Inside the Mel Tucker-Alan Haller Michigan State Football Partnership

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EAST LANSING — The tree outside Alan Haller’s office is now lined up, obstructing the Michigan State athletic director’s line of sight. But, during those colder months when there were no leaves on the branches, Haller could look directly into Mel Tucker’s workspace along Shaw Lane.

“I’m looking at you,” Haller said jokingly.

The playful tease sparked laughs between two men who see eye to eye on almost everything and have worked together to chart the future of Michigan State football. In the 10 months since Haller was hired, they became partners in an ambitious quest to turn Tucker’s program into a national powerhouse.

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Tucker, the well-traveled coach who came over from Colorado two years ago, has the big ideas and the plan to make them happen. Haller, a longtime administrator at MSU, has the institutional knowledge and community connections to execute Tucker’s plan.

“From what I see, it’s been very smooth,” said former Michigan State administrator and offensive lineman Brian Mosallam. “There is no ego. There has been a lot of collaboration. … It will be fun to watch the next two years as Alan and Mel each realize the vision of what this university can achieve.

It has already become a source of intrigue for outsiders aware of the large sums invested in the program. Last November, Tucker sealed one of the richest deals in college sports history when he signed a 10-year, $95 million contract extension. A few months later, raises were given to each of his seven assistants who remained with the team after the Spartans’ surprising 11-2 season.

Spending continued in the spring as construction began on a $78 million project to improve and expand the football complex. The sudden madness came at a time when football is dominating college athletics and sparking seismic activity from coast to coast. The Big Ten are set to strike a media rights deal that is expected to be worth more than $1 billion a year after recently adding UCLA and USC. The battle for supremacy between the top Power Five schools, in turn, grew fiercer.

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“You need resources,” Tucker told the Free Press. “You need support. You need money at the level where you can compete for championships and win championships, period.

It was a point Tucker conveyed to MSU chiefs before agreeing to become Mark Dantonio’s successor in February 2020. In preparation for his interview at a Colorado hotel, Tucker researched the finances to determine the scope of the school’s athletic budget. When they all sat down, he pushed the search committee to see if their goals aligned with his.

He asked: “What do you want from the football program?”

Haller, assistant athletic director at the time, spoke out and said it would be great to win a national title. The bold response was made during a fit of irrational exuberance and was warmly welcomed by Tucker. But Haller immediately began to wonder why he said it, wondering if he really believed it.

“I don’t know if it was really in front of us for me to visualize,” Haller, 51, told the Free Press.

It was hard for Haller see a lot beyond his sphere of concentration, which was limited to the 5,200 acres which make up The MSU Campus. This was territory Haller knew inside out. For these reasons, it literate in football and track before being drafted as a defensive back by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992. After bouncing around in the NFL the next four years, he returned to East Lansing and joined the college police force in 1997. Thirteen years later, he moved into the administration of the Athletics. and became even more settled as an MSU lifer.

Haller’s career might have taken a much different turn had Nick Saban convinced him to become one of his graduate assistants early in his tenure at Michigan State.

Perhaps Haller would have embarked on a journey similar to that of Tucker, who began his steady rise as a low-level staffer for Saban two years later. Haller might have seen everything Tucker had, as the football coach made 10 different stops along a winding path that eventually led him back to East Lansing.

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Tucker’s outlook was shaped by his experiences in Baton Rouge, Columbus, Tuscaloosa and Athens. He tasted fame with Ohio State and Alabama, earning rings at both programs. He learned the recipe for success helping LSU and Georgia take off. He took snapshots of the college game at 30,000 feet during a 10-year run in the NFL.

“I started watching everything,” Tucker, 50, said. “And I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what was needed in every aspect, from administrative assistants, workout-style photocopiers, facilities, GPS units, weight room equipment , the recruitment budget, the use of the plane, I know exactly all the aspects that were necessary, that were necessary, to compete at a certain level.

Tucker didn’t want to wait either.

Shortly after bidding farewell to Colorado and landing in East Lansing, Tucker made a wish list. It only got longer and more detailed as his tenure progressed. Tucker’s demands are presented to his boss in folders that include a table of contents, appendices and supporting documents.

“He’s not just asking us to spend money,” Haller said. “There’s always a ‘why’ behind it all. And the end product is how do you improve the student-athlete experience? How do we help prepare them? And how are we going to achieve our ultimate goal, which is to prepare our program to be in the conversation for a national title. He tries to get people to be part of a team that is going in one direction.

He has Haller on board. Both travel at the same pace, observed Mosallam. But while Tucker wants to implement his plan overnight, Haller prefers to proceed deliberately and more methodically. knowing that things take time.

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“Change is difficult,” Mosallam said. “With Mel, you come in and say, ‘This is how we’re going to win a national championship. That’s what we have to do. Here’s what it looks like. I went there, I did that. And then there are people in college who are used to doing things one way. And that’s how they know it. So, it really takes Alan and Mel to put their egos aside and learn from each other. And I think they did.

Tucker worked to build this understanding with constant outreach.

Together, he and Haller toured the Alabama football complex to gather ideas for MSU’s own upgraded facility. At various times, Tucker invited Haller to practice and solicited his feedback during impromptu movie sessions. The two men bonded through football, the sport that shaped their lives.

Once upon a time, in the early 1990s, there were defensive backs in the Big Ten. Tucker wore Wisconsin red and Haller MSU green. The shared experiences on the pitch are significant, creating a level of kinship that could never have existed between Tucker and Haller’s predecessor, Bill Beekman.

Beekman had never worked in athletics before being named department head in 2018. Haller’s life, on the other hand, has been steeped in sports and competition.

He wants to win and the fire burns inside him. It was burnt down earlier this year when it scanned the room at Big Ten meetings outside of Chicago, studying his AD counterparts.

“I’m looking across the table like I’m chasing these people,” he said.

He has a willing ally in Tucker, who transformed MSU’s mindset and convinced the university’s leadership to think big.

As Tucker claimed, the football stadium outside Haller’s office could one day be home to a national champion.

“He’s always like, ‘Why not Michigan State?’ said Haller. “He pushed us to a point where he helped us achieve things that we didn’t know we were capable of. The fan base, the sentiment, the history – it’s all here. So it can be done here. It can be.”

Now it’s up to Tucker and Haller to turn their vision into reality.

Contact Rainer Sabin at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin.

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