For many college football fans Saturday’s 37-33 Michigan State victory over Michigan in East Lansing was little more than just another interesting contest between longtime rivals. But for those more familiar with the story behind Michigan State, most notably the fact they are among the rare predominantly white colleges with both a Black head coach and athletic director, it was a history occasion. 

The fact that the Spartans rallied from a 16-point second half deficit to win only made things better for Michigan State fans. It also helped the Heisman Trophy candidacy of Kenneth Walker III, who had five touchdowns and almost single-handedly brought his team, ranked number six going into the game, to a win over their eighth-ranked arch rivals. Walker, a transfer from Wake Forest, had 197 yards on 23 carries to accompany his five scores. Michigan State is now 8-0 and squarely in the hunt to get a berth in the College Football Playoffs.

But more importantly for both Mel Tucker and athletic director Alan Haller, they’re adding their contributions to a glittering legacy. Long before most predominantly white institutions were integrating their programs, Michigan State had multiple Black players. There were 20 of them on the 1966 national championship team and longtime Spartans’ head coach Duffy Daugherty never shied away from recruiting topflight Black talent.

Mel Tucker Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Both Tucker and Haller have extensive connections to Michigan State. Tucker was once a graduate assistant coach, while Haller played football and ran track as a Michigan State athlete. After leaving Michigan State, Tucker was a defensive back coach  at Miami (Ohio), LSU and Ohio State. He later moved to the NFL, where he served as defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars. After a brief interim head-coaching stint with the Jaguars, Tucker went back to college as the defensive backs coach with Alabama, then Georgia. Prior to coming full circle as Michigan State’s head coach, Tucker led Colorado’s program in 2019.

While a student Haller was inspired by Dr. Clarence Underwood, who was then the Michigan State athletic director. Underwood advanced from assistant athletic director to athletic director.  “Seeing Dr. Underwood come to practice and be a part of my life, I started to dream about the possibility of, ‘Wow, I could actually do that someday,’” Haller told the Associated Press last week. “Simply because of his representation, someone like me, who looks like me, could be an AD at MSU. That helped me dream bigger. We’re building the culture of excellence from the ground up,” Haller said. “We make sure that our staff is value centered, meaning we’re valuing our staff so that we can be in the best position to make sure our student athletes have the resources and support that they need.”

Tucker has also been instrumental in reaching out to former Spartan players.  “It was a priority for me to make sure that players from all eras, no matter when they played or what coach they played for knew that they were connected and welcome here,” Tucker said. “We’re going to continue to build on our connection with former players because they paved the way for us today, particularly with the integration of college football.” 

Power 5 and predominantly white colleges still haven’t done very well in terms of diversity other than on the field. Fewer than 10 percent  of head coaches in college football are Black. Tucker is one of three Black head coaches in the Big Ten, along with Penn State’s James Franklin and Maryland’s Mike Locksley. According to an ESPN report, only 39 Black coaches and 29 Black athletic directors have been hired since 1981.

The example of Michigan State will hopefully be followed by many others in the years to come. They’ve been the only Big Ten school to hire two Black head coaches (Bobby Williams, Tucker) and three Black ADs (Merritt Novell, Underwood, Haller). “We want to be the example of what the country should look like in any industry,” said Michigan State director of player engagement Darien Harris. “If we can be that example of inclusion, and get to a point where it’s just the norm, then that means we’re really making an impact in society.