Mel Tucker Sr. was at work one day in 1997 when he received a phone call from his oldest son.
"He said, 'Dad, Nick Saban called. He said if I want to coach defensive backs, I need to come there and come there now,'" Tucker said.
With that, Tucker drove his son, Mel II, to East Lansing, Mich. Not long after their arrival, the assistant coaches at Michigan State cornered Mel II.
"They said, 'Why would you want to get in this business?,'" Mel Sr., said.
The veteran coaches on Saban's staff at Michigan State knew all about the nature of the business. College coaching, especially for assistants, can lead to a lot of moving and a lot of stress, and it's not always easy on families.
Mel II, who was 25 years old at the time, told his father, "When we were pulling up and I heard the whistle blowing, I knew it was for me."
More than two decades after taking that position as a graduate assistant for Saban, Mel II is now ready to lead his own program. Hired last month as the 26th full-time head coach in Colorado football history, Mel II, who turned 47 on Friday, has a job that he's been preparing for since his childhood in Cleveland.
Mel II was the first child born to Mel Sr. and Brenda Tucker, and for the first eight years of his life, he was their only child. They lived in an apartment in the Cleveland Heights area and young Mel didn't have many kids to play with there.
"It was basically all adults," Mel Sr. said. "He was around adults all the time. He related to people and they related to him. He was the type of person, he made his own friends, adults as well. It was amazing to watch, so I think that has something to do with how he's able to relate to anybody at anytime, anywhere."
Looking back, Mel II said he learned at that young age to gain respect for adults because that's who he was around all the time.
"When you're an only child for eight years, and I think in our apartment complex there were two other kids in the whole deal, I think you develop very good listening skills," he said.
Eventually, the Tuckers moved into a home and had two more sons, Rhys and Jordan, but by then Mel II had developed a certain level of maturity because of those early years.
As an only child for his first eight years, Mel II also spent a lot of time with his parents and grew very close to them.
"We just didn't feel comfortable leaving him with anybody, babysitting or anything like that, so he was always with us," Mel Sr. said. "When we went on our first cruise, we took him. We took him with us all the time.
"Then he got up to where it was time to teach him how to play baseball."
Mel Sr. played at Toledo on a football scholarship, but, "Baseball was always my favorite sport." Because of that, he got his son into the game at an early age.
"My dad was really my first coach," Mel II said. "I admired my dad for the way he worked with guys, the way he was able to motivate kids. He was always enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. He was a great teacher. You didn't want to let him down."
For nearly 20 years, Mel Sr. coached his sons in baseball and said he felt comfortable taking players on his team that weren't the best, because he could work with them and teach them. The two were competitive, though, and even when Mel II was a little leaguer, he had an eye for talent.
"We would spend a lot time together going to the games and coming back and talking about the game, talking about the players, talking about their skills," Mel Sr. said. "He was all over that. I would say, 'I don't know about Johnny.' And Mel would say, 'Dad he's just in a slump.' He would give his input. He could evaluate talent."
In middle school, Mel II began playing football and, as the quarterback, displayed leadership qualities at that age.
"They always looked up to him," Mel Sr. said of his son's teammates, adding that Mel II mentored his younger brothers as they got into sports.
Become a Badger
As an All-State player at Cleveland Heights High School, Mel II was recruited by Saban, who had just taken the head coaching job at Toledo, and Air Force. In fact, legendary Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry had Mel II locked in to play option quarterback for the Falcons.
"(DeBerry) came to the house, and then Mel took that trip and fell in love with the Air Force Academy," Mel Sr. said. "He made his mother very happy because she knew he was going to get a big time education and the discipline and everything. He really liked that discipline. He was into that, so it was a done deal."
When CU athletic director Rick George went looking for a new coach several weeks ago, he mentioned that discipline was a strong quality he wanted in the Buffaloes' new leader. He found that in Mel II, because it's a trait he developed early in his childhood.
"I just think it came from watching my dad and my mom," he said. "They're just very grounded, attention to detail and do things the right way. That appealed to me."
Although Mel II liked the prospect of playing for the Falcons, his dream was to play in the Big Ten. Prior to signing day, Wisconsin hired Barry Alvarez as head coach, and Tucker got a scholarship offer from the Badgers.
"His mother cried a little bit, because she really was high on him going to the Air Force," Mel Sr. said. "But, he made his own decision."
The decision to play at Wisconsin allowed Mel II to learn from one of the best coaches in college football. During his fourth year at Wisconsin, in 1993, Mel II missed the season with a leg injury, but spent the season working closely with Alvarez.
Starting a career
When Mel II got the call from Michigan State, Saban was just a few years into what has turned out to be a remarkable career. Now in his 12th season at Alabama, Saban will try to win his seventh national title on Monday against Clemson.
Mel II made an immediate impression on Saban during those two seasons at Michigan State. During that time, he computerized a lot of reports — basically doing some analytics before analytics became common — for Saban and earned a reputation for his football IQ.
Saban helped Mel II land his first full-time job, as the defensive backs coach at Miami-Ohio, in 1999. In 2000, Saban hired him at LSU. After four seasons (2001-04) at Ohio State and 10 seasons with three different NFL teams, Mel II was hired by Saban again, in 2015 at Alabama.
At each stop along the way, Mel II prepared himself a bit more for the opportunity of becoming a head coach. He has been mentored by Alvarez, Saban, Jim Tressel, Mark Dantonio, Romeo Crennel, Jack Del Rio and others.
Compared to others with lesser resumes who have become head coaches, Mel II would seem to be overdue for a head coach position, and his father admits there was some frustration along the way, but he added, "It was just the nature of the business. It's a business of associations and relationships."
Mel II had interviewed for head coaching jobs in the past, including at Wisconsin in 2012 (Alvarez, now the athletic director, ultimately hired Gary Andersen instead), but it wasn't until the Colorado opportunity came up that he finally got his shot.
"I think timing is everything," Mel II said. "I've treated every coaching job that I had as though it was going to be the only one I would ever have. I've never had to look for a job after the first one I got, coming out of Michigan State as a graduate assistant. It's really just focusing on doing the right thing and trying to be the best coach I can be.
"I went to the NFL not to just be in the NFL; I wanted to become a better coach. I just happened to be there 10 years. I've always really enjoyed college and recruiting. (Going to Alabama in 2015) was a pivot for me from a career standpoint, but it's something I really felt like was my calling to work with these young men."
Mel Sr. and Brenda found out about their son getting hired at CU when he texted them with a flashing CU helmet and the date of the press conference.
"I think he was very excited and proud; my mom, too," Mel II said. "They know this has been a long journey, but it's been a fun journey and we're just starting. We're really just warming up."
While Mel II is just warming up at CU, Mel Sr. has seen the foundation being laid for more than four decades and couldn't be more proud to see his son leading the Buffaloes. He admits he's biased, but has no doubt his son will succeed in Boulder.
"It's always been a thing of pride to see him excel and advance and do well," Mel Sr. said. "This is something that is very exciting for the family. I'm very happy for him. He really deserves it. I know that he's a high integrity guy. He's loyal. He's a winner. He knows what it takes to win at that level. He's his own man, but he's a good son.
"Colorado, they got a good one."