MSU Today with Russ White

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Darien Harris is director of player engagement for Spartan Football. Harris is a former Michigan State student athlete and football player. He talks about his role with Spartans Athletic Director Bill Beekman in this episode of the MSU Today podcast.

Show Notes

Harris talks about what attracted him to MSU and about some his favorite moments on the football field. And he describes his role as the first director of player engagement for Spartan Football.

“It's a position centered around player development, and basically player development is everything off the field that we do with our student athletes,” Harris tells Beekman. “And that spans a wide range of activities, especially with name, image and likeness (NIL) coming out this year and everything that entails for a student athlete. From Coach Tucker's lead on down, we believe in developing the entire holistic student athlete. That means your academic career and your athletic career, but also your social career and your mental and spiritual side as well. So developing all of that. I get to touch the academics, the social, the mental, the spiritual, the branding, all of that.”

Harris talks about the Overtime Program and tries to describe a typical day in the life of a director of player engagement and says the days he gets to spend with student athletes are the best days. He also talks about Coach Tucker’s “relentless” approach to everything he does.

“His work ethic is off the charts, and he makes you want to work harder. It's similar to what you see from your best player on your team. Hopefully, your team captain, whoever it is, the hardest worker and you want to emulate what they're doing. I feel the same way about Coach Tucker. The veracity and relentless nature, to use his word, in which he works is something that motivates me every single day. And I think also the beauty of working under him, working for him, is that he's not a micromanager. So if you have an idea, if you have something you want to do, something you want to facilitate, he's going to let you do it.

“If he has something that he thinks that you're better suited to do, he's going to say, ‘Hey, I need you to get this task done and go ahead and execute it.’ He's not going to continue to check in and make sure you're doing it a certain way. He trusts his people to get the work done. And that's why I think we have such a great staff. I love working with him and learning from him. His career path is stellar; it speaks for itself. Whether it's being the youngest coordinator in the SEC or the youngest coordinator in Cleveland Brown's history, or obviously the 10 years he spent in NFL, to two national titles. I mean, you can't get that anywhere in terms of that wealth of knowledge and what he's seen. I love learning from him day in and day out. I love working for him and just want to continue to learn from him.”

Harris talks about how his undergraduate degree in journalism and graduate degree in marketing impact how he does his work. Journalism taught him how to be diligent in looking for information to share with the players.

Marketing is everything, whether it's in recruiting or how are we market our program. Marketing is key in how we market the program to donors and make sure they know what we're doing so they want to give back.”

Harris talks about what he’s learning from the players and the challenges and opportunities social media present for student athletes.

“That word opportunity is the key. NIL is a chance for our student athletes to experiment in ways that student athletes have never been able to experiment with before. They have to think bigger picture than just social media, advertisements, endorsements, pay for posts, and those types of things. And all that stuff is great. And it's awesome. And you can see a lot of our student athletes, whether it's football or other sports, they're starting to tap into that now. And I love just sitting back because we can’t facilitate anything. I love just sitting back and watching them take advantage of this and navigate the space and become businessmen and women. It's great to watch.

“Most student athletes are thinking short term now, which they should, because student athletes have never seen anything like this before. Eventually somebody's going to break through that door and be a trailblazer. I'm hopeful that the first to really do that comes from Michigan State. I think we have some very innovative student athletes. I think we put them in position with the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to learn how to navigate that space of being an entrepreneur, being a businessman, being a businesswoman, figuring that out, and navigating that space. Some of our student athletes are going to really take advantage of that space in a different way than I think a lot of people are thinking about now and really make a breakthrough there.”

MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870 and streams at WKAR.org. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.

What is MSU Today with Russ White?

MSU Today is a lively look at Michigan State University-related people, places, events and attitudes put into focus by Russ White. The show airs Sundays at 9 A.M. on 102.3 FM and AM 870 WKAR, and 8 P.M. on AM 760 WJR.

Bill Beekman 0:00
I'm Bill Beekman, Vice President and Director of intercollegiate athletics at Michigan State University. And I'm very excited today to be joined by Darien Harris, Director of player engagement at Michigan State University football. So Darien is a former Michigan State student athlete and football player himself. So tell us a little bit about how that all came to be. How'd you How'd you end up at Michigan State?

Darien Harris 0:27
I'm originally from Washington, DC went to dematha Catholic High School after on the east coast in Hyattsville, Maryland, pretty pretty well known High School cross country put a lot a lot of young men in Division One athletics and also when in the professional ranks, but was recruited to play linebacker at the division one level, I had about 20 scholarships to choose from. And it's also you know, it's crazy in this day and age that recruiting was a little different back then even though it's not that long ago, you know, talking 1011 years ago wasn't on a social media wasn't a lot of, you know, coming on campus doing photo shoots and stuff like that you kind of can't even visit seen the campus in the school and and see how you fit and decide if you want to go there or not. So, you know, long story short on all my visits to Michigan State, I love the culture, the atmosphere, the tradition, the Brotherhood, everything that makes Michigan State unique. And I knew this was the place for me. So going into my senior year actually took a family vacation to Puerto Rico. And my dad said on you know, this day, you know, day two or day three of vacation, you're going to go out on the beach, walk out in the water and call whichever head coach at a school you want to want to attend. It's your decision. It's not ours, we done our due diligence, the family, we feel good about your top choices, go ahead and make that decision. So you know, went out there called coach Dantonio and said is the place for me then only took one official visit, you get up to five only took one in Michigan State. I knew I was coming here and the rest is history. I'd make that decision over and over again. I had the best time of my life for sure.

Bill Beekman 1:57
So do you have a particular favorite or favorite moment or two from your your playing days at MSU?

Darien Harris 2:03
Yeah, for sure. I mean, so many to choose from, was blessed and fortunate to be here during probably the best times in Michigan State football history with respect to the 60s in in 6667 national championship teams. But you know, going 36 and five, my final three years when in the Rose Bowl Cotton Bowl, going into college football playoffs, as a team captain was incredibly special. For me personally, you know, in a favorite game I was a part of was a 2015 Big 10 title game against Iowa. They were undefeated, we only had one loss and playing in Lucas Oil Stadium is a special as it gets. I love playing in that in that stadium in Indianapolis. That was my third time playing. They're going for my second big 10 title, we were able to pull it off. And the final seconds of the game like we normally did during that time gave a gave our parents a lot of a lot of scares during that time. But just an incredible moment to be a senior that year, they kind of put us over the top propelled us to the college football playoffs put us on a different level nationally, I think it was a combination of a lot of efforts. So I'm about to point at one moment one game that'd be the one.

Bill Beekman 3:09
Yeah, I think we're one of one of 12 teams to have played in the college football playoff. It's a pretty extraordinary accomplishment and and i think like your parents might have had a heart attack or the final moments of that game but but but as you say, like so many games during that era, whether it whether it was a blood or down to the wire, the Spartans found a way found found a way to deliver. So no, no, no. So you so your title is director of player engagement. What does that mean? Yeah,

Darien Harris 3:44
for sure. It's a question I get a lot and I love answering it. It's, you know, first first of its kind, technically at Michigan State. So I guess I get to have the title was a first ever director of player engagement in Michigan State history. It's a it's a position centered around player development. And basically player development is everything off the field that we do with our student athletes. And that spans a wide range of a lot of different things, especially with his new name, image and likeness coming out this year and everything that entails being a student athlete. You know, from Coach chuggers lead on down we believe in developing the entire holistic 360 to naturally so your academic career, your athletic career, but also your social career and your mental and spiritual side as well. So developing all of that. I get to touch the academics, the social, the mental, the spiritual, the branding, all of that I get to dabble a little bit in football having played but I leave that up to up to the up to the coach staff that comes Tucker's assembly assembled. So basically I helped facilitate what's called our overtime program or player development platform. It's It's It's career development, Career Services, branding, media, training, public speaking, anything you can think of off the field, community service, everything's under that umbrella. That is Overtime program. And now our name, image and likeness as well applying our evergreen program to our Michigan State football team, as well as something that's really big. With with what I do now, I'm also president of football players Association, which entails the entire 220 200 former student athletes football players live in alumni that we have. So oversee that. So you can add alumni relations in there as well, we have a very, very strong alumni contingency at Michigan State, we want to do everything we can to keep them involved. So does it feel like a job, it's something that I actually wanted to do my entire life was actually kind of developing it while I was playing in Michigan State and to see it come full circle and get that opportunity, it's truly a dream come true.

