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'Culture is the difference': MSU's Mel Tucker draws unique perspective from CFP final

Lansing —  Mel Tucker had a unique perspective Monday night when he sat down to watch Georgia and Alabama square off in the national championship game.

The Michigan State coach got his break in the profession from Alabama coach Nick Saban in the late 1990’s when Saban, then the Spartans’ head coach, hired Tucker as a graduate assistant. Tucker later coached with Saban at LSU and Alabama, spending 2015 with the Crimson Tide before heading to Georgia to be the defensive coordinator under Kirby Smart from 2016-18.

“It was very gratifying to see both programs out there competing to finish first,” Tucker said Friday at the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association clinic at the Lansing Center. “I was really kind of pulling for both teams because obviously, Coach Saban and I go way back. I know people on his staff and he’s still got maybe a player or two ... he had one player that I recruited out there playing. And we got all those kids at Georgia that we worked with and helped prepare, and then all the staff at Georgia. So, I knew it was going to be a good game and I was kind of pulling for both teams.”

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Tucker couldn’t lose. But as he watched that game, and as he spoke to the coaches attending the event, he was preaching what it will take to get Michigan State to that level.

For Tucker, it’s all about culture, something he learned firsthand during his time in championship programs like Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.

“I’m fanatical about culture,” Tucker told hundreds in the standing-room only crowd. “I love building culture, shifting culture.

“Culture is the difference. That’s the winning edge.”

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It was an intense Tucker, one his players see on a regular basis and one most everyone else sees in glimpses on videos posted on social media.

But talking football gets Tucker fired up. And talking about what it took to get Michigan State to go from a two-win team in 2020, his first as head coach after one season at Colorado, to an 11-win team that beat Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl two weeks ago ramps things up.

“That’s pretty much who I am,” Tucker said. “We’re very passionate about what we do.”

What Tucker has done in a short amount of time at Michigan State has been remarkable. The 11-win season was the sixth in program history and it represented the most significant turnaround ever for the Spartans.

It also hiked expectations heading into 2022, something Tucker embraces as a true believer that Michigan State will get back to the College Football Playoffs — something it did under Mark Dantonio in 2015 — and deliver a championship.

There’s work to do. The roster still has its share of holes and issues with depth, but the progress has been evident. From a 2022 recruiting class that currently ranks in the top 20, to getting back veteran players like wide receiver Jayden Reed, safety Xavier Henderson and left tackle Jarrett Horst, Tucker’s team is headed in the right direction.

Considering what was accomplished in 2021, a season that many didn’t see coming, it’s hard not to buy in to what Tucker and his staff are building.

“Before the season I got a lot of questions about what was would success look like for this team,” Tucker recalled talking to his staff about during their final meeting before the Peach Bowl. “I said for us to reach our full potential. And people don’t necessarily want to hear that because it's a cliché, but I really meant it.

“So I told the staff, I said, ‘Guys, first of all, thank you everyone for all your efforts and I know we’ve got one more team to go out here and get. But I really feel like we got the most out of this particular team. We haven't left anything on the table. They gave us everything they had and we gave them everything we had. I thought we got the most out this team.’”

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As Tucker wrapped up his hour-long session on Friday, he was followed by Saban, winner of seven national championships. Saban’s in-person appearance was changed to a virtual one.

Tucker took a moment to let everyone know what Saban meant to him, telling the story of when they first met — Saban about to take over as the head coach at Toledo and Tucker a prospect from Cleveland. They didn’t connect then, but they surely would as coaches. It was valuable time for Tucker, who is fully committed to turning Michigan State into a winner, just as Saban has done at Alabama and LSU.

And it begins with the culture Tucker has been hammering since the day he arrived.

“When you come into the building at Michigan State,” Tucker told the crowd, “I want it to feel like something is going on here, like something is different, like you walked into something good.”

It has that feel so far. But whether Tucker spends a Monday night down the road leading Michigan State in a championship game instead of watching one remains to be seen.

Extra points

Tucker met briefly with a group of reporters after his presentation and hit on a number of topics.

► On WR Keon Coleman and TE Maliq Carr joining the basketball team: “I told them if they want to play then they can play if Coach (Tom Izzo) allows them on the team. I’ve got no issue with that.”

►On the signing of four-star WR Germie Bernard, who is enrolled at MSU after first signing with Washington: “He’s a very good player. He’s a difference maker. He's got a really good combination of size and speed and is strong with the ball. He’s a guy that I feel like is going to fit well with our mix of guys and he’s going to be able to help us big time. We were able to get him here and I’m really happy he’s here.”

►On hiring Effrem Reed as RB coach: “Effrem is a really good role model, a good leader. He has really good personal skills and relates very well with the players. He’s a good coach, very knowledgeable and he knows (offensive coordinator Jay Johnson’s) system inside and out.”

►On the final open assistant position, reportedly going to pass rush specialist Brandon Jordan: “I don't have anything right now. Nothing official.”

►On LB Quavaris Crouch, who missed three of the final four games with an injury: “He’s on the mend.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau