Dear Coach Mel Tucker:
Consider this a welcome letter. Or a “welcome back” letter, because you were at Michigan State once before, in the late ’90s. Your duties back then, as a graduate assistant on the football team, you told me, included shoveling driveways, changing ink in the printers, and turning on Coach Nick Saban’s showers “so they were warm when he came off the practice field.”
You’ve come a long way, Mel.
By now you know what your bosses in East Lansing want from you. But as someone who has been here a long time, may I send along these ideas on how you can be an even bigger success at MSU, by addressing what fans, media, and the public who follow the Spartans could really use right now.
First: honesty. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Share it. Don’t hide it. The Spartans athletic program has suffered mightily from thick cloaks being pulled over its warts, and that can’t continue. Some of it was bad apples in the football program, more of it was bad apples in the administration, and a ton of it was from a creep of a human being named Larry Nassar, who abused his privilege and hundreds of victims.
Either way, it’s not your fault — but it is your burden.
You cannot sweep things under rugs. If a player screws up off the field, tell the public what happened. Explain the punishment and why it won’t happen again. If a coach violates a rule, lose him immediately and come forward with his mistake. Don’t hide behind “protecting our players” or “our football family” or “what happens in the program stays in the program.” That’s exactly how MSU got in its current funk.
You want to keep plays secret? Fine. Game plans? Of course. But the “state” in “Michigan State” means you’re part of a public university, paid in part with public tax dollars. That makes coaches public servants, not four-star generals. You don’t own the privilege of secrecy. Keep everything in the light.
About Ann Arbor …
Second big thing? Find your footing with Michigan. The Spartans-Wolverines rivalry is paramount for you. You played defensive back in college, right? Use those skills. Hold your ground, defend against all insults, but don’t drape yourself clumsily over Michigan and get flagged for something avoidable.
Your predecessor, Mark Dantonio, had a winning record against the Wolverines. But he never seemed comfortable with the rivalry. He fumed. He grimaced. He seemed to be holding a thousand pounds of pressure inside him.
You’d do better to have a healthy understanding of the history. Embrace it, have some fun with it, understand who Jim Harbaugh is, who Lloyd Carr and Bo Schembechler were. Don’t act as if mentioning their names is swallowing poison; take enormous pride in the success MSU has had in this rivalry. If you lose, start counting the days eagerly until you play again. If you win, same thing.
The truth is, neither MSU or U-M is going anywhere unless they beat Ohio State every year, and your eyes need to be on that game as well. But a healthy, enthusiastic love of the rivalry with Ann Arbor goes a long way toward how fans feel about MSU football. Find your footing. Show confidence. Go toe-to-toe. And keep it in perspective.
Speaking of perspective, here’s No. 3: Most of your players will not go to the NFL. Your job, as you stated in your news conference, is “to graduate our players … We want to help you launch your career after football. My job is to help you get your first job.”
That’s right. And if that first job is in sales, law, medicine or business, it is just as important as professional sports. Make graduation a top priority. Never stop talking about it. Remind your young men that football is a means to an end, not the end.
The best college coaches are the ones whose players never go pro, yet constantly come back to visit because the life skills their coach imparted made them who they became. Be that guy. Be that coach. And you’ll be a proud success, regardless of your “players in the NFL” count.
This is yours now
No. 4 is admittedly more for the media, but I honestly think it will smooth the whole process.
Relax. Be candid. Make some jokes. Show some personality. Dantonio is a good man and a fine coach, but he continued a tradition that went on for years with Saban. Tight-lipped. Frequent looks of annoyance. A smile that had to be pried from his face.
Hey, this is an out-in-the-public, high-profile job, not unlike a political post. How you come across matters. The media is not trying to steal nuclear codes off your desk. Avoid clichés, be forthright, play around every now and then — it won’t weaken your team. Look at the basketball program. It hasn’t hurt Tom Izzo.
No. 5: Speaking of Izzo, take a cue from him, if you can. He believes, and has proven, that a team from East Lansing, Michigan, can play with anybody in the country. Don’t let MSU’s geography or conference be a limit. Why is Clemson, playing in the ACC (once considered a basketball conference), now a kingpin in college football? Its coach, Dabo Swinney, arrived ready to take on anybody — on the field and in recruiting.
You can do the same. You have a reputation as a great recruiter, someone who can speak to students and families alike. You built a fine recruiting class in your one year as head coach of Colorado. Use that talent. Build a national program in Spartan Nation.
Which brings us to the last item. Culture. You want a winning culture, for sure. You want everyone who arrives in East Lansing to expect titles, titles, titles. But that comes from how you conduct the program, the principles you embrace, the off-the-field control you exert, the culture you construct. It matters so much. You inherit a team that appears to have lost its way recently at a school that has been accused of losing its way for years.
You are picking up pieces, like it or not. And what you do with those pieces will determine your legacy. Build something great. Something honest. Something admirable. Something with high expectations of performance — personal and athletic.
Do that, and you’ll be just what Michigan State needed.
That’s pretty much it, Coach. The football you know, the Big Ten is something you have plenty of experience with. The rest is just living up to high standards every day.
Oh, and one more thing. If I were you, I’d warm up my own showers. That doesn’t look good on anyone’s job description.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.