Bill Beekman 5:44
So So what would what would be a day in the life of the director of player engagement,

Darien Harris 5:50
for sure, definitely varies. I would say that the days I get to meet with student athletes are definitely the best days. So usually starts off with meeting what we call keeping it real. So we call it we have sessions called keeping real with first and second year players once a week, where we touch on their academic journey, their athletic career, their social life, what you're doing a community, what being a Spartan dog is being a football player is and how they can better themselves on and off the field. So we usually start those right after their workout. Start those around, you know, 11 o'clock in the morning. Before that I've already you know, seen some of the guys going out to a workout checked out what they're doing, you know, seeing what's going on in the landscape of college football, checking photoplay development professionals across the country, seeing if there's other things I can implement into our program or things they want to learn from from me, then it's just going throughout the day meeting with people facilitating our programming, connecting with different people, different industry leaders, seeing how they can help our program, how they can help our student athletes, making sure our student athletes are on the straight and narrow. Sometimes it can be something as simple as making sure they have an ID, you know, making sure they know how to get to point a from point A to point B, it can be something as complex as what we're working on next year, I'm finalizing the day, which is getting every single player on our team and a brand new suit, you know, suit top to bottom shirt, tie shoes, you know, belt, you know, I take it right now in a heartbeat, for sure. So making sure that say that as well. So that's what I love about the day to day of being a director of player engagement, it changes every single day. But it's a growing position in the country. A lot of schools have somebody in this space. And I think the beauty of this of this role is that we love to share ideas, we love to share ideas with each other, we truly want every student athlete to be successful.

Bill Beekman 7:40
So as I understand your role, you're kind of a glue you you hold a lot of things together, you interact on the players behalf and helping to coordinate with a really diverse set of folks, whether it's strength and conditioning, or academics or athletic training or, or other other resources and then and then with the programming that that you do independently, you create, you know, opportunities for our our student athletes to really learn and grow in a way that is off the field is about life and career success and, and their journey through life. But But of all the people you interact with probably the most important is our head coach Mel Tucker. Yeah. So tell I tell our listeners a little bit about what what's it like working with Coach Tucker, what I mean when people see him on Instagram or Facebook or those via Twitter, those kinds of things. But, but but but what's the inside scoop on coach Tucker?

Darien Harris 8:42
Yeah. So what you see online on social media is what we get day in and day out. somebody that's relentless. I'm sure you all have heard that term, very consistently since he got here. His work ethic is off the charts. And he makes you want to work harder. It's similar to what you see from your best player on your team. Hopefully, you know, your team captain, whoever it is the hardest worker, you want to emulate what they're doing. I feel the same way about coach Tucker the the veracity and relentless nature to use his word in which he works is something that motivates me every single day. And I think also the beauty of working working under him working for him is that he's not a micromanager. So, if you have an idea of you have something you want to do something you want to facilitate. He's gonna let you do it. If he has something that he thinks that you're better suited to do, he's gonna say, hey, I need you to get this task done. And, you know, go ahead and execute it, you know, he's not going to continue to check in and make sure you're doing it a certain way. He trusts his people to get get the work done. And that's why I think we have such a great staff. So love working with him love learning from him. His career path is stellar speaks for itself. I love that the spiel he gives on every recruiting visit of where he started, obviously at Michigan State to full circle to getting back here. You know, whether it's being the youngest coordinator in the sec are the youngest coordinator and browns history. Or obviously the 10 years he's been an NFL to two national titles. I mean, you can't get that anywhere in terms of that wealth of knowledge and what he's seen. So I love learning from them day in and day out. Love working for him and you know, just want to continue to learn from him.

