On Dec. 7, the day after Mel Tucker was introduced as the new head coach of the Colorado football team, I made a phone call to Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Proud as could be, Mel Tucker Sr., was happy to talk about his son, which we did for about an hour.
“It’s emotional; it’s very emotional,” Mel Sr. said of his son getting his first full-time head coaching job about a month shy of his 47th birthday. “Just knowing how he’s influenced people and what type of quality individual he is, he deserves the best.
“I’m glad I lived long enough to see that.”
We talked about the 2011 season, when Mel was named the interim head coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars for the final five games. It was Mel’s first chance to lead a team and, of course, the proud father was in Jacksonville for the debut, against the San Diego Chargers.
“I go down there and hug him before and he said, ‘It’s time to go,’” Mel Sr. recalled. “Those kind of moments are forever.”
Father and son had another forever moment last Friday.
After nearly nine months of preparation and build-up, Mel’s debut with the Buffaloes finally arrived. Naturally, Mel Sr. made the trip from Cleveland Heights.
Just moments after CU’s 52-31 win against Colorado State, I found Mel Sr. in the bowels of Broncos Stadium at Mile High and asked him if he had a chance to talk with his son before the game.
“I met him as he came out of the locker room going out (to the field) and we hugged,” Mel Sr. said. “So, we knew it was going to be alright.”
Did the two men say anything in that moment?
“We got a hug; that’s how we communicate at certain times,” Mel Sr. said. “It wasn’t time to talk.”
This week’s edition of the Monday Rewind highlights the special moment that Friday was for the Tucker family. Also this week:
- Game-changing play and Bobo’s bad look
- Buffs of the week
- Thoughts on the weekend
- Stat of the week
- Pac-12 rankings
LEADING OFF: A lifetime of build up
From the day Tucker was hired to the day his first game finally arrived, it felt like an eternity for fans, and for those covering the Buffaloes.
For the Tucker family, however, Friday’s opener was a long time coming. A LONG time.
During his introductory press conference in December, Tucker talked about his father being his first head coach. While he did play football, Mel Sr. was actually more into baseball and he coached his son on the diamond.
Shortly after Mel’s football playing career at Wisconsin came to an end, he broke into the coaching profession as a graduate assistant at Michigan State, in 1997. Over the course of the next two decades, Mel Sr. watched his son climb the coaching ranks and enjoy success at the college and NFL levels.
Based on Mel’s resume, it’s a bit surprising that a head coaching opportunity didn’t come up earlier. When I asked Mel Sr. in December if he felt his son was overdue for a head coaching job, he said, “Oh yeah,” but also acknowledged that the timing has to be right. Mel had interviewed for head coaching jobs in the past, but last fall felt different.
“We knew he would be probably one of the top coordinators coming out this year,” Mel Sr. said. “I knew he would have some opportunities this year. I knew that there would be an opportunity for him and hopefully to land in a good spot.”
As jobs opened up last year, Mel Sr. thought of the possibilities and Maryland was on his mind. During the summer of 2018, Maryland lineman Jordan McNair died after collapsing during a difficult offseason practice. Maryland admitted mistakes were made and, after an investigation into the culture of program, fired head coach D.J. Durkin in late October.
Mel Sr. believed his son would be a great hire at Maryland. “He would be a large part of the healing,” he said.
The Maryland job never materialized, but in early December, Mel Sr. got a text from his son. The entire message was a flashing CU helmet and the date of the press conference.
“We knew (what it meant),” Mel Sr. said. “That was how he told us.”
Again, no talking was needed.
Since he was hired, I’ve had a chance to talk with Mel many times, whether in his office, after practice or briefly at public events. Every time, he’s displayed a calm demeanor and self confidence that can only come from his experiences in the profession.
Mel often talks about having nerves, but not anxiety; and he talks about embracing pressure. In fact, on the drive down to Denver on Friday afternoon, I heard Mel on 104.3 The Fan and he was asked if there was pressure to beat CSU. I already knew how he would answer the question, because I had asked or heard that same question before. Sure enough, his answer was exactly like it’s always been. “Pressure is a privilege,” he said, while again talking about the difference between nerves and anxiety.
