogg Center for me. I didn’t get to know a lot of the campus at that point.
“When I came back this past February, I got a chance to see a broader scope of the university, and I became even more excited. I saw some of the changes, like the 1855 Building. That wasn't part of the campus landscape. With the Skandalaris Center and the North End Zone I just really felt like I was walking into a great situation at Michigan State.”
Tucker talks about the coaches who have influenced him most: Nick Saban, Barry Alvarez, Jim Tressel, and Romeo Crenel. And he describes some of the differences between college and professional football.
“In the NFL, it’s all business. For those players, it’s their livelihood. That’s how they feed their families. So when you're coaching an NFL player, they don't have any use for you if they don't believe that you know what you're doing. All they want to know is can this coach help me stay in the league. Can he help me in any way provide for my family? And those NFL players, they make those assessments very quickly. And so you have to, in short order, gain the trust of your players and prove to them that you are an asset and that you can help them in their career.
“But one of the things that's very similar is that at the end of the day, it's still football. There are fundamentals of the game, whether it's Pop Warner, high school, college, or pro that don't change.”
Tucker tells Beekman about his recruiting philosophy.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of your organization. Good players make you a good coach; great players make you a great coach. And when it comes down to it, when you look at the best teams year in and year out, they usually have the best players. The purpose of recruiting is to improve your team. It’s very similar to the National Football League. The purpose of the draft and free agency is to improve your team. You always have to ask yourself, ‘Is this player better than this player that's already on your roster?’ Can this student athlete make us better?’
“You have to recruit every day and your players have to be a good fit. Character and academic standing are extremely important. We want guys who want to graduate from Michigan State and have the ability to do that. We also want players who want to buy into something bigger than themselves. They're all highly recruited players who have individual aspirations. They all want to go to the NFL, but we want guys who believe in the concept of team who are unselfish and who pour themselves into the team and who understand that the better the team does, the better they do individually.
“And so it's not just an athletic evaluation; we're also doing our best to evaluate some of the intangibles and the things you can't see on tape. Character, unselfishness, teamwork, discipline, maturity. But it's an inexact science. We lay out the standards and we communicate the standards to the coaching staff. We all know what we're looking for. And at the end of the day, I have the final say; the buck stops with me.”
Tucker says this time of the year “is one of the more exciting times of the calendar year. Our players are back. We've been able to evaluate our guys who are returning, and we know what they can do, what their strengths and weaknesses are. The guys who are back are guys who want to be here. And we want them to be here. They bought into our culture, they understand the expectations and the standards, and they're ready to work. I like to coin this time of year as the out season. I believe there's an in season and an out of season; there's never an off season because football is a year-round sport now. Recruiting and training never stop.
“In this out of season time, it's time for our coaching staff to do scheme evaluation, scout, and look for new ideas and look for things that we know can help our players. It's also a time for us to indoctrinate our mid-year enrollees and our high school players and our transfers. The onboarding of those student athletes to our culture is critical. We’ve begun our Spartan Training Program, STP. We'll have eight weeks of training in our weight room with our strength and conditioning staff. Coach Novak he has a great staff. And I told him that I wanted this to be the most rigorous, demanding, out of season training program in the history of sport. He guaranteed that it would be.
“I truly believe that your team is built in the weight room. You want your team to first and foremost be the best conditioned. Fatigue makes cowards of us all. The toughness of your team, the competitive nature, the sense of urgency, attention to detail, grit, determination, straining, overcoming adversity, having adversity, all of those things really start in your weight room. That's what's exciting about this time of year.
Tucker closes the conversation by describing the toughest NFL stadiums in which he’s coached and telling Beekman what his favorite meal is.
“Going to Seattle is probably the loudest. They've got a DJ there. And I swear they pipe music in there. I can remember coaching a preseason game there and my ears were ringing for days. You literally could not hear anything on the headset. And that was just a preseason game. I can't imagine what that would be like during the regular season or playoffs. It's extremely loud there.”
He says Pittsburgh and Green Bay are also tough.
“My favorite thing for dinner would be lamb chops with mint jelly and a healthy portion of mashed potatoes with a little butter and some pepper sprinkled on. That would be ideal for me. If I need to get my weight down a little bit, then I would swap out the lamb chops for sea bass, snapper, or a grouper entree.”