Bill Beekman 10:20
Now coach tells a really spectacular story about selling meat out of the yeah. Oh, yeah. His car. Absolutely. And and if he tells that story, you see this just absolutely relentless personality come through. And I, I was with with some donors the other day who said to him, Well, coach, when do you sleep? And he said, Well, you got to sleep fast. Yeah, that was a new one on me sleeping fast. But I'm gonna I'm gonna try that out. So Darien when you came to Michigan State, you got a degree in journalism as an undergraduate, and then a master's degree in marketing research. How do those things impact what you do on a daily basis as a as a director of player engagement,

Darien Harris 11:16
for sure. So it's actually funny because my roommate at Michigan State, Trey Wayne's is obviously a starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals on the second contract super successful in the NFL, I'm gonna out him here, probably mad at me, but I don't care. He's working on finishing his degree, which is excellent. We have a lot of guys that are have gone and play the NFL and are coming back to finish, which is awesome. He's one of those guys that's getting close to finishing. But you know, he's my best friend, I talk to him every day. And you know, when you talk about a college degree, sometimes people get frustrated because they don't know how they're going to use it. And what I tried to share with my former teammates, as well as my, you know, the current players now and trade being one of them is you're always gonna find a way to use your degree. So he asked me the other day, he was like, Man, you're, you're in football. But you know, you got your undergrad in journalism, your master's in marketing? How the heck are you using that in what you're doing now. And I was like, I can tell you exactly how, as a matter of fact, so on the journalism side of things, I just learned how to be diligent and finding and figuring out in and in facilitating information. Obviously, you know, the, the writing portion is there. And I enjoyed doing that. And I'm able to do, you know, broadcasting work, which is what I always wanted to go into, I was able to do, you know, I was able to work with btn, for a few years, I did sideline reporting this year for the spring game, because I was only when I could get into the stadium to do it. Technically credential to do it based on my background. So that was fun. So there's always that on the side, but also just being able to look for and find information to then share with the player share with the team. I think that's something that you know, my generation, the millennial generation, and that Gen Z, I think they're called the the generation behind us. That's what I think we struggle with the most is how to how do you find the right information? Because social media, it's so easy to get fooled. Now most so I use my journalism background, in fact finding, finding and having to get things right just to find information and then facilitate to our players, our staff, whoever I'm talking to. And then on the marketing side, I mean, you know, as well as anybody marketing is everything, whether it's us in recruiting, how are we marketing our program? How are we marketing the program to donors and make sure they know what we're doing? So they want to give back? How are we marketing the program to former players. So they know you know that they have a place here, a home here, and they can be proud of what I went to. So it was kind of in my head that I didn't necessarily want to do sports admin, even though I think that's an awesome, awesome masters to get, I want to do something a little different. I wanted to do something a little outside of the box, something that not a lot of, I would say former football players, that people going into athletics do I want it to learn about marketing? And how do you market a program better? And I think it's helped a lot with recruiting with with my program with understanding that research aspect of what do people want? And what are they looking for to get out of a product? Because when we're talking to recruits, their families, you know, donors, former players, as a consumer, you know, we're in the business so it's kind of like a b2c relationship there. We got to know what are they looking for? What are the attributes that they're looking for, to make them want to buy, you know, literally figuratively one on one to buy our product want to buy into our product, so love having that background, you know, a marketing research program here is number one in the nation had an unbelievable time going through that RJ school here, as put so many people into high profile spots in sports media, and still glad relationship with both of those programs and looking forward to whatever more education comes next.

Bill Beekman 14:51
Well, speaking of education, it is one of the things that I've always enjoyed about working on a college campus is Is that the young people that you interact with tend to keep you young. Now, the downside of that is that they stay young because they sort of rotate through and, and we get older. Right? And yeah, and and i'm on one side of that, and you're sort of just beginning to have that, but but what, when you interact with, with our young people what, what lessons learned come from that?

