Dandron: Hire of Mel Tucker, win over Illini couldn’t have come at a better time

Joe Dandron, Station Manager

Xavier Tillman slammed home a dunk with six seconds to play against No. 22 Illinois on Tuesday night in Champaign, salvaging a 70-69 win out of what was once a 20-point lead. The timing for the preseason AP No. 1 team that found themselves on a three-game losing streak and out of the Top 25 altogether could not have been better.

Hours later, the MSU football program found the light at the end of its proverbial losing streak, finding a desirable head coach after their number one choice turned them down. They had to throw millions at Mel Tucker to get him to leave the University of Colorado, but after Mark Dantonio retired the day before national signing day (questionable timing), the timing of this hire was a welcome relief to a fan base that had almost given up on finding a suitable head coach.

The naming of Tucker as head coach, first reported by Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, was officially announced in the early afternoon on Wednesday. Although the hire is pending approval from the Board of Trustees at MSU, I find it hard to believe the hire would fall through the cracks.

Both of these, one on the hardwood and one in the coaching search, couldn’t have come at a better time for not just the football and basketball programs of MSU, but the athletic department as well.

Athletic director Bill Beekman was ridiculed for losing out on Luke Fickell after a wild weekend of tweets and flight tracking, but, to his and the athletic department’s credit, the university decided to drop the bag and go after Tucker.

The news coincides with a big road win at a sold-out State Farm Center in Illinois for the MSU’s men’s basketball team. A win that changed the team’s trajectory. The game saw clutch performances from a few players, but true freshmen Rocket Watt’s played the leading role with 21 points, on 9-of-14 shooting.

“Guys like Rocket (Watts), you can see their growth,” Cassius Winston said after the win.

Yes, MSU nearly blew a 20-point lead to Illinois on the road. But a win is a win at this point in the Big Ten season, especially for a team that had lost three in a row coming into the game.

Yes, MSU reportedly has offered doubled Tucker’s $2.7 million salary, according to The Athletic.

But the timing of both have seemingly reversed the fortunes of what many believed could have been an athletic department trending towards a big decline, specifically on the football field. The timing changes the conversation that Tom Izzo’s team can’t win away from the Breslin and hushes opinions that the football program can’t sack up and pay their guys.

It will take time as Tucker tries to build a program back to national prominence. It’s risky, of course. Tucker has one year of head coaching experience, and he went 5-7. But this will change the recruiting fortunes and product on Saturday’s for years to come if the cards fall in MSU’s favor.

“It brings me great pleasure to welcome Mel Tucker to the Spartan family as the 25th head coach in Michigan State football history,” Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said in a statement.

“Mel brings a championship pedigree, NFL experience, connections to our region, success on the recruiting trail and head coaching experience to our program.”

What a Tuesday night.

Watts leads MSU to huge road win

Let’s start at the top, shall we?

MSU walked into the State Farm Center Tuesday evening with high hopes – hopes to end a three-game losing streak.

And early on, it looked like MSU would do just that.

“I’m proud of my team,” said Izzo after the game.

A couple of buckets early on, then an 11-2 MSU lead before a stunned Illini fan base knew it. The Illini were bad in the first half, no matter how you cut it. It was evident as star guard Ayo Dosunmu shot 1-of-7 in the first half for two points, and the Illini shot less than 30% from any major category before the break.

Rocket Watts played like a man possessed by a desire to win.

A jumper here, an and-1 there, to the tune of 14 first half points. Watts was the best player on the floor Tuesday evening for nearly the entire game, despite only scoring seven points in the second half.

Illinois wasn’t done, the groans all the way from East Lansing were audible in the arena as MSU’s lead was cut from 20 in the second half to 17. Then the lead was 11.

And all of a sudden, Illinois had the lead with 5:29 as Dosunmu soared to the cup.

Illinois football coach Lovie Smith sat in the stands smiling on Tuesday, he had seen this one before.

Watts’ strong start to the game allowed MSU a cushion that helped them to the win. But Tillman’s slam on Winston’s missed layup – or maybe a pass – gave the Spartans a season defining win.

It was the type of win that turns around your season. A fall from grace as MSU fell out of the AP top 25, to now a chance to retake the lead in the Big Ten standings against No. 9 Maryland on Saturday with College GameDay in town and a national audience tuning in.

Reports: Mel Tucker coming to East Lansing

Part two for MSU came in the early hours of Wednesday morning. A sigh of relief for alumni, the athletic department and fans.

“Today, I am excited to get to work for the Spartans,” said Tucker in a statement. “Together, we will be relentless to create an integrity-filled and winning culture for our staff, coaches and student-athletes in everything we do – on and off the field.”

The news came around 2 a.m. Eastern, as reports came from The Athletic that Tucker would be named the new head coach of MSU’s struggling football program. It is also worth noting that Tucker becomes one of the 13 black head coaches in the FBS, diversity that is representative of the school he will coach.

Like I said, Tucker went 5-7 in his lone year as head coach at Colorado. But he was building something, the No. 35 recruiting class in 24/7 sports rankings had just signed.

“We’re obviously disappointed to see him leave,” said Colorado athletic director Rick George in a press conference on Wednesday.

“Returning home to Michigan State is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and my family but it created the toughest decision of my life – to leave Colorado,” Tucker said. “There is no way to fully express my gratitude to the Buffalo student-athletes, Rick George, and our staff. I am incredibly thankful for our time together and I will always believe in Colorado football.”

MSU knows what it’s like to be left for a better job, Nick Saban did the same thing when he left for LSU in 2000. But that’s not the point, just like the average salary worker, Tucker couldn’t turn down an offer to double the amount he made a year.

Too much money on a gamble is a very fair argument. But at what point does MSU put their foot down and make the call to hire a coach? Fickell turned them away, so is it a panicked move?

Concerns of his inability to stick around for more than a few years are fair.

But the coaching tree resume and experience as a defensive coordinator are too much. Tucker spent 2016-2018 as a DC with Georgia. He also has been hired by Saban three times, that’s worth something, is it not?

MSU made the right call.

He’ll recruit. Tucker is a Cleveland native, so it will be interesting to see how he can poach recruits from Detroit and Ohio, ones that MSU was known for finding and developing to go 36-5 over that fabled three-year stretch.

Some will say that it is ridiculous to spend over $5 million a year on a football coach.

But let’s be real, MSU’s football program makes more money for the university than anything else. Next year’s home football schedule is arguably the best ever. Miami, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State all come to East Lansing. MSU needs butts in seats in Spartan Stadium, and having new blood on the coaching staff is a refreshing change for those fed up with the “same old same old” attitude that has clouded the last three years of MSU football.

Tucker’s arrival shifts the culture of not just MSU football but will dictate the culture of an athletic department. The success he will have here may not be seen for several years, if there is any.

But the decision to chase Tucker shows MSU is willing to do what it takes to get back to a competitive level on the football field. It shows the fan base that the athletic department has a plan.

Tucker concluded a Twitter video addressing the Spartan faithful on Wednesday with these two words:

“Go Green.”

Joe Dandron is the station manager at Impact. He can be contacted via email at [email protected].