On the day he was introduced as Colorado’s head football coach in December, Mel Tucker and Buffaloes’ athletic director Rick George both shot down any notion of easing into the job.
“He doesn’t want a honeymoon period and I don’t either,” George said at the time. “He’s here to get started. This isn’t a learning curve. We’re going to get this thing done right now.”
Consecutive 5-7 season s left CU out of the bowl party once again and prompted George to make a change last winter. George is tired of seeing the Buffs play subpar football, and there’s no question the athletic department could benefit financially from a winning product on the gridiron.
Throw in the fact that this is the last season of three-year starting quarterback Steven Montez’s college career and likely the last year in Boulder for star receiver Laviska Shenault – who is projected to go in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft if he skips his senior year – and there is unquestioned urgency to win this season.
Yet, while this is Tucker’s first year as a head coach, he’s no stranger to pressure. He’s spent his entire career working in win-now situations, whether in big-time college programs (Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State) or the NFL.
“There’s pressure every year and pressure every week, pressure every day,” he said. “Pressure, to me, is a privilege. If you’re trying to do something important, you put more pressure on yourself.
“We put more pressure on ourselves to prepare and get it right than I think what anyone can put on us from the outside. If you’re not doing anything significant, there’s not going to be very much pressure.”
The task in front of Tucker is certainly significant. He’s was hired to get the Buffs on a consistent winning track, which has not happened since Gary Barnett’s dismissal at the end of the 2005 season.
Barnett’s final two CU teams both played in bowl games. In the 13 years since, the Buffs have had two bowl appearances (2007 and 2016), one winning season (2016) and now four full-time head coaches.
Tucker has been a consistent winner, especially on the college level. The last time he was involved with a losing college team, he was player at Wisconsin, in 1992. Since then, he’s gone through 14 college seasons and participated in 12 bowls and two national title games.
That winning pedigree has taught Tucker that the way to get CU on track is not to worry too much about 2020 and beyond. Heck, 10 days away from his CU debut, he wasn’t even focused on that game.
“There’s so much that still has to go into the preparation between and now and then,” he said in his office as he watched film of that days’ practice. “I’m looking forward to the season and our first game, but it’s not like I wish the game was tomorrow. I just know there are certain steps you have to take to get to the game every week. I really look forward to taking each one of those steps.
“Once you start looking past that, I think that’s when you lose your focus. Everyone likes to play the game, but it’s preparing to play the games that is really important.”
During his nearly nine months on the job, Tucker has hammered home the idea that the daily steps are essential. There are no short cuts, there are no wasted days. The players have bought in to the daily grind.
“Coaches are putting us in the perfect position to do what we want to do and come out on top,” Shenault said. “I’m excited for the season.”
Tucker’s belief is that by focusing on each day will set a foundation that leads to success not only in 2019, but long after Montez, Shenault and others move on from the program.
“It’s important for us to put a good football team out there,” Tucker said. “Put a team out there that people can be proud of the way we play football. That’s important. At the end of the day, we’ll add it up and see where that gets us this year.
“Typically you can watch a game live or on TV and it’s apparent if things are being done the right way. That’s what recruits are evaluating. I’m not sure if it’s how many games we win or don’t win. It’s really the brand of ball that we’re playing and the direction this program is going.”
Going into the season, Tucker has the current players believing that the program is going in the right direction and that they can win this season.
“I wouldn’t say there’s pressure (to win),” outside linebacker Carson Wells said, “but we know we have dudes and we just want to come out and play. You get tired of hearing people say every day that we’re going to be last in the Pac and we finished 0-7 (in the final seven games of 2018). We just want to come out and play.
“We’re athletes; we love pressure. Everybody on the team loves pressure.”
That attitude starts with Tucker, who feels “very confident” in the foundation being set going into his first season.
“We’re doing things on a daily basis that good teams do,” he said.
Will that lead to CU becoming a good team, as well?
“That’s the goal,” Tucker said. “I don’t believe in self-imposed limitations. If I don’t believe we can win, then who will believe? The belief starts with me.”