As a football coach, Mel Tucker is known as tough, hard-nosed and a preacher of hard work and physicality.
Tucker built that reputation over several years as an assistant coach and during his first season as Colorado’s head coach.
When he was hired in December of 2018, however, I was curious about Tucker off the field. I reached out to a writer who covers Georgia, where Tucker had been the defensive coordinator for three years, from 2016-18, and asked, “What is he like to work with?”
The response: “We only talked to him, really, twice a year at news conferences, so it was hard to get to know him.”
For four seasons – one at Alabama and three at Georgia – Tucker went about his work as an assistant relatively quietly. The head coaches of those programs – Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, respectively – stood in the spotlight.
The past 14 months at CU have been quite a change for Tucker.
As the head coach, Tucker was naturally going to be in front of the media much more than he was at Bama or Georgia, but he’s gone beyond those obligations. He’s been engaging with the fans, is often present at basketball games and other events and embraces opportunities to talk about himself and the CU program.
“I was in the NFL for 10 years (before going to Alabama in 2015), which is a different world,” he said. “So a lot of the people that cover college ball and recruiting, they don’t know who I am at all. I go back to college and Nick’s policy is, there’s one voice and that’s his philosophy and his policy with the media. Kirby carried that philosophy, as well, at Georgia. So, those (media) guys maybe would talk to me twice a year. You look at the last 14-15 years before I got here, there was hardly any contact with me from a college media standpoint.”
There’s been a lot of media and public contact with Tucker since he got to CU, and he is enjoying it.
“I’m more of a people person,” he said. “I like to get to know people. I don’t have any reservations about communicating to people what I’m all about. I certainly allow people to get to know me as much as they want to know me.”
Tucker is often linked to Saban, because of his long relationship with the Alabama legend. Saban gave Tucker his first opportunity in college coaching, hiring him as a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1997. Saban then hired Tucker at both LSU and Alabama.
More often, however, Tucker has referred to the mentorship of Jim Tressel, the former head coach at Ohio State. Tucker was an assistant for Tressel at OSU from 2001-04.
When it comes to dealing with the media, Tucker has followed the Tressel model. He is in front of microphones often at CU, but so are his assistants.
“Coach Tressel made us available to the media and that’s a huge media market,” Tucker said. “That helped prepare me for my future in coaching, dealing with the media. When you become a coordinator in the NFL, you have press conferences a couple days a week. I was always really comfortable with that, probably because of those four years at Ohio State and being under a microscope and being available to the media.”
Like Saban and Smart, Tucker believes in having one message come from the program, but rather than shield his assistants from the media, he simply makes sure they’re on the same page as a group.
“As long as I’m able to communicate to the coaches what the message is, how I see it, I think that helps them when they go to the media to be on the same page, and I think that helps them prepare for future opportunities, as well,” Tucker said. “And, I think it’s better for our fans and for recruits to be able to connect with our staff.”
With the outgoing Tucker leading the program, athletic director Rick George can sense confidence in the fan base, and he believes Tucker is just getting started.
“I think what he’s done is given our fans and our supporters the confidence that we’re going to have the kind of program that we aspire to have,” George said. “I think he does that in the way he handles himself; the way he handles himself on the sidelines, in press conferences and how he coaches and teaches and all those things; and his desire to recruit every day and get the very best player here.
“I’m excited about what he will do here because I think people will be talking about him 15-20 years from now, about the stamp that he put on this program.”