This season has been a nightmare so far for Michigan State football, but we have to be patient through the growing pains.
Three years ago, Michigan State football was in a dark place.
Mark Dantonio was fresh off his second straight 7-6 season and after clinching bowl eligibility in the final game of the regular season, he handed out $4 “program win” hats. It was the lowest of the lows for Michigan State.
We were supposed to believe that getting into a bowl game in the final game signified progress. It certainly didn’t.
This was the same season that Michigan State blew a 28-3 home lead to Illinois and that kind of signaled the end of the Dantonio tenure.
Hope for the future of the program was at an all-time low under the legendary coach.
Following a tough season and a Pinstripe Bowl win and right after a mediocre National Signing Day class, Dantonio retired.
It felt like an abandonment of the program when things went south. He had stuck around through the toughest times (2016) and he showed he could turn things around, but you could tell he was tired. It was really tough to blame him, but the timing was horrible.
Everyone just expected the program to continue down that dark path and fade into irrelevance again like it did when Nick Saban left. The slope was slippery.
A coaching search led by Bill Beekman ensued and the hope dwindled. There was just no way they would find someone who could adequately replace the winningest coach in Michigan State football history.
Names like Mel Tucker, Robert Saleh, Pat Narduzzi, and Matt Campbell popped up. They all “declined” and remained with their current programs or got a head coaching job in the NFL (Saleh).
Luke Fickell moved the needle, however. He was turning Cincinnati into a powerhouse (much like Dantonio did before he came to MSU). Heck, Fickell was Dantonio’s presumed choice to replace him when he retired. Talks intensified and in the end, Fickell decided to stay with Cincinnati despite all the signs pointing to him signing a contract with Michigan State.
Beekman circled back with Tucker, threw a massive bag of money at home, and he decided to take the Michigan State job after initially committing to the future of Colorado.
In hindsight, it was a great hire.
Tucker went 2-5 in his first year but notched two top-10 wins, including one against rival Michigan (something that made MSU fans fall in love with Dantonio). He followed up that COVID-19-riddled season with an 11-2 campaign and a Peach Bowl win. Not only did he see success on the field in his first “real” season, he signed a top 25 class for 2022.
Recruiting success is starting to mount for Tucker. He had a top 25 class in 2022 and he already has a top 25 group for 2023. If he stacks these types of classes, he’s going to build something special.
That 2021 season kind of did Tucker a disservice, in a way. He set the bar so high by exceeding expectations, and then some, with 11 wins and a New Year’s Six win that everyone forgot that the program was experiencing a rebuild. Did we think this a year ago? No, because Michigan State was winning and everything fell into place.
This season has been humbling.
Fans were getting what my dad would love to refer to as ‘fat and sassy’ in the offseason. We assumed that 11 wins would be the norm.
That’s not realistic for a program that went 16-17 from 2018-2020. Tucker had to hit the reset button and in doing so, he lost a lot of players to transfers and had to build via the portal.
Michigan State’s first portal class under Tucker was elite, led by Kenneth Walker III. The second group has had trouble adjusting as well.
But with Tucker’s recruiting classes continuing to impress, he’ll need to rely less and less on the portal. Sure, he can grab a few potential game-changers every cycle (all top programs do) but he’s not going to pick up 10-15 guys from the portal every year. It’s not sustainable or realistic.
So what we’re seeing after this 2-3 start to the 2022 season is a team that wasn’t as good as its preseason ranking seeing inflated expectations because of last year and falling short. It happens. It’s happened to pretty much every big-time program that went through a rebuild (Clemson, Alabama, LSU, Florida State, Michigan, etc.).
We have to be patient. It’s easy to say “oh, we overpaid for a coach who’s struggling in year three” because we’re prisoners of the moment all too often. Michigan State got the right guy and he’s figuring out what needs to happen in order to fix the program.
Step one has been accomplished: he’s proven he can have success here. Step two is responding to adversity. He’ll have to do that this offseason and in 2023. Making coaching changes will be necessary for long-term success and he’ll need to keep recruiting at a high level.
Don’t give up on a coach who is going through the growing pains that were expected at this point when he took over a struggling program in 2020.
As we sometimes forget, Dantonio went through the same year three growing pains after a very successful second season.
Be patient, Spartan fans.