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The Mel Tucker Method

The Michigan State head football coach has transitioned his program seamlessly into the modern era of college athletics. Mel Tucker takes Boardroom through his process.

Michigan State Spartans head football coach Mel Tucker sits on his back deck with a cigar in one hand and a glass of Elijah Craig bourbon in the other.

In this moment, at around 8 p.m. on a low-80s evening in East Lansing, he’s his own version of relaxed. As a head coach, that means he’s also entertaining a small group of writers and keeping half an eye on both his cell phones, which rest on the table next to him.

When his cigar or glass are not in his mouth, he’s lobbing questions at any of the three on-hand cigar aficionados hired for the evening to help us pair smoke with drink.

Why is the wrapper so important? What’s that plume that shows up on some of his cigars in his personal collection, and can he smoke them? Are those “flavor notes” they’re describing for real?

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There’s no question who the leader is here – Tucker drives the discussion, whether he’s interrogating the staff or regaling us with stories from any of his previous stops in college (LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Colorado, and beyond) or the NFL (Cleveland, Jacksonville, Chicago).

Mid-sentence, one of his phones buzzes and he has to duck inside. You wouldn’t even call it an interruption; being a head college football coach means you’re always on duty.

Shortly after Tucker returns, he pulls us in for a tour of his house. It’s the first part of the Mel Tucker coaching experience that countless recruits have seen and will see long before they ever commit to the Spartans.

The coach signed a 10-year, $95 million extension with the university last year, and his home reflects this, but that’s not to say it’s ostentatious or even unnecessary; he will often host up to a dozen recruits there in a single weekend, plus with their families. He needs the space to accommodate both the guests and the bells and whistles — a home theater, indoor basketball court, classic arcade games, a golf simulator, and more — to keep them entertained.

A good afternoon at Coach Mel’s house could be the difference between a commitment for the Spartans or a pledge to “that school down the road,” as he not-so-affectionately calls the University of Michigan.

It’s part of the game of high-level college athletics and, frankly, if he didn’t have a house befitting a multi-millionaire, then he would be at a competitive disadvantage. And he’s built his home the way he’s built his program — with a competitive edge in mind, right up to the very last detail.

In one case, it’s an MSU-branded Polaris Slingshot in his driveway that he walks us by as we leave.

He loves his job, and he expects a similar buy-in from his players. A head coach’s job in major college sports in 2022 is vastly different than it was even five years ago, but the basics have never changed: you work hard, you improve, and you play to win.

“If They Love It”

It took Mel Tucker 12 minutes to convince Saeed Khalif to join his staff at Michigan State last summer. Perhaps even fewer, but that’s how long the first phone call between the two lasted.

When it was over, Khalif had a job offer.

Fourteen months later, the General Manager/Executive Director of Player Personnel and Recruiting for the Spartans is tasked with leading the staff’s efforts both in recruiting and the NCAA transfer portal, ensuring every hole in the roster is filled and there’s depth at each position. Just as importantly, he needs to identify the players that can fit well into the culture Tucker’s program – not just his offensive or defensive schemes.

Ultimately, apart from a prospect’s measurables, the question Khalif has to ask is singular: Do they love it?

“If they love it, they are willing to do what it takes to maintain it,” Khalif said.

Head coach Mel Tucker and Michigan State Spartans football players stream on to the field before the Peach Bowl on Dec. 30, 2021 (Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“It” is more than suiting up on gameday. It’s the practices. The offseason workouts. The lifts. The summer classes. The motivational speakers that Tucker brings in to talk to the team, whether from the sports world, the business world, or all points in between.

It’s the Michigan State experience.

Tucker came to East Lansing with just one year of college head coaching experience under his belt — a 5-7 mark at Colorado in 2019 — but he was hardly new to coaching. He got his start as a grad assistant at Michigan State in the late 90s before coaching defensive backs at three schools and doing the same for the Cleveland Browns. From there, he moved to Jacksonville, where he served as defensive coordinator and eventually interim head coach of the Jaguars before returning to college.

Tucker has two national championships to his name, one with Ohio State in 2004 and the other with Alabama in 2015, both as defensive backs coach.

When Tucker returned to East Lansing, he signed a six-year deal worth $5.5 million per year. After a COVID-shortened 2020 season in which the Spartans went just 2-5, his program found its stride in 2021, going 11-2, winning the Peach Bowl, finishing the season ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll, and landing himself that hefty extension.

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Man of the Moment

Like every other Big Ten coach, Mel Tucker intends to keep his program in the top tier of the polls and compete for a national championship. His path to getting there, however, might not be the same as those still enamored of the old ways.

At a time in which veteran college coaches have struggled to adapt to the era of NIL and the transfer portal, Tucker isn’t just embracing those things – he’s turning them into advantages.

Just about any coach will admit that on recruiting visits, one of the first questions a high school player or parent will ask is about monetizing name, image, and likeness rights. Tucker can’t promise specific numbers (at least not without violating NCAA rules), but he can showcase the successes so many athletes in his program have had in that arena.

He explained his recruiting pitch from the comfort of his office in the on-campus football facility, soon to be re-christened as the Tom Izzo Football Building when renovations are complete.

“The only thing I can do is point to the players we have,” he said. “We have 100% participation in NIL. Every single player on our team is making some money. We have guys that have cars, we have guys that have these deals. The only thing I can do is point to these players and say, ‘hey, listen, our guys have NIL and I support it.’”

