Michigan State hired Mel Tucker to be their head coach today, ending a week-long coaching search to replace Mark Dantonio. Tucker comes to Michigan State after going 5-7 at Colorado in his first season as a head coach. Previously, he coached at Alabama and Georgia after a 10 year NFL coaching career. The hire allows Tucker to come back to where his coaching career started over 20 years ago. After playing football at Wisconsin, Tucker was a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1997 and 1998. He also spent four years at Ohio State, but has not been back to the Big Ten since he left for the NFL.
The hire also saves what was otherwise a disastrous coaching search. Dantonio left the day before signing day, and many coaches were not interested in leaving their teams so late in the offseason. Their top target, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, turned them down on Monday and any other strong option had expressed their lack of interest in the job. Four days before taking the Michigan State job, Tucker said that he was staying at Colorado with this tweet:
Michigan State reportedly offered Tucker over $5 million per year, more than Dantonio’s $4.4 million salary and about double Tucker’s $2.675 million salary at Colorado. At this point in the search, it appeared that Michigan State was running out of options. Many thought they were going to have to settle for an inferior candidate or keep interim head coach Mike Tressel for the 2020 season and conduct another search next offseason. They proved they were willing to pay whatever was necessary to land a good coach and ended up with arguably the second best coach on their list.
It’s still unknown if Tucker will improve Michigan State on the field, as he only has one season of head coaching experience. In that season, he went 5-7, worse than Michigan State’s 7-6, and both teams struggled on the field last year. Both struggled offensively, with Colorado finishing 100th and Michigan State finishing 104th out of 130 FBS teams in points per game. They were similar in the passing game as well, as Michigan State had the 55th best passing attack and Colorado was only 6 yards per game behind ranked 61st in the country. Colorado struggled running the ball, ending the year 80th in the country, but was much better than Michigan State, who was in the bottom 20 nationally.
While Tucker has believed to be a good defensive coach, his defense was significantly worse than Michigan State’s in 2019. The Spartans finished in the top 40 in points allowed per game, while Colorado was in the bottom 40 at 95th. They had the eighth worst passing defense, while Michigan State had the 37th best. Colorado was best at stopping the run, but was only good enough for 61st in the country while Michigan State finished in the top 20. It is arguable, however, that some of these struggles are due to the fact that Colorado had less talent and was playing explosive offenses on a more regular basis than Michigan State. Tucker has proven to have strong defenses, and Georgia ranked in the top 30 nationally in most major defensive categories while he was the defensive coordinator.
Michigan State will likely see an improvement in recruiting, which has struggled at the end of the Dantonio era. Colorado had the 35th best recruiting class in 2020, eight spots higher than Michigan State’s class. They also had three four-stars, while Michigan State had zero, and five players ranked higher than Michigan State’s best commit. Tucker was at Georgia from 2016-2018 and helped recruit the 2017, 2018, and 2019 classes. Georgia’s classes were ranked third in the country in 2017, first in 2018, and second in 2019. He’s not the only reason Georgia has been successful in recruiting, they had the best class in the country this year, but he played a role in bringing in those classes. It’s unknown how this hire will impact Michigan State football, but the future certainly looks more promising than it did yesterday.