Mel Tucker fights to change Michigan State football fan culture, avoid Nebraska sea of red

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EAST LANSING — Mark Dantonio posed the same question Mel Tucker is trying to figure out: “How do you change a culture?”

Michigan State football’s all-time winningest coached asked that rhetorically in the middle of perhaps the best stretch in school history, the magical three-year run that produced a 36-5 record, College Football Playoff appearance, two Big Ten titles and four straight bowl wins.

Yet even with the buzz of the Rose Bowl victory still reverberating during the 2014 season, Dantonio saw the Spartans’ fan support vacillating. It came to a head during a news conference Oct. 7 that year, three days after MSU nearly blew a large lead in the fourth quarter at home against Nebraska.

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The MSU student section during the third quarter against Youngstown State on Sept. 11, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
The MSU student section during the third quarter against Youngstown State on Sept. 11, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

That night, Oct. 4, 2014, the Spartans creamed the Cornhuskers for three quarters and carried a 27-3 lead into the wee hours of Saturday. Many MSU fans filtered out early, abandoning the 42-degree chill and drizzle at Spartan Stadium and heading to their postgame destinations, assuming another victory to be fait accompli. A large contingent of Nebraska fans remained.

Dantonio would later describe them as “a big red roar.”

Nebraska fans gather for the MSU vs. Nebraska game at Spartan Stadium, Oct. 4, 2014.
Nebraska fans gather for the MSU vs. Nebraska game at Spartan Stadium, Oct. 4, 2014.

Ameer Abdullah scored early in the fourth, then again with 4:10 to play, cutting MSU's lead to 27-16. The Spartans came up a yard short of a first down on their ensuing possession, forcing Mike Sadler in to punt after a Cornhuskers timeout with 3:37 to go. His boot, a low line drive, went to De'Mornay Pierson-El. He cut back and took off for the end zone. Suddenly, it was a five-point game with 3:22 remaining – and the sea of red raged without as many fans in green to drown them out.

MSU quickly moved into scoring territory, but Michael Geiger missed a 36-yard field-goal attempt. One last chance for Nebraska to pull off a miraculous comeback. Its crowd in a frenzy.

Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El runs back a punt for a touchdown against Michigan State in the fourth quarter Oct. 4, 2014.
Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El runs back a punt for a touchdown against Michigan State in the fourth quarter Oct. 4, 2014.

It wasn't to be. Trae Waynes picked off a Tommy Armstrong Jr. pass, and the Spartans exhaled with a 27-22 escape. They finished the season 11-2, losing only to Ohio State a month after that Nebraska game, and in the season's second week to Oregon. That was the last time the Cornhuskers visited East Lansing.

Despite being 5-1 at that moment, that virtual abandonment and near-collapse caused Dantonio to prepare notes about the crowd for his weekly Tuesday news conference. He was asked if the empty stands surprised him, “and do you think it's an issue that should be at the forefront right now?”

“We are trying to develop a culture here,” he said, glancing at his script. “So when you don't get what you want at the end of the game, you have to at least let people know that that's not what you want. … At the end of the game, we needed them there. So I don't think there's anything wrong with asking why.”

Which brings us to Tucker and a familiar foe.

MSU is 3-0, ranked No. 21 in the USA TODAY AFCA Coaches Poll for the first time since October 2019 and might be the surprise story of the early part of 2021 with how quickly the Spartans have turned things around with an influx of transfers. Yet Tucker is cognizant and wary of what’s ahead when MSU kicks off against Nebraska at 7 p.m. Saturday (FS1).

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Michigan State coach Mel Tucker gives a thumbs up to fans as he walks off the field after defeating Northwestern at Ryan Field, 38-21, on Friday Sept. 3, 2021 in Evanston, Illinois.
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker gives a thumbs up to fans as he walks off the field after defeating Northwestern at Ryan Field, 38-21, on Friday Sept. 3, 2021 in Evanston, Illinois.

In part because he experienced a Big Red Takeover of his own two years ago, in his first home game during his lone season at Colorado. Nebraska fans flooded 50,000-plus-seat Folsom Field in Boulder on Sept. 7, 2019, but the Buffaloes sent them and the Cornhuskers home stunned with a 34-31 overtime loss.

“There was a lot of red who left here disappointed,” Tucker told reporters after starting his Colorado coaching career 2-0. “Our fans were loud. I never sensed that they had any type of advantage.”

Knowing how well Nebraska fans travel sent Tucker into overdrive to get the MSU faithful energized for Saturday. It started with his weekly news conference and an emphasis on the imagery of Spartan Stadium being “The Woodshed,” a moniker he explained on Twitter that started with former Nick Saban assistant Golden Pat Ruel during the 1999 season, and was engraved on that team’s Citrus Bowl rings after winning all six home games in a 10-2 season.

It's more than a nickname, it's a mission and mindset to Tucker. By Thursday, he and MSU’s social media team amplified their attempt to jumpstart the energy by showing the coach walking into a lighted Spartan Stadium and saying on the hype video: “I envision this place going nuts. I mean, completely berzerk.”

“When you have a home game, and you don't really get that many opportunities, you have to be at your best,” Tucker said Tuesday. "And you have to put a product on the field that the fans and that everyone can respect and everyone can appreciate and pull for. And so the energy in a stadium and the intensity and the focus is going to be there. And it should be, I believe that it will be, one of the toughest places to play in the country. People should not want to come to Spartan Stadium and play in 'The Woodshed' and it should be a factor.”

That means for the entirety of the evening. MSU crowds often take on some of the qualities of Los Angeles Dodgers games – arrive late to make an entrance, leave early to beat traffic. Trying to replicate how southern football crowds pack their stadiums early and won’t leave until they are forced to becomes difficult in northern climates, not just in East Lansing, when the weather begins to turn. Even Dantonio’s best teams battled this, including that night against Nebraska seven years ago.

Michigan State's Xavier Henderson intercepts the ball intended for Youngstown State's Samuel St. Surin during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Xavier Henderson intercepts the ball intended for Youngstown State's Samuel St. Surin during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

“We all want a championship. We feed off our fans, our players feed off our fans. They just do. And I think the fans probably feed off of what's going on on the field. They just do,” Dantonio said in 2014. “So when you look at that, if you want to change something, you've got to get involved. One aspect of it, just in the history – of everything we do. You want to change something, you've got to get involved. So to get involved, you at least have to ask. You have to ask and you have to say that you're disappointed. …

“How do you change a culture? Sometimes you have to change a culture internally, sometimes you have to look out externally. That's part of game management, I think.”

Tucker met that challenge this week. Whether he pushed the fanbase to change will be determined by how much red he sees Saturday night.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State's Mel Tucker fights to avoid sea of red vs. Nebraska