Rooney: Hands-on approach befitting of Mel Tucker’s vision for CU football

Veteran coach taking first shot at leading role

Colorado head coach Mel Tucker, right, works with cornerback Chris Miller during Saturday’s practice.

You can take an old-school defensive guy and force him to oversee the other side of the ball. You can give him bigger responsibilities and the world of pressure that comes with any coach’s first full-time head coaching position with any high-level program.

At the end of any day, however, the equation is simple. Defensive guys love defense. And Mel Tucker is no different.

While Thursday marked the first official day of practice for the 2019 Colorado Buffaloes and the start of the Tucker era, Saturday morning offered a less official but more celebratory kickoff to the football season, with Tucker opening the doors to Folsom Field for what is scheduled to be the Buffs’ only open practice of the season.

Excluding a five-game stint as the interim head coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011, this week marks the start of Tucker’s first season as the leader of his own program in a coaching career that began 22 years ago as a graduate assistant at Michigan State. This, finally, is Tucker’s chance to shine. Given he inherits a flawed yet much more favorable situation than either of his three most recent predecessors at CU, it’s easy to understand why Tucker was working the Folsom grass as jubilantly as his players.

Tucker spent a solid chunk of his time on Saturday morning giving hands-on instruction to the Buffs’ cornerbacks. That’s not exactly a bombshell, as Tucker said previously he likely will lend a helping hand on defense. Yet it showed that no matter the highs and lows the Buffs may experience under Tucker’s watch, he won’t be a guy content to watch it unfold from a CEO-type perch from afar.

Tucker prefers rolling up his sleeves and diving into the action.

“It’s a little bit of an adjustment. I like working with the DBs. I can’t help it. Somehow I end up drifting over to them and trying to help those guys out,” Tucker said. “In the NFL, you can have as many coaches as you want. There’s no limit on coaches. In college football, there’s a limit on how many guys you can have full-time working with your players. You need to be all-hands-on-deck. If I have an expertise as a head coach it’s up to me, and I owe it to the players, to give those guys what I’ve got.

“I really enjoy coaching the technique and fundamentals of the game. It’s not difficult for me to run the entire operation and take eight or 10 minutes to work with the corners or safeties.”

Tucker is precisely where he wants to be, leading a Power 5 Conference team like Colorado and, more generally, being part of the college game. The Buffs’ new leader can’t quite be described as a college football lifer with a solid 10-year run in the NFL on his resume. But, still shy of 50, Tucker aims to alter that narrative by the time he eventually calls it quits on his coaching career.

When Tucker’s last NFL job expired in Chicago following the 2014 season, he turned to Alabama coach Nick Saban — the man who gave him his first job at Michigan State — to help him re-assimilate to the college ranks. A cynical glance might say Tucker was glad to move back to college, given none of the NFL teams for which he served as defensive coordinator — in Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Chicago — finished with a winning record. The final three of those teams, his final year in Jacksonville and two years with the Bears, produced some of the worst defenses in the NFL.

Nevertheless, to watch Tucker in action is to witness a man who indeed seems more suited to molding impressionable young men than leading paid professionals. As he has since his arrival last winter, Tucker said all the right things on Saturday, though a new coach stirring excitement amongst a fan base starved for success is a classic fish-in-a-barrel conquest.

The real tests don’t begin until the Aug. 30 kickoff against Colorado State. Tucker might not be able to erase the stigma of just one winning season for CU since 2005 in the course of just a few months. But it certainly won’t be because he’s miscast for the role.

“I made a conscious decision to come back to the college game. I felt like I had a lot to offer the young people,” Tucker said. “Just relationships on and off the field. I have a tremendous amount of experience. I thought that I could have more of an impact on these young guys’ lives. So that was one of the major reasons why I came back to college.”