New Colorado football coach Mel Tucker, athletic director stop in Vail
VAIL — What did Mel Tucker learn from playing for Barry Alvarez and coaching under Nick Saban and Jim Tressel?
“No. 1 is be yourself,” said the University of Colorado’s new football coach Thursday during a stop at The Sebastian-Vail. “They were all different.”
Yet legendary winners are all the same.
It’s that pedigree of success that attracted Rick George to Tucker when CU’s athletic director set out to find the Buffaloes’ next coach in November after parting ways with Mike MacIntyre.
Tucker and George stopped in Vail on Thursday with university chancellor Phil DiStefano to meet with CU alumni on the first stop of a barnstorming tour across the Western Slope. The event was a pep rally of sorts for Eagle County alums and CU fans in the Vail Valley, and Tucker was the main draw.
In front of a captive audience of about 40, Tucker, 47, recounted how George wanted to meet with him just three days before last season’s SEC title game. Tucker, then the defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia, tried to get the meeting moved until Sunday, after the game, but George was persistent.
It was at that Wednesday night meeting, which lasted past midnight, that Tucker knew that he’d found his dream job after 13 different jobs in 21 years as a coach, which included three stints working under Saban and stops with three NFL teams. Tucker’s only previous head-coaching experience came when he went 2-3 as the interim coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011.
Tucker told the crowd at The Sebastian that he’d already done his research on Colorado, from its upgraded facilities to its academics and football tradition, and after coming so close on other jobs, he knew that this was “the one.” He even had his wife go out and get some decorative buffaloes to put on the mantle of the couple’s living room where he met with George and Lance Carl, a CU legend who’s now an associate AD in Boulder.
“I ground them down to a nub,” Tucker joked to the crowd when he explained how he won over the pair. “This is the perfect job for me, and I never intend to leave. This is a destination job, not a stepping-stone job. I want to be the winningest coach in Colorado history.”
No stranger to Boulder
Tucker calls CU a “sleeping giant” just like the Wisconsin program that he committed to in 1990 as a member of Alvarez’s first recruiting class. That’s one way to describe a once-proud program that has been mostly a snooze on the field since Gary Barnett’s ouster in 2005 after leading the Buffs to a Big 12 title in 2001.
Before MacIntyre led the Buffs to a 10-win season in 2016 and a berth in the Pac-12 title game, Colorado hadn’t had a winning season since 2005. The three coaches to succeed Barnett all failed to bring back the luster to a program that won a share of its only national title following the 1990 season.
Despite all that, Tucker said CU has everything it needs to return to national prominence, and he’s never been in the excuses business.
“I look at it like this: Why not CU?” Tucker said. “Why not us? When I hire people, or the best people I worked for, they don’t say, like, ‘We don’t or we can’t or we haven’t.’ They’re always trying to figure out how we can. A can-do attitude. What do we have to do to get it done? Let’s figure it out. That’s my attitude.”
Tucker has participated at a game at Folsom Field before, though he joked that he would rather not remember it. He was a defensive back on the 10th-ranked Badgers team that got stampeded by the No. 7 Buffs, 55-17, in a night game on Sept. 17, 1994.
“I could remember Ralphie running out,” he said. “We were looking forward to it. At Wisconsin, we had Bucky Badger, which was kinda nice, but nothing like Ralphie. When Ralphie ran out that place was going nuts — and it was over. It was over before it started. Colorado had probably one of the top three programs in the country.”
Tucker said his experience at Wisconsin, under Alvarez, showed him the blueprint for how to expunge losing from a program that had known nothing else.
“When I went to Wisconsin, they hadn’t been relevant in football (in) forever,” he said. “We were all sitting in the dorms wondering, how the hell did they trick us into coming up here? And then we’re in the Rose Bowl four years later.”
He got his start in coaching under Saban, first at Michigan State, then following him to LSU before rejoining him at Alabama where he was part of the 2015 national title team.
If he thought he’d learned everything from Saban and Alvarez, though, Tressel gave him a whole different perspective.
“I leave LSU, I go to Ohio State and Jim Tressel’s first staff, where he had just won four national championships at Youngstown State, so obviously he knows how to win, and he’s got a sweater vest and a tie on game day,” Tucker said. “He’s the Senator. He never raises his voice, a curse word never comes out of his mouth. He’s an offensive coach. And we go 14-0 our second season. That was before Nick won his championship at LSU. That just goes to show you, be you. Do you.”
Setting the expectation
George certainly knows what it takes to win a national title in Boulder. He was the recruiting coordinator for that 1990 CU team led by Bill McCartney that beat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.
“If you don’t believe you can win a national championship, then you’re never gonna win one,” George said. “From Day 1, he and I had that discussion.”
That expectation starts, George said, with locking up Colorado’s best recruits and then going after the best recruits in the country. Tucker, known as a dogged recruiter who has coached five first-round NFL picks and recruited four others, said the focus will be on Colorado, Utah, California, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia.
CU’s facilities are on par with nearly any program in the country, and Tucker said that factor, along with a winning tradition from another era, gives him a chance.
“We did a lot of research on Colorado and all the boxes just kept getting checked with Phil, with Rick, the facilities, the school, the town, tradition,” he said. “If you’ve got tradition and facilities, you’ve got a really good chance. Everything was in place … we’ve just got to close.”
Mikaela Shiffrin did a lot of soul searching after she didn’t win a medal and didn’t finish three of her five individual races at last year’s Beijing Olympics after entering the games amid enormous expectations.