“Satisfied is not in my vocabulary.”
Coach Mel Tucker brings his “old-school” philosophy of hard and fast football to CU.
By Larry Zimmer
For the third time in a decade, a new football coach will roam the Buffalo sidelines in 2019. Mel Tucker brings an “old-school” philosophy to Boulder. He expects his team to play hard, fast and with an edge.
“If you’re not going to play physical football, you won’t be on the field,” he says. “We want to win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We will play relentless defense and, on offense, we want to be able to run the ball on our terms.”
He not only stresses physical football, but also discipline, consistency and fundamentals.
When asked if he was satisfied with his team after being on the job for a bit more than eight months, he says, “Satisfied is not in my vocabulary. We must always get better. We’re a much better conditioned team right now. To compete at a high level, you must be in shape. You must be able to progress in practices that will be harder than a game. The opportunity to play football at the Division I level is a privilege, not an entitlement.”
He feels his players have bought into the new culture. They know what is expected on the field, in the classroom, in the weight room and in their daily habits.
Take it from Brian Cabral, who thought he was retired but has joined Tucker’s staff as advisor/counselor for players and coaches. Cabral played for the Buffs in the 1970s, sports a Super Bowl ring from his playing days with the Chicago Bears and was a full-time assistant coach for 23 years at Colorado under five different coaches. He told a luncheon crowd in Colorado Springs, “What I do know is the discipline and the toughness that coach Tucker brings—holy cow, it’s fun to watch. The transition from one head coach to another is hard for the athletes, but the players are responding to the demands—and it is demanding.”
Tucker knows how to win. He has two national championship rings from serving as an assistant coach at Ohio State and again at Alabama.
To use the words of athletic director Rick George, “He has great experience and a terrific pedigree.”
Indeed. The 46-year-old Tucker played college football at Wisconsin and has risen through the ranks as an assistant coach through Michigan State, Miami (Ohio), LSU, Cleveland Browns (NFL), Jacksonville Jaguars (NFL), Chicago Bears (NFL), Alabama and Georgia.
While this is his first stint as a college head coach, he has learned from an impressive list of coaches beginning with his college coach, Hall of Famer Barry Alvarez. Nick Saban, arguably the most successful coach in college football, had his eye on him early. He had recruited him out of Cleveland to play at Michigan State. Tucker turned him down, but Saban gave him his first job as a graduate assistant with the Spartans. Tucker followed Saban to LSU and then returned to the Big Ten as defensive backs coach and later co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State under Jim Tressel.
Tucker coached defense in the NFL at Cleveland, Jacksonville and Chicago for 10 years before Saban called again. As assistant head coach and secondary coach at Alabama in 2015, Tucker helped the Crimson Tide win the national championship. He accompanied defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to Georgia to coach the Bulldog defense and, in his three years, the ’Dawgs were 32-10, won a Southeastern Conference Championship and played for the national championship.
Tucker says, “I have taken a little bit of something from every place that I have coached, but I have to be myself. The team is going to be a reflection of me and how I believe the game should be played.”
All-Pac-12 linebacker Nate Landman gets it. “We see that our coach wants to be a champion and is doing everything he can to be a champion. We are on board.”
When Rick George was searching for a new coach, one of his stops was to interview Tucker at his home in Georgia. George laughingly relates that when he and his associate Lance Carl entered the house, the dining room was decorated in black and gold.
It appears that Tucker was targeting this job. Tucker says, “My agent and I had studied jobs that were open and yes, I did want the job. I’m happy everything came together.
“I felt the program was in good shape. The facilities were impressive. I’ve seen a lot of them, even in the NFL, and what we have ranks at the top,” he says. “There are certain things that you have to do in order to be in position to win a championship, and those things are in place in Boulder.”
Win It All
It’s apparent that Tucker already had a plan when he arrived in Colorado, and it didn’t take him long to put that plan into motion. He set out to build his coaching staff and to organize the recruiting.
Tucker said he realized that the Buffs needed more depth so they stepped up the recruiting with the goal of building a team that cannot only win the conference championship but win it all.
“Yes,” he says, “I mean beating Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma. If you can’t beat them, you can’t win a national championship.”
One of the first steps was to bring Cymone George on board. She left Georgia Southern to become the director of recruiting. She says Tucker “is very up on technology and big on building relationships.”
Tucker is fond of saying that the Buffs are recruiting Savannah to Seattle and it’s not much of an exaggeration. In the past, Colorado has been strong in California and Texas, but the Buffs have expanded into Big Ten territory and have been building new relationships in Louisiana, Georgia and Washington. That said, Tucker has been tireless in building relationships with high school coaches and players in Colorado.
Keeping Darrin Chiaverini on the staff was key. The former Buff wide receiver has solid contacts in his home state of California and in Texas, where he coached at Texas Tech. Tucker added assistant head coach to Chiaverini’s title, as well as wide receivers coach.
“He does a great job recruiting. He’s relentless,” Tucker says. “He loves CU through and through.”
Another Tucker innovation is having his assistant coaches not only recruit in their assigned geographical areas, but also for their position.
In putting together his staff, aside from Chiaverini, Tucker kept CU legends, running backs coach Darian Hagan and linebackers coach Ross Els. The defensive coordinator’s job went to Tyson Summers and the offensive coordinator is Jay Johnson. They will be the architects of Tucker’s plan to bring power football to the Pac-12.
Most important will be quarterback Steven Montez, now a senior. He has started 27 games in his career and in 2018, he set 16 new CU records. In his career he has passed for more than 6,841 yards. Wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. is on most preseason All-American teams. Last year he caught 86 passes for 1,011 yards and six touchdowns. He led the nation with 9.6 receptions per game. As a runner he gained 115 yards and scored five touchdowns. All of this while missing three games because of injuries. He leads a stable of fine receivers, including K.D. Nixon, Dimitiri Stanley, Jaylon Jackson, Tony Brown and Maurice Bell.
Will Sherman, Tim Lynott and Colby Pursell will lead the offensive line, which must improve. There is no experience at running back, but Tucker says, “We have three, four, five guys whom we can rotate. I feel good about it.”
Mustafa Johnson, a junior this year, anchors the defensive line. He’ll be surrounded by inexperienced but impressive young talent. Nate Landman and Carson Wells will lead the linebackers along with versatile Davion Taylor who plays all over the field. There is talent in the secondary which must develop.
When Tucker steps onto Folsom Field for the home opener against Nebraska, it won’t be his first time. In 1994, he was a senior on a Wisconsin team that was one year removed from being the Rose Bowl champion. The Badgers were ranked 10th and the Buffaloes 7th.
“Colorado had a great team,” Tucker remembers. “I can remember Ralphie running right past me. It was a great atmosphere and a special place to play. We came out on the losing end of the deal [CU 55, Wisconsin 17].”
While Colorado is predicted to be last in their division, there is an air of confidence in the locker room. Tucker is optimistic about 2019 and the future. “There are certain things that you have to do to be in a position to win. I’ve seen it and been through it. Those experiences I bring to the table, and our players have bought into that,” he says. “I feel extremely supported. Chancellor DiStefano, Rick George and I work well together. I let Rick know what I need, we prioritize it, and then we knock them off and get it done.”
Buff fans are hoping it will get done on the gridiron.