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Building a culture of accountability with Mel Tucker

Tucker laid out the blueprint of his program to an audience of thousands of coaches at the AFCA convention on Tuesday

Mel Tucker says success leaves clues, and he's had his magnifying glass out for more than 30 years. 

The son of a coach, Tucker left Cleveland to play for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, well before the Badgers became fixtures in Pasadena; Tucker was part of Alvarez's first recruiting class, in 1990. After a brief professional career in Canada, Tucker entered coaching as a GA under Nick Saban at Michigan State. After one season coaching defensive backs at Miami (Ohio), Tucker joined Saban's first staff at LSU, then joined Jim Tressel's first Ohio State staff. 

Now 25 years into his career, Tucker has two national championship rings, 10 seasons of NFL experience, a trend-setting new contract, and a fat stack of case notes after spending a quarter century investigating what makes successful programs successful.

Like any tried-and-true Saban-ite, Tucker's program is built on hard work, accountability, and attention to detail. And no detail is too small.

When on the practice field for Mel Tucker's Spartans, shirts must be tucked in, chin strips must be buckled, and mouthpieces in. The head coach will blow the whistle and stop a play in its tracks to fix any of these not-too-small details. 

Other not-too-small details:

-- Run, everywhere. "If you don't know where to go," Tucker said at his AFCA general session talk in San Antonio on Tuesday, "jog in place."

-- Flair. Tucker defines this word the same way the TGI Friday's knock off does in Office Space, except his players aren't getting anywhere near 19 pieces. "I told the equipment guy, don't even order that," Tucker said, referencing arm bands, excessive sleeves and towels. Don't even get him started on towels. If a player needs a towel -- quarterbacks and centers, primarily -- he must go to his position coach, and the position coach must go to Tucker. And even that comes with stipulations: "I better see you wearing it," Tucker said. 

At one point, Tucker noticed Spartans starting quarterback Peyton Thorne didn't use his towel as much as promised. "I think he may be a flair guy," Tucker remarked in the meeting room.

This leads into the largest, sturdiest pillar of Tucker's program: accountability. 

At Michigan State, accountability is omnipresent, and often public.

For instance, when position coaches want to reward a scout team player for a good week of practice by dressing him on game days, Tucker wants a detailed explanation as to that player's sideline responsibilities. "The sideline is for essential game personnel only," Tucker said. If he's in uniform but not playing, he needs to have a job, and game film will be reviewed to ensure the player did his job.

This applies to everyone, up and down the organization. The org chart is not tucked away in the back of a cabinet in the equipment room. "You can't hold people accountable if they don't know what they're supposed to do," he said. 

Other examples:

-- Shot dogs. Tucker doesn't like them. That's not a reference to canines who've endured gun violence, but instead Tucker's term for players who lay on the ground but aren't truly injured. If you're injured, Tucker said, remain on the ground until trainers collect you -- and then go seek treatment. Players who are helped off the field, then back in the game a couple snaps later? Those are shot dogs.

This term has permeated Michigan State's culture to the point where Spartan players will start howling on the field if they suspect a teammate of being a shot dog.

-- Intervention. This is Tucker's term for dealing with players who loaf on film. These can and will appear at any time during a team meeting, not necessarily confined to film study. Tucker will explain that the player is loved and valued, but the effort put on film was not representative of his talent -- and no Spartan is immune. QB1 Thorne, Heisman Trophy candidate Kenneth Walker III, anyone and everyone is subject to an intervention.

Crucially, that episode will be quickly followed by another intervention, this time of that same player providing maximum effort on the field. 

"It's Christmas come early when they do it right," Tucker said. "Human beings can live for two weeks on one compliment."

Finally, the kicker to Tucker's culture of accountability and attention to detail comes together with this: confront and demand. This is his spin on the popular phrase, "If you're not coaching it, you're letting it happen."

If a player isn't in his travel sweats on the elevator ride down to eat breakfast at the team hotel, send him back to his room to change. If a player doesn't have his chinstrap buckled as he runs out to cover the opening kickoff in the Peach Bowl, confront it then. 

"If it's not what it's supposed to be, don't wait to confront it," Tucker said. "Don't wait -- ever. If you don't confront and demand, you've got blood on your hands. You're killing the kids." 

Additional notes:

-- Going back to the "no detail too small" mantra: Tucker and his staff coach their team how to celebrate. Spartan players aren't to go off by themselves, but instead find their teammates in the end zone.

-- Non-negative language. Don't confuse this with positive language. "Find something positive to say about covid," Tucker said. "Nothing positive about that." Instead, Tucker stresses non-negative language. "Negativity works negatively 100 percent of the time."

-- "Consistency in performance is how you become successful."

-- In what will surely separate him from his peers, Tucker wants a smart team that wins games in the fourth quarter. "If you're going to beat us, you're going to have to beat us. We don't beat ourselves."

-- Finally, to stress pad level, Tucker told his players he would be fundraising to install a chute to Michigan State's indoor practice facility. That chute will lower from the ceiling until everyone on the field -- players, coaches, trainers -- are forced to stand in a squat position for the duration of practice. "That really could happen," Tucker deadpanned to a chorus of laughs.