Michigan State's Mel Tucker chopped down Michigan in epic style and raised stakes on his staying power

·Columnist
·7 min read

EAST LANSING, Mich. – During a break in the third quarter, about an hour before Michigan State kept this magical, maniacal, perfect season alive by completing a 16-point, come-from-behind, cardiologist special of an upset of hated Michigan, 37-33, the school honored a prominent alum.

Near the north end zone, the school brought out Mat Ishbia, the 41-year-old former walk-on for Tom Izzo’s basketball team, who is now the billionaire CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage in Pontiac. Earlier this year he pledged, via his latest gift, $32 million to build a new football facility here.

It’s probably impolite to spend another person’s money, but MSU needs to go back to Ishbia, fellow Detroit-area mortgage-billionaire alum Dan Gilbert, and any one else who bleeds green and has a couple quarters in the piggy bank so it can invest this time not in the football complex, but the man who works inside of it.

That’d be Mel Tucker, who under 20 months and unfathomable circumstances has somehow rebuilt the Spartans from stale and soft to a program of resilience and resource, one capable of taking every body blow the sixth-ranked Wolverines could throw at them and yet just … keep … chopping.

EAST LANSING, MI - OCTOBER 30: Michigan State Spartans running back Kenneth Walker (9) breaks past the Michigan defense en route to a touchdown during a college football game between the Michigan State Spartans and the Michigan Wolverines on October 30, 2021 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, MI. (Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Kenneth Walker III had an epic Saturday, rushing for five touchdowns and 197 yards in Michigan State's comeback against rival Michigan. (Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Yeah, that's one of Tucker's well-worn battle cries. "Keep chopping." 

It's worthy of eye-rolls and smirks until it actually works. Michigan State was near dead about a half-dozen times in this game, yet as the October sky went from gray, to mist, to steady rain, the Spartans simply got tougher and tougher and tougher, finding a way in every critical play. They kept chopping on every fourth-down conversion, every timely turnover, every forced punt.

“We talk about competitive greatness,” Tucker said afterward. “That’s being your best when your best is needed.”

The highlight reel will spin with Kenneth Walker III’s 197 yards and five touchdowns of Heisman-worthy brilliance. The game was won just as much on grit, will and heart until somehow, some way a team that Vegas projected to go 4-8 would move to 8-0 and stare down the top five of the College Football Playoff rankings.

Tucker arrived here in February of 2020 following the retirement of Mark Dantonio, who had carried the program to great heights but then watched it fade in his final seasons.

COVID-19 hit a month later, upsetting everything. Last season delivered just two victories, albeit one a huge upset of these Wolverines. Hamstrung on the recruiting trail by pandemic protocols and impatient by nature, Tucker went to the transfer portal, where he scouted and signed 20 new players, nearly half a team. That included stars such as Walker III, among others.

Suddenly everything changed, and a coach who speaks in a mild tone – “I only raise my voice in enthusiasm” – and with a litany of catch phrases — “keep chopping” “the deep end” — sparked the least likely playoff contender in the country by constantly pushing his players to realize the collective greatness within them.

“You ask the players, ‘What do you want?’” Tucker said. “And [then you ask] 'What are you willing to do to get it?’”

Right now, the Spartans aren’t afraid to say they want everything — Big Ten title, playoff, etc. And they appear willing to do anything to get it.

“We need to get what we can get,” Tucker nodded.

There is nothing flashy about Mel Tucker, 49-year-old native of Cleveland and former Wisconsin defensive back. Maybe that’s why it took two decades of toiling as an assistant in the NFL and SEC, including under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, before he got his head coaching chance, at Colorado in 2019. MSU hired him after one 5-7 season in Boulder.

There was no real track record of success. This was about promise. This was about potential.

But in that way Mel Tucker is Michigan State. It isn’t the big, national brand school “down the road” as Tucker calls Michigan, either in academic reputation or century-old football lore, or Notre Dame and its golden dome, or Northwestern and its cool Chicago-area campus.

What it is, is a place filled, often, with big-dreaming kids who just needed a chance, lots of first-generation college students, lots of overlooked recruits, lots of proverbial walk-ons, athletic or not. What it is, here in the flatland of mid-Michigan, is something far greater than it first appears.

You just need the right person to lead them, to make them believe, to tell them to keep chopping so they can show the rest of the country exactly what a Michigan State kid can do when given a chance.

“They say football is a game of life,” Tucker said. “Our guys, we feel they are going to be better because they decided to come here to East Lansing, to Michigan State. The things they learn on the football field — how to be resilient, keep chopping — is going to serve them in the real world … because it’s not always going to go your way.

“But failure’s not an option.”

It’s not that MSU hasn’t had great coaches before. Dantonio, for one. Nick Saban, Duffy Daugherty, George Perles.

None retooled the program this fast though (Tucker is the only one to win his first two games against Michigan). And maybe none looked this quickly into their tenure like someone who is capable of flipping the script permanently about this place and this program.

“We’re in the hunt,” Tucker said, unapologetically. “We’re in the hunt.”

All around campus Saturday were signs that read, “Tuck Comin.'” And he has. Now, and this is where it goes back to Ishbia, et al, it needs to be about “Tuck Stayin'.”

MSU fans aren't the only ones who have noticed the quality of the product and the people Tucker is producing. So too, for sure, has LSU. And USC. And perhaps the NFL as well.

Michigan State is a wonderful place, full of loyal alums and unique passion. There is no reason someone can’t win at the highest level here, but it has been half a century — pre-SEC integration — since they really have.

Those other schools can offer more fertile recruiting turf or easier paths to the playoffs. They can offer sunshine or SEC-mania or national title potential. It’s what lured Saban out of here over two decades ago.

What Michigan State has is money. Lots of it. It's why it can’t allow itself to be outbid. The program will never be surrounded by the five-star talent of Los Angeles or Louisiana, but that’s why the best possible head coach matters even more here. This isn’t easy. Success isn’t preordained here.

The big fancy facilities are nice, but if this place has any chance of keeping the hottest coach in the country and setting itself up for more frenzied fall days like Saturday then it can’t let salary be an issue.

Maybe it’s not enough. Maybe this is all fleeting. Maybe Mel Tucker is leaving. Or maybe not.

State needs to find out.

So thanks for that new building, Mat Ishbia. Hope you enjoyed the standing ovation.

Now go get the other billionaires together Monday and try to make that man on the sideline, the one who delivered this glorious victory amid this glorious season, the highest-paid coach in America and, perhaps, a Spartan for the long haul.

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