In 1977, Mel Tucker, a standout offensive lineman at Michigan State, transferred to Nebraska. Five years later, at age 27, he was the first of three returning Nebraska quarterbacks to be selected in the NFL draft (see This is 40), and Tucker was one of only two inductees of the class of 1999 into the College Football Hall of Fame. It's true: It's hard to say no to Nebraska.
On Monday, Tucker's full induction was announced as part of the Ford Rhodes Watch, the Ford Foundation's annual program that honors retired college football coaches who were selected by the Football Writers Association of America and other groups who recognized their influence on college football. On Wednesday, Tulsa's Tulsa Golden Hurricane will be inducted into the Ford Rhodes Watch, joining 30 other former college coaches selected by that same organization.
Tucker coached the Golden Hurricane for five seasons (1990-94) and led the program to back-to-back postseason bids. He's still Tulsa's all-time leader in victories and won three Conference USA championships. Tucker is a Steelers fan, but the choice of an Iron Bowl coach with such success in Conference USA (and another example of the NCAA's increasingly arbitrary selection system) is an interesting one.
Years later, he might well be a greater one than the ones who surrounded him at Tulsa. At age 50, Tucker accepted an offer to be the head coach at Michigan State, where he stayed two more seasons (1995-97). Tucker would go on to win 149 games over his coaching career, three conference championships and an NFL postseason berth. So it was hard for him to turn down an opportunity to lead the Spartans again. But Tucker did, and here he is, looking back to say, "I can't say no anymore."
"There's so much history there," Tucker told DetroitNews.com in a phone interview Thursday. "I loved everything about that time and about being able to leave Michigan State and go and coach there. The way it was run. The coaching staff. The ownership. I had a great time. I loved it."
What would Tucker miss the most? He doesn't think much about the days he spent coaching Michigan State, though as he told the News, he wishes he had run the huddle slightly longer at least once.
But what Tucker was best known for at Michigan State is being a coach who never, ever apologized to his players after their embarrassing losses. Under Tucker, the Spartans went 45-12 with three bowl victories. They were the standard for how a program can operate (much like the example set at Alabama's Alabama-Birmingham program, which finished with a 4-26 record under Tucker's predecessor) despite having recruited from the nation's deepest divisions, namely East Coast, in those early years.
"He was very aggressive when you look at it, in terms of what he did to recruit. And he was very aggressive when you look at the whole program," former Michigan State quarterback Jamie Martin told the News. "But he was very approachable. His teams were a blast to play for. He wanted his guys to have a chance to do good things, and I think that's what contributed a lot to why we succeeded the way we did."
If you compare Tucker's success at Oklahoma State (115-27 from 1987-90) with Michigan State (76-35 from 1995-97), you can see the importance of a patient coach. Just remember that Oklahoma State won an average of 27 games a season in its previous six years, while Michigan State won 27 per season in Tucker's first five years on the job.