Mel Tucker, head football coach at Michigan State University Athletics
Courtesy of Michigan State University

How to Cultivate a Winning Culture, According to Michigan State University Football Coach Mel Tucker

Ready for a masterclass in building a winning culture? I only ask because that’s what Mel Tucker, head football coach at Michigan State University, delivers on this week’s episode of the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast. This article is part of our Talking Series, a weekly segment where we break down a topic discussed by our most recent guest.

When Coach Tucker arrived at MSU in 2020, he began rebuilding the program’s culture. While an incredible undertaking, the 23 years he’d spent on the coaching staff of teams such as the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Chicago Bears taught him the importance of fostering a strong culture. In 2021, everyone else realized just how right Coach Tucker was when his team finished the season 11-2 and beat the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.

Coach Tucker believes that a strong culture is the result of how we choose to live and behave every day. Here are his non-negotiables for building a winning culture.

1. Open Debate

Passionate debate is the hallmark of a robust winning culture. As a leader who encourages staff to share their opinions, Tucker wonders, “How can a culture be great if people don’t love and trust each other enough to speak up?” When debate is not happening within an organization, it’s an indication that something’s very wrong. “If people don’t feel like they can speak up, it comes down to poor leadership.”

Once a coach, or any leader for that matter, makes a decision, his entire staff is 100 percent behind him. That’s non-negotiable. Before that decision, there’s agreement and disagreement. That’s also non-negotiable.

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2. Attitude

Tucker is adamantly opposed to two things: negativity and unearned positivity. When you’re down 16 points at halftime, what’s there to be positive about? Instead of giving his team a rah-rah speech in those situations, they discuss what they need to do. Negativity is just as unproductive and dangerous. While a negative thought is powerful, verbalizing is far more potent. That’s because negativity is contagious and can quickly rip through an organization, destroying morale.

3. High Standards

The Michigan State Spartans are a confront-and-demand organization. They hold themselves to the highest standard; when someone falls short, they confront the issue on the spot—not later that day, after practice, or when the game ends. “If a guy’s shirt is not tucked in during practice or a player walks onto the field during a game, instead of runs, we address it right then,” explains Tucker. “If I see it, I confront it; if another coach sees it, he confronts it; if a teammate sees it, he confronts it.” This is non-negotiable because while an untucked shirt may seem insignificant, those small details separate the winners from the losers.

4. Discipline & Accountability

You develop discipline through accountability. “Discipline doesn’t only mean doing what you’re supposed to do when and how you’re expected to,” Tucker says. “It also means understanding the importance of why you’re doing it that way.” Getting to this place as an organization doesn’t come easy; it takes dedication and commitment, but if it’s authentic, you can get the best out of those you’re leading.

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5. Trust & Communication

Trust is the key to a culture’s success, whether at a company or on a football team, and trust starts with communication. Let those you’re responsible for know you see them as individuals and are invested in helping them succeed. Listening is a huge part of this; once they see you’re interested in what they have to say, they know you care.

While it’s common for today’s leaders to brag about their open-door policy, very few honor this promise. Tucker’s players and staff know they’re welcome in his office for any reason. “They quickly realize it’s a safe, comfortable environment. They can come to my office without an appointment, sit, and talk.”

6. Perspective

“The most important thing I want my players to learn is that football is what they do, not who they are,” Tucker says. For many, their identity and self-worth are so wrapped up in being a ball player, but what happens when there’s no ball to score with, no team to support, and no game to win? That’s a tough spot to be in.

His program has developed an in-house curriculum that starts helping student-athletes prepare for a successful post-football career from the first day they arrive on the team. “I believe it’s our responsibility to help these talented young people develop a solid plan for when their playing days are done,” says Tucker. “It may come sooner for some than others, but it’s a difficult day that all athletes must face.”

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Culture reflects leadership, but when asked about accomplishing so much, Tucker says, “I’m fortunate to be surrounded by great men and women who see the game, culture, and winning the same way I do. We each have different skill sets and come together to leverage them for the team.”

While the transformation of MSU’s culture is incredible, his brilliance is not found in his ability to rebuild organizations or implement processes, but in his talent for understanding people and bringing them together for a shared purpose.

Check out Coach Tucker’s entire interview on the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast, available now.

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