Coach speak? Maybe. But, it turns out it’s actually Mel speak.
Moments before running into Mel Sr. after the game on Friday, I talked with Tucker’s wife, JoJo. I asked her about her husband’s emotions that day.
“I don’t think he was nervous,” JoJo said. “He’s a very even-keeled guy and he knows what he needs to do. He texted me this morning. I asked him how he was doing and he said, ‘I’m ready. Let’s go.’”
It was during those conversations, with Mel Sr. and JoJo, that I realized the Mel Tucker that CU fans see at the podium is the real Mel Tucker. That’s not always the case with coaches. While he’s not going to reveal secrets with the game plan or offer up info on injuries, etc., if he says something during a press conference, he (likely) truly means it.
While I was talking with Mel Sr., after the game, the head coach walked by, cradling the Centennial Cup and surrounded by support staff. Mel saw his father and gave him a hug. The only thing he said to his father: “At least we know where we are right now. We’ll get better.”
Moments later, Mel stood at the podium for his postgame press conference. One of the first things he said: “I have a really good idea right now of where we are.”
For a man who has never been the head of his own program before, Mel Tucker is quite comfortable and not too interested in turning the spotlight on himself. Friday night was a big moment in his career, yet when asked about it, he quickly praised others.
“It was very gratifying, not so much for me, but I just really felt good for the team, the players, and the coaches,” he said. “Also, I was really proud of our fans. It was a great environment for college football. It was loud, everyone was into it, and it was an important game. This team and this football program is important to so many people, and you can feel that. You could feel it tonight. It was a win for our players and coaches, but also for our fans and our alums and all of our supporters at CU.”
Make no mistake, this was a win for Mel and the Tucker family, too.
For Mel Sr., who saw coaching qualities in his son nearly four decades ago as a little leaguer, it was a dream come true.
“It was huge and that’s why we’re here,” he said. “It’s very important and significant and we’re very, very happy as a family for Mel.”
For JoJo, who has been by her husband’s side throughout his career, the night could not have been better.
“We’ve put everything into getting to this point and I’m just so happy for him and so proud of him,” she said. “I love that he was just so calm on the sideline like he normally is and just did his thing. It’s really huge that we got the win and his dad was here and his brothers. That just made everything perfect.”
As he followed his son into the CU locker room and our brief conversation came to a close, Mel Sr. was proud to see this moment finally arrive, but excited to know it was only the beginning.
“They have a good one, like I told you before,” he said. “They have a good coach here. It was important to get that first one and just build off of it and have everybody behind it. It’s a wonderful thing. I was very happy.”
GAME CHANGER: Maddox shines, Bobo whines
CU safety Aaron Maddox simply did what he’s been told to do all offseason.
On the first play of the third quarter on Friday, with CU leading 24-21, the Buffs’ front seven stuffed CSU running back Marvin Kinsey for a short gain. Maddox went for the ball and eventually ripped it out of Kinsey’s hands.
Three plays later, CU’s Alex Fontenot ran into the end zone for the first of his three touchdowns and the Buffs took a 31-21 lead. From that point, the Buffs had relatively firm control of the Rocky Mountain Showdown and eventually pulled away for a three-touchdown win.
“I had a certain gap to fill and I filled that gap,” Maddox said. “I saw somebody wrap (Kinsey) up, but he was still up. The play is not over. One thing we emphasize is when somebody wraps somebody up, somebody goes in and strips the ball. He was holding the ball and it was right there and instincts took over. Just gotta get the ball back to the offense so they can put points on the board so we can win the game.”
Defensive coordinator Tyson Summers said: “It’s part of what coach Tucker has tried to instill on both sides of the ball, trying to play to the last second.”
CSU head coach Mike Bobo had a much different take.
Naturally upset after falling to 0-5 in his career against the Pac-12 Conference’s Buffs, Bobo’s opening statement in his postgame press conference took aim at the Pac-12 officials working the game.
