Top 5: Sophomore MSU Coaches
The kickoff of Mel Tucker's second season as the coach of Michigan State currently sits 23 days away. After a tumultuous first 18 months since his hiring, I think I speak for most Spartan Football fans when I say excitement hasn't been this high in a long time.
Year one was showered in every kind of asterisk, from a strangely timed hiring, to the in-person recruiting hiatus, to an abbreviated off-season and fall camp schedule, and a season that was as chaotic as any in my lifetime. And while there are still plenty of unusual circumstances surrounding college football heading into the 2021 season, this year should provide the first real glimpse at what Mel Tucker's Spartan Dawgs are all about.
As kickoff approaches, I wondered how previous coaches faired in their second season at the helm, and how I could use that as a measuring stick for whatever success or failure is in store for us this year. I took a look at every MSU coach who had the privilege of coaching at least two seasons, and tried to narrow down the best five second seasons in MSU coaching history.
But before we get to the top five, let's lay the foundation. Since 1896, the first year the MAC Aggies suited up, a total of 19 coaches have reached a second season. The aggregate record of those second seasons was 0.624 (112-66-8).
Prior to joining the Big Ten, there were a handful of very strong seasons, highlighted by Chester Brewer's 1904 team that went 8-1 while outscoring it's opponents by a total of 380-16, John Maclin's 7-1 team in 1912, and Charlie Bachman's 1934 team that finished with an 8-1 record as Bachman became the first sophomore head coach to defeat Michigan in a 16-0 shutout at the Big House (though it wasn't quite so big at the time, with around 30,000 in attendance).
That said, it's difficult to measure those early teams against modern Big Ten seasons, given the varied level of competition and the fact that they may as well have been playing an entirely different sport. So for this list, I'll only be ranking second year coaches since 1954 - the year the Spartans were admitted to their current conference.
5 - Darryl Rogers (1977)
Darryl Rogers was head coach of the Spartans for only four seasons (1976-79), punctuated by a share of the conference championship his third season. BUT we're not here to talk about third seasons.
His second year, the Spartans got off to a woeful 2-3-1 start with losses to Washington State, at Notre Dame, and at home against Michigan, but it was a mid-season tie at Indiana that turned the season around. After splitting the treasured Old Brass Spittoon, MSU reeled off five straight victories led by future legends Kirk Gibson, Larry Bethea, Dan Bass and co.
While it may not have been the most illustrious season (never cracking the top 25, playing in a bowl game, or winning any hardware), the team finished with a 6-1-1 conference record, finishing third in the Big Ten and setting up the previously mentioned conference championship the following season.
4 - Denny Stolz (1974)
The second of his three seasons at the helm was Denny Stolz's most successful campaign. Similar to Rogers' 1977 season, Stolz came out of the gates with a 2-3-1 record, again with a week 6 tie in Champaign. What set Stolz's '74 team ahead of Rogers were his back-to-back upsets of top-25 conference foes, first beating Wisconsin at Camp Randall 28-21, then taking down the top-ranked Buckeyes at home in one of the most chaotic finishes in MSU history.
The Spartans' only televised game of the season featured an OSU touchdown after time expired (or before depending on which referee you were looking at), Woody Hayes patently slapping an MSU fan rushing the field, and a controversial decision by Big Ten Commissioner (and, I can only hope, aspiring Western film star) Wayne Duke. The madness culminated in a decision to award victory to the Spartans, and they would go on to win their remaining two games, finishing third in the conference at 7-3-1 and 6-1-1 in conference play.
3 - Bobby Williams (2001)
Finally, a coach I was alive to witness first hand. Bobby Williams took the reigns of the program in 2000 after Nick Saban's famous midnight departure, and while his tenure didn't even survive his third season, he did give fans of the Green and White something to be excited about the year before.
An up and down year through and through, the Spartans burst out of the gates with victories over Central Michigan and at Notre Dame in the first two weeks, before a deflating one-point loss to No. 16 Northwestern on the road.
After two more wins and a loss, Williams claimed his small piece of Spartan history, defeating 6th ranked Michigan at home 26-24 in one of the most infamous renditions of the annual rivalry game tradition. With time running down, Jeff Smoker clocked the ball with a second(ish) remaining, and capped off the game with a four-and-goal touchdown pass to TJ Duckett. Whether or not the clock should have run out will be debated forever, but the records will continue to show a win for the Spartans in what is undoubtedly the biggest win of Bobby Williams' MSU career.
Following the win over Michigan, the Spartans would sputter to a 1-3 finish to the regular season, capping the year with a 44-35 win over #20 Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Classic. At 7-5 with Paul Bunyan back on campus and the emergence of freshman sensation Charles Rogers, 2001 was an optimistic time in East Lansing, even if the feeling didn't last over the next few years.
2 - Mark Dantonio (2008)
Speaking of optimism, 2008 was a special season for Spartan fans, as Mark Dantonio's band of misfits put themselves on the map.
After a season opening loss on the west coast at Cal, the Spartans reeled off six straight victories and would enter the top 25 for the second time under Dantonio. After a week 8 loss to the Buckeyes at home, the Spartans travelled to Ann Arbor to butt heads with the Wolverines in their first meeting since the now-infamous "Little Brother" comment by Mike Hart. In front of 110,000 blue and corn faithful, Dantonio's Spartan Dawgs exacted revenge to the tune of a 35-21 victory, the first of four straight victories in the battle for Paul Bunyan that would cement Dantonio as one of the great coaches in MSU history.
With Paul in his rightful home, the Spartans would win two more games before falling to #7 Penn State and #16 Georgia in the Citrus Bowl, ultimately finishing 9-4, marking only the second time in MSU history a second year coach reached 9 wins.
1 - Duffy Daugherty (1955)
When I started gathering data for this post, it was pretty clear there was a number one, and there was everyone else. After taking the reigns from a very successful Biggie Munn dynasty and subsequently falling flat with a 3-6 first season in the Big Ten, Daugherty got things back on track quickly.
The team started strong with a win at Indiana, but fell a week later to second-ranked Michigan by a touchdown. What proved to be the only flaw in one of MSU's best seasons ever, the Spartans would win their final eight games, including home wins against #20 Stanford and #4 Notre Dame, with three shutouts and a combined season score of 253-83. The season would ultimately culminate in a Rose Bowl victory over #4 UCLA, just the second Rose Bowl victory in program history.
All said, Duffy's Spartans finished 9-1, with a 5-1 conference record, their first Big Ten Championship and were crowned National Champions by one of the NCAA's designated selectors.
Daugherty was the only coach in his second season in MSU history to break a .900 win-percent, win the Big Ten, win a major bowl game, or win a National Championship, clearly establishing himself as the greatest second-year head coach in Spartan history.
? - Mel Tucker (2021)
While exceeding the success of Daugherty's second season might be considered an unreasonable expectation for Mel Tucker's new-look Spartans, it's only fair to wonder where Tucker will fall on this list in a few short months. All in all, sophomore coaches have a surprisingly strong history in East Lansing, and if Tucker wants to fit in, he'll have to at least scrape by with an above-.500 season and a bowl appearance. Anything more than that would place Tucker handily inside the top-5 with plenty to be optimistic about.
In just 23 short days, he'll be on his way.