Mel Tucker dreaming big with CU Buffs

First-year head football coach aims to put Buffaloes on championship path

Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Colorado head football coach Mel Tucker has been a winner in a lot of places during his coaching career. Now, he aims to turn the Buffaloes into a winning program.
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In the late 1940s, automobile entrepreneur Preston Tucker developed what he envisioned as the car of the future.

The 1948 Tucker Torpedo is a rare and fairly obscure automobile, as only 51 were built before the company was forced to shut down. Tucker’s story was told in the 1988 film, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.”

Inside the office of first-year Colorado head football coach Mel Tucker, who is not related to the automotive hall of famer, there is a model of the 1948 Torpedo – painted gold with a CU logo on the side – enclosed in a glass case. It’s fitting, because like Preston Tucker, the Buffaloes’ head coach is a man with a dream.

Although Preston never achieved what he envisioned, he and the Buffs’ head coach have walked a somewhat similar path. They both cut their teeth in their respective industries before leading organizations that sought to build a successful product in a field loaded with established success. Preston tried to take on the likes of Buick, Chevy, Chrysler and Ford, while Mel Tucker is looking to beat Oregon, Stanford, Southern California and Utah.

Colorado fans are hoping the product of Mel Tucker’s work is far more memorable and long-lasting than the Torpedo.

While he has yet to coach a game with the Buffs, Tucker certainly acts and talks like a man built for success. He doesn’t have any wins under his belt, but he also doesn’t have any excuses for why CU can’t win, or why the Buffs can’t attract top talent.

Instead, Tucker sees plenty of reasons why the Buffs should be able to put a winning product on the field this fall and in the future, and he hasn’t been shy about sharing his enthusiasm. From TV and radio appearances to speaking engagements all around the state, Tucker has a knack for firing up a crowd.

“He’s really embraced the role (of an ambassador),” CU athletic director Rick George said. “The thing I like about Mel is he says it like it is. He’ll be very candid with people and I think that’s important. He does have an incredible background of success and he’s had great experiences.

“Him being out in the public has been great. I think he’s done a great job of engaging our communities.”

Part of Tucker’s enthusiasm stems from this being a new job and CU’s desire to cook up excitement for a new era of Buffaloes football. But, Tucker knows what winning football looks like and he has genuine optimism as the season draws closer.  He has built a quality coaching staff around him, and it’s a staff he trusts. Tucker also likes the talent on his roster, and expects those on the field to perform. Above all, Tucker sees great potential in CU.

Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer
Colorado football coach Mel Tucker looks on during the team’s first spring practice Monday in Boulder.

In building his staff Tucker combined people he’s worked with some that he hasn’t, and even kept a few who have been with CU for the past several years. Collectively, it’s a new staff, but after months of evaluation, he is pleased with the makeup of the group.

“I spent the four-quarter program, those nine weeks (in the winter), evaluating the players and the coaches and also during spring ball,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t get too involved with any particular position on defense, Xs and Os and things like that, because I wanted to make sure that I was able to evaluate the players and evaluate the coaches. A lot of the coaches I haven’t coached with before so I wanted to know what their styles are and how they coach and things like that.

“After going through the nine weeks of strength and conditioning and spring ball, I have a great feel for my staff and I feel really good about them.”

That’s not to say the operation is perfect. There are minor bumps all the time, he said, but added, “You have a plan, you work the plan, and you plan for the unexpected. When there’s kinks that come up, you iron them out. That’s all about communication and at the end of the day I have to make sure I do what’s best for CU.”

Tucker likes the roster, too – even if it’s not the same, across-the-board talent that he worked with at Georgia (where he was the defensive coordinator from 2016-18) or Alabama (defensive coordinator in 2015).

“You don’t go into a situation with rose-colored glasses on,” he said. “You’re realistic. There’s going to be talent and there’s going to be some really good talent, and there’s also going to be places where you really need to improve the roster. That’s to be expected. That’s why you have to have a staff that’s committed to recruiting, and you also have to have a staff that’s committed to developing players that you already have.”

Tucker was quick to point out that Georgia made significant improvements after he got there with head coach Kirby Smart.

“Our first year we went to the Liberty Bowl,” he said of that 8-5 season in 2016. “And we lost to Georgia Tech, we lost to Vanderbilt, we got blown out by Ole Miss, we lost to Tennessee on a Hail Mary, we lost to Florida in the Cocktail Party. After that, we got better. We recruited hard and we worked with the guys we had.”

In year No. 2, Georgia went 13-2 and lost in the national title game – to Alabama. Last year, the Bulldogs went 11-3.

The project in Boulder is much different, of course. Georgia had posted back-to-back 10-win seasons before Tucker and Smart got there. CU is coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons with a mere one bowl appearance in the last 11 years.

Nevertheless, Tucker is confident in his ability to turn CU into a winner because he’s been there.

Along with that model of the 1948 Torpedo, Tucker’s office includes plenty of reminders to anyone who comes in the room that he’s had success. Near the Torpedo, in a different glass case, is Tucker’s ring collection. There’s the BCS national title ring he won as a staff member at Ohio State in 2002, the College Football Playoff title ring he won with Alabama in 2015 and an SEC championship ring.

“It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing to be able to show, and show that, ‘Hey I’ve done it. I’ve been there. I have rings. I have championships. I know what it takes. I know what he process is. I know what it feels like,’” he said. “To have rings to show for it, I think means something. Everyone doesn’t have rings.”

Visitors to the office see those rings, but they’ll never see them on Tucker’s fingers.

“I’ve never worn any of those rings,” he said. “I remember Jim Tressel told us after we had won (at Ohio State) … ‘Don’t let me catch you looking at your ring.’ What that means is, you’re only as good as your next play. Now it’s time to move on in pursuit of the next one. That’s the mentality that I have.

“It’s all about achievement with me. That’s what motivates me is achievement. We’re in competition, and it’s really, really hard to finish first. It’s really hard to do that. To have done that twice in two different programs means something to me, and it’s important.”

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
CU head coach, Mel Tucker, at CU Spring football practice on April 24, 2019. (Photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Tucker has coached 12 seasons of college football at six different schools and never been a part of losing season. Including the Rose Bowl ring he got as a player at Wisconsin in 1993 and the three gold pants charms he earned at Ohio State – a tradition for Buckeyes teams who beat rival Michigan – Tucker has collected a lot of jewelry in his career.

What Tucker has never done is earn a ring as a head coach.

Aside from a five-game stint as the interim head coach with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011, this is his first opportunity to lead a team. But, just as he relentlessly pursued championships as an assistant coach, Tucker will now pursue them in Boulder as the head coach.

“I’m highly motivated to be the best football coach I can be,” he said. “I’ve always been like that. I’m also confident because I’ve been there and I know what it takes. I know what the steps are you have to take to put yourself in a position to win. There’s a process that has to take place. It’s a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of people involved. You can’t do it by yourself.

“I have the experience and I’ve seen it done. I’ve been a major part of it getting done and executing that plan and being part of that process. That gives me confidence that I can implement those things here.”