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CU Buffs moving on as Mel Tucker leaves for Michigan State

Rick George: ‘He made a decision that I don’t personally like, but I respect, and it’s time to move on.’

BOULDER, CO - FEBRUARY 12, 2020: University of Colorado Athletic Director, Rick George, addresses the media after Head Football Coach, Mel Tucker, announces he is leaving. 
(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – FEBRUARY 12, 2020: University of Colorado Athletic Director, Rick George, addresses the media after Head Football Coach, Mel Tucker, announces he is leaving. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

As Mel Tucker and Rick George went on various stops in California last weekend to talk to donors, they shared their vision for the Colorado football program.

Along the way, rumors were flying that Tucker, just one year into his job as CU’s head football coach, was a candidate for the coaching vacancy at Michigan State and George, the Buffaloes’ athletic director, wanted to know where Tucker stood with the program.

“Coach and I have a really strong relationship,” George said Wednesday. “We had a conversation on Saturday about his commitment to Colorado and I was comfortable with that. I believe what Mel told me and I think we had a shared vision of where we wanted this program to go.”

Tucker now has goals for a new program.

On Wednesday, Tucker was announced as the head coach at Michigan State, while George kicked off a search for his replacement.

Darrin Chiaverini was named interim head coach on Wednesday. He has been on the Buffs’ staff for four years, including last season as assistant head coach/receivers coach.

“What transpired in the last 24 hours, it’s disappointing,” George said. “But look, coach is going to do what’s best for he and his family and I support that.

“I certainly have a lot of respect for Mel. He’s a good man. I don’t have anything negative to say about our relationship. I think we had a strong relationship. He made a decision that I don’t personally like, but I respect, and it’s time to move on.”

Tucker, 48, signed a five-year, $14.75 million contract with CU when hired on Dec. 5, 2018, and he was slated to make $2.675 million this season. Per the terms of Tucker’s agreement, he owes $3 million to CU for terminating his contract at this point.

The Associated Press reported that Tucker got a six-year contract worth $5.5 million per year from Michigan State. The Athletic reported that MSU will double the assistant coaches’ salary pool that Tucker had CU (about $3.15 million last season) and the deal includes a “substantial increase to the Michigan State strength and conditioning staff budget.”

After believing Tucker was committed to CU – a commitment Tucker reiterated on multiple radio appearances on Tuesday – George, who was out early this week for back surgery, said, “I got word through some different channels that there was still conversation (between Tucker and MSU). I was out of the office the last two days and immediately I called one of my staff and asked that they get ahold of coach Tucker and that when he was done that he and I would have a conversation and we had that.

“I spoke to Mel late last night and then I spoke to his agent and I was informed that he had taken the Michigan State job.”

Asked if CU had a chance to make a counter offer, George said, “We had discussions about that last night.”

George added that Michigan State did formally ask him for permission to speak to Tucker about its head coaching vacancy.

Tucker, who went 5-7 in his only season at CU, returns to where his coaching career began, as a graduate assistant from 1997-98.

“It is a blessing and honor to return to Michigan State University where I began my coaching career with Nick Saban,” Tucker said in MSU’s press release. “Returning home to Michigan State is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and my family but it created the toughest decision of my life – to leave Colorado. There is no way to fully express my gratitude to the Buffalo student-athletes, Rick George, and our staff. I am incredibly thankful for our time together and I will always believe in Colorado football.

“Today, I am excited to get to work for the Spartans. Together, we will be relentless to create an integrity-filled and winning culture for our staff, coaches and student-athletes in everything we do – on and off the field.”

Tucker’s tenure was the shortest by a CU coach since Bud Davis’ one-year stint as interim coach in 1962.

Despite a third consecutive 5-7 record for the Buffs, Tucker generated newfound excitement in the program this past season.

Tucker opened his CU tenure by leading the Buffs to a 52-31 rout of in-state rival Colorado State. Then, in his home debut at Folsom Field, he led them to a 34-31 come-from-behind overtime victory over long-time rival and 25th-ranked Nebraska.

After a 34-31 win at No. 24 Arizona State – CU’s first-ever win in Tempe, Ariz. – the Buffs were 3-1. That was followed, however, by a five-game losing streak. Late season home victories over traditional Pac-12 North division powers Stanford and Washington helped fans buy even more into Tucker’s long-term plan of building a physical team for the future.

Tucker was popular among CU players and generated excitement in the fan base. CU’s average attendance at Folsom Field last season was 49,573 – by far the Buffs’ highest figure since 2011. The Buffs also had two sellouts – against Nebraska and Arizona – in the same season for the first time since 2005.

Going into last year, season ticket sales rose six percent, to 20,414, marking the first time since 1974 that CU saw increase in season ticket sales for a first-year head coach without a major price reduction.

Tucker also gave CU a significant boost in recruiting. Just a week ago, he and his staff put the finishes touches on a 2020 class that ranks 35th nationally and seventh in the Pac-12 – CU’s highest ranking since joining the conference in 2011.

During the past 14 months, Tucker was often at men’s basketball games and made frequent public appearances, which helped to sell fans on his program at CU.

Now, as Tucker moves on, so will George and the Buffs.

“We’re obviously disappointed to see him leave,” George said. “However, we’re excited about the upward trajectory of our program and we’re already at work identifying the next head coach to lead our program and our young men.

“I met with our players and coaching staff this morning. We reassured them that we will match their commitment and do everything in our power to hire a great new head coach that they can all rally behind. We’re confident that the program is on the verge of competing at the highest level and has the resources and support in place to do so for a long time.”

George said he believes CU’s program is in a better place than it was when Tucker was hired 14 months ago.

“We’re going to go out and hire somebody that shares the same expectations that I do that we’re going to win a championship and we can do that at Colorado with the resources that we have,” George said.