Mel Tucker’s Michigan State program shouldn’t be defined by the ugly violence it unleashed in the Michigan Stadium tunnel on Saturday night.
What comes next will do that.
In the moments after Michigan’s 29-7 victory Saturday night, a group of Michigan State players punched, kicked and slammed around Michigan defensive back Ja’Den McBurrows as the teams headed toward their respective locker rooms. This was no fight. This was an attack, McBurrows, minus his helmet, vastly outnumbered, with nary a Spartan seemingly trying to stop the violence.
“I saw the one video, the 10-on-1,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s pretty bad.”
It was not pretty bad. It was all bad. It’s ridiculous. A group of guys wearing helmets beating on someone without one is weak and pathetic. Then there is a second video of an undefined MSU player swinging his helmet at Michigan defensive back Gemon Green, that is in its own way even more shocking.
Sunday night, MSU immediately suspended four defensive players — Tank Brown, Khary Crump, Angelo Grose and Zion Young — until the investigations are complete. Gross and Young are starters. Brown and Crump also played against Michigan.
Law enforcement is involved. So is the Big Ten and the leadership of both Michigan State and Michigan. Considering the players were in uniform — with big numbers and names on their back — figuring out who all is who won’t be too challenging. There are also security cameras above both locker rooms which should provide additional evidence.
In that way, much of this is out of Tucker’s control.
Yet getting control of his program, which is spinning listless on the field and out of control off of it, is paramount.
“As Spartans, our program has a responsibility to uphold the highest level of sportsmanship,” Tucker said. “While emotions were very high at the conclusion of our rivalry game at Michigan Stadium, there is no excuse for behavior that puts our team or our opponents at risk.
“In complete cooperation with law enforcement, the Big Ten Conference and MSU and UM leadership, we will evaluate the events in Ann Arbor and take swift and appropriate action.”
This was a start. He should have continued. An apology, both to the injured Michigan players, the Michigan program that had a satisfying victory ruined by his team’s nonsense and to Michigan State itself, the school Tucker’s program represented so poorly Saturday, should have come next.
Maybe next time.
A year ago, Tucker was riding high. A victory over Michigan pushed the Spartans to 8-0 and third in the national rankings. A whopping 10-year, $95 million contract extension was in the works as the phrase “Tuck’s Comin’” was plastered over yard signs and T-shirts.
State skidded to a 3-2 conclusion to the season, though. This year has been a disaster, 3-5 with just one victory over a Power 5 opponent, an overtime triumph against Wisconsin where MSU botched the end of regulation.
Against Michigan, the Spartans were bullied all over the field. They gave up 443 yards and gained just 48 in the second half. They rushed for 37 yards on 23 carries. There were multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, a trend for the team.
“We have to have more poise and more discipline,” Tucker lamented last week.
The Spartans are staring at not just a losing season, but a lost one.
That would be concerning enough here in Tucker’s third year, where momentum has gone in reverse. The big contract will buy time, but it also creates a spotlight, along with the slogans and cigars and luxury cars for recruiting visit photoshoots.
“I thought Tuck was coming?” said Michigan running back Blake Corum after 177 rushing yards, and rushing and receiving touchdowns. “… All I saw was him running.”
Whatever this team has become, it needs a reversal and that is on Tucker. Michigan State has always been at its best when it played with an edge and on the edge. It’s never going to amass more talent than Michigan or Ohio State. It can be tougher, though.
That kind of program doesn’t get involved in wild brawls where players are kicking people when they are down. That isn’t tough. That’s pathetic. After 60 minutes of laying down to the Wolverines on the field, the Spartans were formidable only when they could hide under their helmets and outnumber a victim. It’s hard to imagine how any recruit saw the totality of Saturday as appealing.
How many players are ultimately suspended or for how long matters only so much. That just checks disciplinary boxes to satisfy critics and administrators.
This is deeper. This wasn’t one bad apple or one guy who couldn’t control his emotions. The attitude of the locker room has to change as much as the personnel in it.
Perhaps the most damning part of the incident wasn’t just how many Spartans got in on the fight but how seemingly none actually tried to stop it.
There doesn’t appear to be a single player pulling a teammate off, attempting to break up the attack or looking to calm the situation. Instead, a bunch of them climb over each other to get a shot in.
That is Michigan State football right now, like it or not. Bullied on the field. Bullies off of it.
This is a proud program. Tucker is an impressive person. Saturday wasn’t indicative of who either the school or the coach are or want to be.
It happened though. It was ugly and embarrassing and speaks to an organization that is a mess in every imaginable way.
Mel Tucker needs to fix that, because no matter how big the contract, he isn’t going to last this way.