Darien Harris 15:27
Yeah, I'm learning a lot from them honestly, day in and day out just how they think how they move, how they navigate. Being in this social media era social media space. And I love social media, I'm on every single social media, I'm tapped into it, I'm plugged into it, I know how it works and how it functions. But I also didn't, I had it, obviously, when I was playing here, but it wasn't to the level it is now. I mean, in the last, you know, five, six years, it's shot through the roof. So just seeing what's important to them, is important to me. And I think that's also what's a cool thing about being on this side of it, even being in this in the sight of an off the field coach, rather than an on the field coach, because I don't have to try to, you know, generally I don't have to take away or try to take away or try to change our guys and what they like, I actually get to feed into it, okay, you, you like this, okay, you want to be a tick tock star, okay, let's figure out how to make you the best Tick Tock star possible while making sure you're also getting your schooling done. And making sure you're also doing doing well on the field, okay, you, you you like this on Instagram, or you do this on Twitter, or you're trying to figure this, okay, let's figure out how to magnify that in a way that's beneficial for you. So definitely figuring out that, that space, just a way that that, you know, I guess I use can use words, kids now just the way that kids interact with each other is a little different. It's different than I then when I was playing here. And so that's, I think one of the toughest challenges is just figuring out that, okay, here's this, here's how you solve a problem with a teammate. Here's how you should handle this space, here's how you should solve a problem with your relationship with a coach, here's how you should solve a problem with not getting as much playing time as you think you should, or, or something like that. So I'm learning from them. As much as I hope they're learning from me, the things I just share with them the most, as I've been where you've been, which I know is a cliche, that everybody to you know, kind of says, but I also follow it up with, I wouldn't, I'm not going to ask you to do something that I didn't have to do myself. Even if I didn't like to do it, I had to do it. So you're gonna have to do it also. So knowing that I went through it, and I've been there done that and had success doing it. I think it resonates with with our guys a lot.

Bill Beekman 17:39
I'm sure it does. And I think having a former player who's been through all of that, that you can look up to get advice from receive mentorship from is a pretty special thing. The you mentioned the name image and likeness. And and certainly that's beginning to have an impact as you read stories across the country. Do you have a sense of what it will mean for for for MSU athletics and football in particular? Now? Yeah, a little bit of an unfair question, because we've only been at this for for a little over three weeks. But But how do you see it? How do you see it affecting our program? And, and what opportunities is your sense that students might have?

Darien Harris 18:30
Yeah, I think that that word opportunity is the key. It's a chance for our student athletes to experiment in ways that student athletes have never been able to experiment before. And I think you got to think bigger picture than just, you know, social media than just advertisements, endorsements, you know, posting you know, pay for post types of things and all that stuff is great and it's awesome. And you can see a lot of our student athletes whether it's football or other sports, they're starting to tap into that now and I love just sitting back obviously because we can't facilitate anything I love just sitting back and watching them take advantage of this and navigate the space and become businessmen and women it's great to watch but you can also do it on the other side creating a business creating a nonprofit you know creating a product that you want to sell all those things I think are what's on the horizon I think everybody's thinking short term now which they should because do Natalie's never seen anything like this before. Eventually it's gonna it's gonna break and and somebody is going to, you know, break through that door and be a trailblazer and Okay, I wasn't seeking out some brand to partner with I created my own brand and took it to a whole nother level. And I'm hopeful that the first to really do that comes from Michigan State. I think we have some very innovative student athletes. I think we put them in position with with the Burgess Institute for entrepreneurship and innovation to learn how to navigate that space of being an entrepreneur being a businessman, being a businesswoman, figuring out Out navigating that space. And I think that some of our student athletes are going to really take advantage of that space in a different way than I think a lot of people are thinking and really make a breakthrough there. So, you know, overall, I think it's awesome. You know, everyone says, you know, do you wish you had of course, you wish you had it, but the key is, it's always about what's next. So, you know, for example, we had I had one year of cost of attendance, you know, that's something that these guys have now. Oh, have and before I was there, nobody had that. So it's always gonna be something new or something. Next, this ni L is just the next, you know, step in the chapter of being a student athlete, and there'll be something else in the next 10 years that this generation of student athletes didn't have.

