Photo: Mel Tucker
I knew Mel Tucker spent the past year as Colorado’s football coach. I knew he coached with Nick Saban at Alabama.
What I didn’t know until Michigan State hired him in Wednesday's surprise announcement was the Saban coaching tree with a Mel Tucker branch sprouted from Michigan State. He was a graduate assistant in the 1997 and 1998 seasons while working alongside Saban as well as Mark Dantonio, then the Spartans’ defensive back coach.
Or that Tucker was on Jim Tressel’s Ohio State staff when Dantonio was the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator. Dantonio, of course, eventually returned to Michigan State as the Spartans’ head coach in a 13-year run that ended Feb. 4 with his own surprise announcement, his retirement.
Or that in addition to Tucker coaching Ohio State’s defensive backs from 2001-03, he was the co-defensive coordinator in 2004. Then he spent 10 years in the NFL with stints as the defensive coordinator and interim head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars and DC with the Chicago Bears.
Or that after he returned to the college ranks under Saban at Alabama in 2015 as the assistant head coach/defensive backs coach. Then he followed former Alabama DC Kirby Smart to Georgia (2016-18) to serve as the Bulldogs’ DC. Those three seasons in talent-rich Georgia exposed him to some hot recruiting trails.
Or that Tucker is a Big Ten man, having played at Wisconsin.
Or that Tucker is a Midwesterner, having graduated from Cleveland Heights High in Ohio, the Big Ten state with the most high school talent to recruit.
And now that I know all that, I can say Mel Tucker, 48, was a better hire than Luke Fickell, who turned down the Spartans. Sometimes there is a silver lining. Not to mention Tucker is a better choice than than Pat Shurmur or Brett Bielema.
Fickell was a hot name based on his last two seasons, 11-2 and 11-3 at Cincinnati. Tucker, meanwhile, was 5-7 in his first season as Colorado’s head coach last fall. But that comparison overlooks that Fickell was 4-8 in his first year of taking over at Cincinnati.
Tucker took over a Colorado program that was in decline with back-to-back 5-7 seasons following a 10-4 record in 2016. He still had to prove he could win at Colorado – and now faces the same challenge at Michigan State – but it’s too simplistic to compare Tucker’s first season as a head coach at a program he was reshaping to one that Fickell had already shaped.
Plus, Fickell is an Ohio State man.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day is coming off a College Football Playoff season and only 40 years old. What if Day is lured by the NFL in the near future? Does Fickell jump at the chance to return to Columbus? You couldn’t blame him if he did.
Also, if it's true Fickell's wife nixed the move over her perceived fears of the campus culture at Michigan State, that's a bit sanctimonious opinion. She apparently painted a broad brush with the sexual assault cases of convicted Michigan State and Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who had nothing to do with the MSU athletic program, and convicted football players.
Oddly enough, just two days later news broke about sexual assault cases at Ohio State, the alma mater of Fickell and his wife, Amy. Two Ohio State football players were charged Wednesday with rape and dismissed from the team. And then there’s former Ohio State assistant wrestling coach Jim Jordan, the U.S. Representative from Ohio, back in the news over charges he had covered up the sexual abuses of Ohio State wrestlers by the program's team doctor.
Sexual assault is a disturbing American problem at many campuses. That doesn’t mean the Michigan State and Ohio State coaches are at fault. It just means they’re not alone among schools plagued with the problem.
Although it’s true Tucker is a Wisconsin grad, Tucker's Michigan State link is a strong one from the coaches he was around at the time.
It’s also good to learn Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman reached back to Michigan State’s Duffy Daugherty history, consulting Daugherty's Underground Railroad players that are Michigan State Hall of Famers, quarterback and long-time coach Jimmy Raye and receiver and NFL veteran Gene Washington.
Tucker also was a better choice than Pat Shurmer, the fired New York Giants coach who has been in the NFL since 1999. Shurmer is a George Perles player, and Perles left a lot of baggage at Michigan State. Stupid unsportsmanlike penalties in the Spartans’ embarrassing 44-10 loss at Michigan last fall were reminiscent of Perles’ teams.
Former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Brett Bieliema raised his hand for the MSU job, and fortunately he wasn’t considered over Tucker. Bieliema is a Big Ten grad (Iowa) that bailed on the Big Ten, despite his success as Wisconsin’s head coach. He thought the grass was greener in the SEC, taking the job at Arkansas. Arkansas! The Razorbacks fired him.
Michigan State can’t hire a guy that leaves the Big Ten for Arkansas.
Michigan State is the school where Daugherty, a College Football Hall of Famer, turned down more money at Texas A&M in 1958 and more prestige at Notre Dame in 1963 to remain in East Lansing. It’s the school Dantonio described as a “Destination” when his name was mentioned for the vacant Texas job in 2014.
Tucker is one of only 13 black coaches in college football and that’s fitting for Daugherty’s legacy. No coach and school did more for the integration of college football in the 1960s than Michigan State rosters under Daugherty.
But it’s not just the players.
At a time when there were very few black assistant coaches, Daugherty brought Michigan State legends Sherman Lewis (1969) and Jimmy Raye (1972) back to campus. Their careers continued into the NFL, although they would have jumped at a chance at the job Tucker now has at the school “On the Banks of the Red Cedar.” They have been mentors for many black coaches that followed them.
Thankfully, Tucker’s coaching profile fits Michigan State and its history.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”