“I don’t understand how big this game is that you don’t have neutral refs. I don’t understand it,” Bobo said. “It’s too big a game to not have neutral refs. … The fumble in the second half, the damn umpire saying, ‘Ease up, ease up, ease up,’ to everybody and then they allow it to be a fumble. It’s not right, but we got our ass beat.”
He was later asked if the 2017 Showdown, a 17-3 CU win that included several offensive pass interference calls against the Rams, is part of his opinion on the matter.
“Yeah, it is. I think it’s bull crap,” he said. “I think it’s bull crap. The game is too big. … You tell a team to ease up and the running back to stop when a play is going and then you award them a fumble, it’s bull crap.”
In reality, Bobo has a point. Maybe a game like this should have neutral refs. But his comments came off as sour grapes, and it was a bad look for a coach who seems to know his job could be on the line in a few months.
After taking over a program that went 18-9 in its final two years under Jim McElwain, Bobo is now 24-28 one game into his fifth season. And, it could get worse, as CSU is projected to have a losing season for the second year in a row.
The Rams, who ranked 117th nationally in scoring defense last year, didn’t look any better than that against the Buffs. The offense showed some potential – and QB Collin Hill was solid all-around – but also had four turnovers.
Unfortunately for Bobo, this was yet another disappointing defeat against CSU’s main rivals. In addition to his 0-5 mark against CU, Bobo is 1-3 (with three straight losses) against Air Force and 1-3 (with three straight losses) against Wyoming. He’s also 0-4 against Boise State – the annual team to beat in the Mountain West’s Mountain division.
BEST OF THE BUFFS: This week’s top CU players
CU had a lot of players step up and play well against the Rams on Friday. A few that really stood out to me:
WR Tony Brown: He led the team with 71 receiving yards and tied for the lead with three catches, but those numbers don’t do his game justice. He made hard catches at times and he was really good as a blocker throughout the night.
RB Alex Fontenot: The player of the game on offense, in my opinion. Fontenot was sensational in his starting debut, rushing for 125 yards and three touchdowns. All three scores came in the pivotal second half. True freshman Jaren Mangham came in with a lot of hype (and he did well, with 40 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries), but Fontenot proved worthy of being the lead back.
LG Kary Kutsch: Given his first start with Buffs, Kutsch rose to the occasion. He was had a really good night blocking up front and the Buffs’ best lineman. He was nominated for Pac-12 offensive lineman of the week honors.
S Mikial Onu: Easy choice, given his two interceptions. Both of them were great catches and both of them came at key moments. The first, in the end zone, ended a CSU drive with the game tied 7-7. The second put an end to a CSU possession after the Buffs had taken a 10-point lead in the third quarter.
K James Stefanou: Gotta give the special teams some love. Stefanou nailed his only field goal attempt, from 41 yards out; was perfect on all seven of his extra points; and sailed three kickoffs – the first three of his career – out of the end zone for touchbacks.
THOUGHTS ON THE WEEKEND
1. CU’s defense in the first half made really worried for the season. The Buffs had a rough first half against the Rams. I still don’t know how good that group will be, but I’m off the ledge a bit after watching the second half. Coaches and players did a nice job making in-game adjustments and playing better in the second half. They also went pretty vanilla, throwing the base 3-4 defense at the Rams most of the night. There are a lot more wrinkles to this defense than we saw on Friday night. CU needs some work on that side of the ball, but I think it’s too early to judge them.
2. Senior quarterback Steven Montez was fine on Friday night. Yeah, he missed some throws early, including the ball he left short for Jaren Mangham on third down early in the second quarter. But, Montez also made some really good throws along the way, avoided mistakes and kept the ball moving throughout the night. He will have better games, but it was a solid debut in the new offense.
3. I’m really not a fan of the “turnover robe” and punching bag that CU is using for its players who force or get takeaways (I’m not a fan of any of the turnover props used in college football, actually). Frankly, I’m surprised Mel Tucker allows it. Seems very anti-Tucker based on what I seen from him. But, he’s a player’s coach and he’s in tune with what gets the players excited. If earning the right to wear the boxing robe for a bit sparks them, so be it. And, who am I to argue with Mikial Onu? The senior safety said, “You want to celebrate that stuff as much as you can. I think the robe and boxing gloves is a really neat idea.”