Bill Beekman 20:44
Yeah, yeah. No, I think you're probably exactly right. So you mentioned earlier your your favorite game that that Iowa game, which was so spectacular. Did you during your time in school have a favorite class or a favorite professor that you can share with us?

Darien Harris 21:04
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I gave you three because I want to I don't want to actually get you four. Because I don't want to get in trouble. If you add five. I got five real quick five. All right. So undergrad, with journalism. I had unbelievable professors, la Dickerson in journalism is spectacular. And what she does and how she puts people on her husband, Dan Dickerson's voice to the Tigers does a great job with being available for us. Joanne Gerstner, as well. Christina Gerstner is also a writer for USA Today. Just to have have her in the space that she's in was was really special and spectacular as well. Bob gu he actually talked to the information class so he really taught about learning you know, how to how to gather information, foyers things of that nature just just understand and how to how to navigate that space and how to be available there. And then on on the on the graduate side with marketing research Dale with Wilson, Professor Wilson, I love being in his in his class and learn about multiple regression and all these crazy marketing research things the way he taught was was awesome. I just learned a ton there in what you know, just the way he taught. I felt I felt like it was something that was it was easy to learn it's it's a it's it was meaningful that that you know, he noticed Little things like I said in front of the class, which is what I tell the student athletes now sitting in front of front of the class it's actually gonna make a difference Believe it or not what your professor so always try to sit in front of the class and his class, write down every word he said. And just had a great time taking the class and then fifth and finally, Sue Carter. Dr. Carter now I believe it is just what an unbelievable Professor she was an ambassador for Michigan State in general. I'm believe she is the faculty to athletic department Ambassador was that for sure. While I was playing here, you know, I stay in touch with all of these professionals, which is great. That's the relationships connections that led me to Michigan State. And what you know, I tried to let our again our players know now get to know your professors. On a level two, when you're done here, you can still contact them, they still want to contact you. You have that type of relationship. So all five of those professors as well as the other ones I had, I had a great time. Great time you and I got me relive in class. I mean, shoot Dr. Dag bovee. And African American history was another one as well, which was awesome. So I can go on and on for sure.

Bill Beekman 23:37
No, it's interesting, Darien because Dr. Dave Bowlby and Dr. Carter, join Gerstner all of people for whom I have tremendous respect and, and it's um, it's a great lesson too. And the others I'm sure are fabulous. I just don't know them but but it's a great lesson to say to young people that those those folks are their treasured resources and and you get out of it, what you put into it. So if you put into it a lot, you'll you'll be able to maintain those relationships for life. And, and I yeah, I have one of my professors when I was an undergraduate student now 30 plus years ago, still still a very good friend, the Dean of our residential college, college of arts and humanities, Steve Esquith, who, when I was here was a James Madison faculty member so that there are opportunities to build great relationships. So Darren will let you go with one last question. We always try and sort of end on a kind of fun note. So we'll ask you one last question. And that is what's your favorite meal?

Darien Harris 24:52
Oh, favorite meal. Wow. Um, so to get from out definitely Chinese food, chicken one Broccoli I get the same thing every place I go you know I technically I'm gonna get paid for this so this is a name isn't like this we can do name and legacy anyway so Asian buffet and openness gray spot schezwan Garden Williamson Those are probably my two favorite places. So shameless plug, shout out to those spots. favorite meals to make personally because I love to cook Actually, I love to grill so I got one of those peligros I grill once a week probably people think I'm cooking for the whole neighborhood but the amount of food I make every time but chicken wings off the grill. Love wings off the grill. So do you two there one from out and one from Inge?

Bill Beekman 25:42
That sounds good. That sounds good. Well, today we've been joined by Darien Harris, Director of player engagement with the Michigan State University football program, a former football player, a student athlete himself at Michigan State, dual degree holder from Michigan State and one of the the truly wonderful assets of our football program, helping impact the lives of young people. So Darien thanks so much for joining us today. Thanks for having me.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai