Ordinarily, when a coach gets his first win it’s not that big a deal, but in the case of Mel Tucker at Michigan State, last Saturday’s 27-24 upset victory over arch-rival Michigan in Ann Arbor was huge.
First, he became only the second MSU coach to beat Michigan in his first game against them. The only other Spartans’ coach to accomplish that feat was the great Nick Saban some 25 years ago, when his squad also pulled an upset.
But the difference there is they were playing at home. Tucker’s squad was on the road, going against a team ranked 14th in the nation and badly in need of a victory. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has been under fire for his inability to beat both Michigan State and Ohio State, but he’s also been at Michigan since 2015. Tucker only took over the MSU job this season, and for part of the year didn’t even think they’d be playing. The Big 10’s reversal and decision to play a conference only schedule beginning in late October put him in a strange and awkward position, but Tucker rose to the challenge of preparing a team for a tough schedule on the fly.
Things didn’t go so well in the opener against Rutgers. Tucker’s team committed seven turnovers while losing to Rutgers 38-27. Granted that wasn’t exactly an encouraging start, but it was also his first game as MSU’s head coach. From the furor that ensued and some of the columns and stories that followed you would have thought Tucker had been there forever and never accomplished anything. However he didn’t take the criticism personally, instead simply saying his team didn’t play well, he accepted responsibility, and that things would improve.
That’s exactly what happened in their second game against the Wolverines. It helped that fourth-year junior QB Rpcky Lombardi had a career high 325 yards passing day, and that freshman receiver Rocky White emerged as a potential long-term star. More importantly, the Spartans had no turnovers, and made every critical offensive and defensive play they needed to pull off the road upset and give Tucker his first win as a Spartans’ head coach.
Tucker has traveled the road that many Black coaches must navigate to finally get a shot at a major coaching job, whether it’s in the pros or college. He’s formerly been defensive backs coach for Ohio State and Alabama, as well as formerly serving as an offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and University of Georgia. Way back in 2011, while on the staff of the Jacksonville Jaguars he was interim head coach for five games.
Tucker last season was head coach at Colorado, and they posted a 5-7 record in his only season there. But the team showed promise, and his interview with MSU proved so successful that he was hired to revive a program that had fallen on hard times. It was frankly a bit amazing that he endured such criticism after only one game, but part of it came because they had lost to Rutgers, long one of the doormat teams in the Big Ten, but one now also trying to regroup and improve its fortunes.
The more important takeaway from Tucker’s first two weeks involves how little time Black head coaches who get high profile jobs have to turn things around before the criticism starts if they don’t immediately win. There are certainly exceptions to the rule, like the situation at Vanderbilt, where Derek Mason has remained on the job despite not achieving a lot of success in the win/loss column. But usually Black head coaches only get offered jobs at low end or longtime losing teams, then get a short period to turn things around.
Fortunately, there are also organizations like the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sunday’s victory over the Baltimore Ravens was Tomlin’s 140th as an NFL head coach, the most by any Black head coach in NFL history. The Steelers didn’t pay any attention a couple of years ago when folks were yammering that perhaps the Steelers were losing focus or Tomlikn had been there too long. Now they are 7-0, the NFL’s only unbeaten team and aiming at another Super Bowl. Tomlin’s 1-1 in Super Bowls, and would love to win another and become the first Black coach to win multiple Super Bowls.
David Shaw at Stanford is another example of a longtime Black head coach whose school doesn’t demand he go unbeaten or win the Pac-12 title every season, and instead look at other things like player development and academic success, as well as the overall tone and caliber of the program.
Hopefully that’s also going to be the case for Mel Tucker at Michigan State, and every game won’t be deemed a referendum on his abilities, at least not before he’s had a chance to recruit and build a program. That’s only fair, but sadly it isn’t always the case when media and fans are evaluating the performance of Black head coaches.