Michigan State football enters pivotal preseason camp looking to turn hype into substance

An event shrouded in mystery turned into a grand fashion show.
Michigan State football got new uniforms in a festive closed-door unveiling Friday night. Spartan fans love "Thy Shadows," it was clear, from those who attended the invite-only event for “social media influencers” who promote The MSU Brand. They sat alongside recruiting prospects, boosters and former program greats, blurring the lines like any good virtual reality-creating production does.
By Thursday morning, all of the hip couture, flashing lights, fist-bumps and selfies will be gone, replaced by dirt stains on clothes and bruises under pads as preseason practice opens, starting the most important month in Mel Tucker’s tenure.
Year 4 is the time for the Spartans head coach to show his program’s substance supersedes its hype.
The security blanket of friendly faces and propaganda peddlers disappears once MSU kicks off the 100th season at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 1 against Central Michigan. That's the same venue in late November where the few hearty, diehard fans who sat in the frigid cold for a double-overtime loss to Indiana vigorously booed the team in its home finale.
Rendering those jeers as a fleeting blip and atoning for a 5-7 downturn that came on the heels of tantalizing 11-win success in 2021 will be MSU’s mission.
“Our goal is to win every game on our schedule,” senior offensive lineman J.D. Duplain, a veteran of both of those teams, said at last month's media day in Indianapolis.
New faces, same place
There will be a lot of changes from a year ago. On offense, a new quarterback, new wide receivers, potentially a new running back; on defense, new faces in many key roles in the trenches and in the secondary; and, on special teams, a new punter and kicker.
In short, it's an uphill climb from the outset. Which makes this preseason camp a pivotal moment for Tucker — with a premium on molding the talent the Spartans brought in with improved recruiting the past three years alongside another wave of transfers as a setup for both the present and future. And more importantly, the task in August is to build a cohesive unit that can turn things around in the fall, as his second squad did two years ago.
That’s why Tucker received a 10-year, $95-million contract, one that enters just its second year. Develop players, win games. And not in that order.
But the latter does not happen without the former.
“We don't have a theme for this season, we don't have any slogans or anything,” Tucker said in Indianapolis. “For this season, it's basically that we gotta play to the best of our potential. We got to get it out of our guys. Whatever we can do, whatever we're capable of doing, we have to get it out on the field.”
MSU’s offense and defense struggled to find any consistency last season, losing six Big Ten games by a combined score of 213-94 (with the closest defeat coming in that 39-31 double-overtime home finale vs. the Hoosiers). And more so, there remains no clear identity for Tucker’s MSU program on the field, on either side of the ball, beyond the tenets he has preached.
The annual offseason changeover in personnel caused some shock with the departures of two-year starting quarterback Payton Thorne to Auburn and budding star wide receiver Keon Coleman to Florida State, as well as fan-favorite homegrown running back Elijah Collins to Oklahoma State.
Tucker mined the portal again for depth and a few potential stars, but the Spartans are hoping the fruits of his first three recruiting classes ripen into starters and leaders. That includes a 2021 class that went heavy on offensive linemen, a 2022 class that stocked the secondary and wide receiver rooms — as well as Tucker’s first four-star quarterback, Katin Houser — and a 2023 incoming group that features some high-end pass rushers, including highly touted defensive end Bai Jobe and cerebral linebacker Jordan Hall.
And after going 2-5 in his 2020 debut, followed by an 11-2 top-10 finish in 2021 and missing a bowl game last season for the second time in his short tenure, Tucker knows the only true measure of player development rests in the left-hand column of the standings. And that falls on himself and his staff.
“We're not just practicing coaching. We're not just out here just to play and roll our helmets out there,” he said. “Obviously, the goal is to win the game. I don't know why we should apologize for that being the goal. That's everybody else's goal out here. Why can't it be ours?”
Hard work, not hype
To be clear, generating hype among the boosters and backers with “exclusive” events is not a bad thing or new concept. It brings some pizzazz to what typically has been a buttoned-down football culture at MSU. But those are people already on board, win or lose.
Creating the type of program Mark Dantonio built over 13 seasons — and the type Tucker has proselytized for since taking the job in February 2020 — starts and ends with the product on the field. Ultimately, that is the top enticement for filling stadiums and reeling in high-end recruits. Always has been, always will be, NIL or no NIL.
Tucker’s program needs to show decided growth in the first three weeks, particularly against a Washington team that thrashed the Spartans in Seattle a year ago as a warning flag of an impending flop. Another sluggish start to Big Ten play, like last year’s three straight losses, will shift attention of alumni and fans across campus to Tom Izzo’s basketball team, which looks to have national championship potential coming off another Sweet 16 appearance.
Most of all, Tucker’s team must show it can still compete with the best of the Big Ten, as the Spartans did under Dantonio. Will another year of overwhelming losses turn Tucker’s seat hot or put his job in jeopardy? Highly doubtful. There simply is too much money and too many years remaining on his contract for those questions to arise.
But that time afforded by the contract extension is beneficial for Tucker and his assistants to show they can develop the talent they recruited, as well as prove his long-term contract is a meaningful investment with a long-term payoff — rather than an albatross the athletic department and donors might have to figure a way to escape.
Something to consider: When MSU hired Dantonio after the 2006 season, his record as a head coach in three seasons at Cincinnati was 18-17. Tucker is 23-21 after four seasons, the first of which was at Colorado. His Spartans are 18-15 following Dantonio, who justified his hiring by eventually becoming the winningest coach in MSU history.
But Dantonio's reign had its flops, as well: Take the 3-9 season in 2016 that followed a College Football Playoff berth The Spartans' lone bowl-free season under Dantonio came after giving Big Ten Network unprecedented exclusive inside access to his program during preseason camp. It proved to be a three-part series that essentially demarcated the line of pride that came before a self-prophesized fall. MSU went just 27-24 in Dantonio’s last four seasons.
Despite all of the 21st-century image-cultivating savvy the Spartans have shown off the field, Tucker’s program now must return to the 20th-century style it revived two years ago on the field.
Glitz and glamor don’t matter. Flashy locker room additions and splashy uniforms don’t win games. They are a means to an end in the endless arms race that college sports has become over the past 30 years, before which the only influencers a program needed were bone-crunching linebackers like Bubba Smith or bucking-bronco running backs like Lorenzo White, delivering their only messages with their helmets and pads.

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