That 100% mark comes from a team-wide deal via United Wholesale Mortgage for the men’s basketball and football teams. The home lending company provides $500 stipends to each player in exchange for social media promotion.

But that’s only part of the NIL recruiting puzzle. Tucker also needs to show that his program can generate enough interest that businesses will want to latch onto a Spartan athlete in the first place. Part of that comes with winning, of course, and the season they just had has resulted in plenty of hype, including a No. 14 ranking in the 2022 preseason Coaches Poll. Local businesses will also take notice when Michigan State beats Michigan; last year, Sparty handed the Wolverines their only conference loss of the season.

Apart from that, Michigan State does what is common practice among FBS schools: Over-the-top photo shoots on recruiting visits that end up on the players’ social media, where the 638,000-plus living MSU alumni can see and engage.

“Recruits always say, ‘your fans are relentless. They’re into it,” Tucker said. “They can feel Spartan Nation out there, and to them that equates to NIL opportunities.”

Always On

Perhaps the reason why Mel Tucker has had no problem embracing the transfer portal is because he’s lived this life his entire career. It goes back to 2001 when he was defensive backs coach at Ohio State under longtime head coach Jim Tressel.

“He said, ‘You gotta recruit your team, recruit your players every day,’” Tucker recalled. “We always take every opportunity you get to talk to a kid. I go through the training room, I see my guys, somehow, some way, I’m gonna try to connect with them. It could be briefly or whatever, to let those guys know that I care, let those guys know that I’m paying attention, that they matter. I see them as a person first and foremost. That’s recruiting.”

That explanation came just minutes after we saw Tucker do just that. He took us through the trainer’s room, simultaneously giving us the grand tour and making small talk with the players that were putting work in at the time.

We couldn’t get the full experience as the facility is still being renovated, but even the renovations are a direct reflection of Tucker’s vision to be all-in, all the time. He pushed the university to get going on facility upgrades because he didn’t want to be resigned to show recruits little more than renderings. There could be delays. Plans could change. He wanted tangible proof that the promises he was making would come to fruition while his future players were still in East Lansing.

Tucker’s mindset made the transition into the Age of the Transfer Portal a little bit easier for him compared to some of his peers.

One coach at another Big Ten school recently told Boardroom that all of his players should have entered the portal after last season just to see what was out there. Tucker wouldn’t go that far, but he did say that he’s had players enter only to pull themselves back out upon realizing that Sparty had more to offer than other potential suitors.

“We want you here,” Tucker said of his players, “but if you feel like you gotta go somewhere, we’ll help you. Let me know where you’re considering. I’ll do background work on the coaches. I’ll do background work on their scheme and where you fit in. We’re not trying to hold you back. We’re not coaching hostages.”

From the portal to the practice facility and beyond, it’s difficult enough managing a roster of 100-plus scholarship players, walk-ons, and staff, but any major college football coach will tell you that’s just a fraction of the job. Michigan State might get that sweet Power Five bag that comes with the Big Ten’s $2.64 billion media rights deal, but running a football program means doing everything possible to gain an edge over the competition. With that in mind, Tucker makes the effort to out-fundraise the opposition necessary. It’s a process that the head coach says moves “a hundred miles an hour.”

“This is just my third season here,” Tucker said. “[Donors] want to know: What’s your vision for the program? Where are we going? What are your goals? Do you think we can win a national championship?”

The list goes on — and so do the events Tucker needs to show up for. Dinners. Golf outings. Appearances in MSU alumni hotspots nationwide like Atlanta, Orange County, or around Florida.

A Learning Experience

Khalif outlined Mel Tucker’s teaching philosophy in one sentence:

“He always says that if all [players] get from him is they played football and got a degree, then we failed them.”

The goal is to use football as the vehicle to prepare those athletes for life after college – to be successful in the workforce or as husbands and fathers. It’s really what the college experience is built for. You don’t go off to college at 17 or 18 just to take classes and pass tests; you go to learn how to live on your own, meet people with different backgrounds, and figure out how to manage and understand the world around you.

Division I athletes have a distinct advantage here via access to so many opportunities other students rarely sniff. Not long before our meeting, Tucker had accompanied three of his players and a Michigan State track and field athlete, along with more than 100 other Big Ten players and coaches, to Selma and Montgomery, Alabama as part of a conference educational initiative.

The trip included a walk across the legendary Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the violent 1965 encounter between civil rights protestors and police that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

“I’m still processing what happened,” said Tucker, the only one in his group of four that was even alive within a decade of the height of the Civil Rights movement.

“We’ve got guys on our team who have never seen Michael Jordan play,” Tucker continued, “so you think about what they know about the Voting Rights Act and slavery and Jim Crow and reconstruction. I want them to have a different perspective on things. And I hope they would tell their teammates: If you get a chance to go to Montgomery and Selma, you need to go.”

That’s a Mel Tucker program in a nutshell. From the day recruits step foot in his house for a visit up through their last day in East Lansing, it’s about making the most of your opportunities. If you have a chance to visit Selma, you go. If you have a chance to raise your profile and earn some money, you raise it and you earn. If you are offered the chance to play FBS football, you go all-out to be the best you could be.

Otherwise, he’s failed.

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