Rooney: Mental toughness sharpening for CU Buffs under Mel Tucker

First-year coach exudes cool confidence in first head coach job

Colorado head coach Mel Tucker exudes cool confidence in first head coach job.
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Mel Tucker exudes a demeanor of calm confidence easy to respect.

Through the first week-plus of his first preseason camp as the leader of the Colorado football program, Tucker has diligently met the media after each practice session. He answers questions in the cool, direct voice of a man not only fully in control, but like a leader who has tackled these tangential duties with professional diligence throughout his career.

His impressive coaching pedigree aside, that’s not exactly the case with Tucker. Appearances, even confident ones, are one thing. The fact remains Tucker, a veteran assistant at the highest levels of college football in addition to the NFL, is just now beginning his first season as the lead man of any program, excluding a five-game cameo as the interim coach with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011.

Tucker, in a way, is navigating uncharted waters. Certainly you wouldn’t know it after any conversation with CU’s first-year head coach, yet following his Buffs’ live scrimmage Saturday morning Tucker admitted there have been a few unexpected hiccups as his first training champ has unfolded. Call them minor blips rather than major headaches.

“Every now and then there’s something that pops up that I didn’t anticipate, but we’ll handle it,” Tucker said. “I have a really good staff around me. I don’t have to do it by myself. Our staff is a group of unselfish people. Our coaches, our support staff, our recruiting department — everyone is unselfish. Great communicators. As problems or hurdles arise, we’re able to do what’s best for the team moving forward.

“But we’ve been very efficient at practice. We’ve been on time, or early. Our meetings are sharp. I feel like we’re making the best use of time that we get, even our walk-throughs in the evening. We’re getting quality reps on special teams, offense, and defense. Our operation, I wouldn’t say it’s been flawless, but it’s been efficient and we’re working to improve each and every time out.”

More and more, Tucker looks the part as a leader destined to get the Buffs’ program turned around. His influence may not show up often enough in the win column this season — this Buffs team still largely is the same one that unraveled down the stretch last year, and this year’s schedule is markedly tougher — but the idea Tucker is setting a tough and determined foundation for seasons to come looks far more realistic than the from-the-podium bravado that fills any offseason marked by a coaching change.

Tucker already is leaps and bounds ahead of his predecessor in terms of composure and mental toughness. Too often when things went poorly for the Buffs during the Mike MacIntyre era, CU’s leader responded with sideline tantrums (see Washington State, 2017, as one example) or an inability to get his team’s mental focus turned around, as was the case last year when the second-half meltdown against Oregon State led to a final-month downward spiral.

Not that Tucker isn’t bound to have his emotional sideline moments (I pity the first ref that feels the wrath of a guy who looks like he could still take a few reps for the Buffs at strong safety) but Tucker doesn’t come across as a guy who will let emotion overcome reason. Mental toughness is every bit a component of the overall toughness Tucker has preached since his hiring; win or lose, the Buffs are bound to be improved in that department this fall.

“I believe in lifelong learning. I learn something new every day,” Tucker said Saturday. “No one is perfect. If I do make a mistake, I want to know why I made a mistake and what I have to do to fix it to make sure I don’t make that mistake again.” Then that quiet confidence flashes to the forefront, with Tucker adding with a knowing smirk, “But I haven’t made very many so far.”