4. Nebraska struggling to beat South Alabama. Cal falling into a 10-0 hole before rallying to beat UC Davis. No. 21 Iowa State needed triple overtime to beat Northern Iowa. West Virginia sputtering past James Madison. Week 1 of the college football season is filled with sloppy play and unexpectedly close games every year. There are reasons to be concerned about the Buffs after the win on Friday, but it’s too early to panic.
5. The least surprising “upset of the week” had Boise State going to Tallahassee to beat Florida State, 36-31. Yes, I know the Broncos faced an 18-point deficit at one point, but it’s almost an insult to Boise State to call this an upset. FSU has a rich tradition, but Willie Taggert’s Seminoles have not been good. In case people haven’t noticed yet, Boise State is pretty good – and has been for a long time. The Broncos have 16 10-win seasons in the last 20 years, including the last three years. It was also cool to see Boise State true freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier have a great game (407 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT). I chatted with him a bit during the recruiting process and he’s a good young man. Bachmeier might have landed at CU had the Buffs not pursued Ty Evans (who committed to CU before signing with NC State).
6. Could Oklahoma have three different quarterbacks win the Heisman in three consecutive years? Remarkable start for Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts, who threw for 332 yards and three TD and ran for 176 yards and 3 TD. It’s early, but games like this will keep him in the race. Curious to see if voters would give the award to the Sooners again, though.
STAT OF THE WEEK: 65
Years since CU scored 50-plus points in a season opener before Friday. The last time CU scored 50-plus in the opener came in the 1954 opener, a 61-0 win against Drake. The only other time the Buffs had 50-plus in the opener was in 1942, a 54-0 win against Colorado Mines.
MY PAC-12 RANKINGS
How I rank the Pac-12 after the first full week of the season:
1. Washington Huskies (1-0; PR: 2): Beat Eastern Washington, 47-14.
2. Oregon Ducks (0-1; previous rank: 1): Lost to No. 16 Auburn, 27-21.
3. Utah Utes (1-0: PR: 3): Beat Utah, 30-12.
4. Stanford Cardinal (1-0; PR: 4): Beat Northwestern, 17-7.
5. Washington State Cougars (1-0; PR: 5): Beat New Mexico State, 58-7.
6. USC Trojans (1-0; PR: 6): Beat Fresno State, 31-23.
7. Arizona State Sun Devils (1-0; PR: 7): Beat Kent State, 30-7.
8. Colorado Buffaloes (1-0; PR: 8): Beat Colorado State, 52-31.
9. California Golden Bears (1-0; PR: 9): Beat UC Davis, 27-13.
10. Arizona Wildcats (0-1; PR: 10): Off last week; lost to Hawaii, 45-38, in Week 0.
11. UCLA Bruins (0-1: PR: 11): Lost to Cincinnati, 24-14.
12. Oregon State Beavers (0-1; PR: 12): Lost to Oklahoma State, 52-36.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
CU head coach Mel Tucker after RB Alex Fontenot’s starting debut (125 yards, 3 TD): “I see that every day. The way we practice and the pace at which we practice and the physicality, you know if you see it in practice, you know they’re going to be able to do it in the game.”
CU receiver Laviska Shenault on the potential of the offense: “There is no ceiling. We have talent everywhere and we have guys that want to win and we have guys that want to go out there and do what they gotta do. That’s what we need to win games so I’m glad that everybody can do their part and play their role.”
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost after his team’s 35-21 win against South Alabama on Saturday: “We’ve got to have a great week because we’re playing a really good team and an ex-rival.”
Interesting for him refer to the Buffs as an “ex” rival. Not sure anyone in Colorado views Nebraska the same way.
THIS WEEK: Seeing Red
For the first time since 2009, rival Nebraska comes to Boulder for a non-conference matchup on Saturday at Folsom Field.