Just a week ago, the ink was still drying on the national letters of intent that secured Colorado’s best football recruiting class in several years.
Mel Tucker was still the king at CU, having sold his players and Buffs fans across the country on his vision for the future while flexing his muscles on the recruiting trail. He had not turned CU into a winner on the field yet, but that was possibly coming with his success off the field.
In a blink, it’s all changed. Tucker is now the toast of East Lansing, Mich., after spurning the Buffaloes for Michigan State. The Spartans got their coach and Tucker’s got more money than CU could ever think of paying.
CU, meanwhile, is left picking up the pieces – and trying to salvage as much momentum generated by the Tucker “era” as possible. With spring football starting in less than five weeks – and there’s really no option to push that back – the Buffs and athletic director Rick George have a lot of work to do.
“I know how important this hire is, just like it was 14 months ago,” he said. “I’m ready for it. I’ve got a good staff around me that are going to help me in doing that. I think when you’re selling something like we are at Colorado, I think it’s an incredible job and an incredible opportunity. We’ll just go out and get the best person.”
As George seeks the best person for the job, there are a lot of questions he and his staff must answer.
What can the Buffs do with the resources they have?
Despite his ties to Michigan State and the Big Ten, Tucker is gone because of money. He’s getting a six-year deal with an average salary of $5.5 million and MSU is reportedly giving him more than $6 million annually to use for assistant coach salaries. With athletic department revenue of $133 million last year and roughly $54 million in conference distribution in 2019, the Spartans can afford that.
Compare that to CU, where Tucker would have made $2.675 million this year, with his assistants getting about $3.5 million. CU’s 2019 fiscal year revenue was roughly $89 million and its Pac-12 distribution was about $29.5 million.
Within the Pac-12, the Buffs ranked among the bottom third in head and assistant coach salaries last year. CU is not in a position to climb much higher on the list, barring a major donation (although Tucker’s $3 million payment for terminating his contract is a nice boost).
“I don’t see them as constraints,” George said of the Buffs’ financial resources. “We know what resources we have. The coach that we bring in, like Mel (when hired in 2018), will know what resources we have. I’m convinced we can win a championship with the resources we have.”
Tucker wasn’t convinced. Having spent much of his career in big-budget programs such as Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia, Tucker was frustrated by CU’s lack of financial resources, according to sources within the athletic department.
George has to either find a coach who shares his belief in CU’s resources, or the Buffs need to find a way to come up with more money to compete financially with its Pac-12 foes.
“We’ll do what we need to do in that regard,” George said. “Not everything is about money. I want somebody that wants to be here and shares the same commitment and passion I do. We’ll work hard over the next few weeks to find that right person for the job.”
Is CU really a destination job?
George believes so, saying Wednesday, “This is where we think people can lay down their roots. It’s an incredible community, it’s a great state and we play in a terrific conference.”
There’s no question Boulder is one of the most appealing places in the country. But, is that really important to a college football coach, whose career survival is based on winning, and not having a great view from the office window?
CU’s glory days were long ago and the reality is the Buffs are tied with Kansas – yes, Kansas – for the fewest bowl appearances among Power 5 teams over the last 12 years, with one (the other 62 teams have each been to at least three).
Tucker told donors in California on Saturday that he doesn’t view CU has a stepping stone job – even as he was using CU as a stepping stone for his next move. CU doesn’t want to view itself as a stepping stone, but before now it has been coaching graveyard, so it’s an improvement. Obviously, CU needs a coach that’s going to be here longer than a year, but the Buffs don’t need to be tied to the idea of finding a lifer.
Who will the Buffs target as head coach?
In 2018, George and associate athletic director Lance Carl hired Tucker, who had no previous head coaching experience (other than a five-game stint as interim coach for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars), but a history of success at Power 5 programs. Their list then also included sitting head coaches from Group of Five schools.
Given how late the Buffs are in the hiring process, it might be difficult to lure a sitting head coach away from his program and anyone with a hefty buyout is likely off the table for CU.
The Buffs aren’t likely to pry a Power 5 head coach away at this point, but G5 coaches are possible – possibly Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson or Boise State’s Bryan Harsin.
Power 5 assistants with attractive resumes include Ohio State’s Tony Alford, Oregon’s Andy Avalos, Missouri’s Ryan Walters – who is a former Buff – and USC’s Graham Harrell. Among that group, Alford has a profile most like Tucker’s, in that he’s had success at the highest levels (with Notre Dame and Ohio State). Three times in the last eight seasons, Alford has been a part of teams playing for a national title. As a bonus, he has ties to the area, as a Colorado State graduate.
“We’re going to go out and find the best coach,” George said. “It could be on this staff and it could be on a variety of other staffs. This has transpired fairly quickly, but we’re prepared and we’re ready. We’ll just see where it goes.”
Do the Buffs need a Buff in charge?
No, they don’t, but three times during his Wednesday press conference, George said he wants someone with the “same passion” for Colorado as he has. A coach with no ties to CU or the state – such as Tucker – won’t share that passion, at least initially.
Obvious and popular early candidates Eric Bieniemy and Darrin Chiaverini do have that passion, as they played for the Buffs. (Walters could be in that category, as well).
Bieniemy, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, has interviewed for NFL head coaching jobs the past two winters and it’s unclear if he has a desire to return to the college ranks. Chiaverini, who has been on CU’s staff for four years, would love the job; he has passion for CU and recruiting, but has not been a part of great team success as a coach – outside of the Buffs’ 10-4 run in 2016.
Is there a rush to get this done?
Yes and no. Spring football is slated to start March 16, which is less than five weeks away, so there is some urgency. Hiring a head coach and filling out a staff of 10 assistants will take some time, though, and there’s a decent chance CU isn’t fully staffed when spring ball starts.
George doesn’t need to rush this decision for the sake of spring football, however. It’s more important to get the right person than the quickest hire.
The search almost surely won’t drag into mid-March, but the last time CU didn’t have a coach in place when spring started was 1979, when the Buffs had to fight a legal battle to hire Chuck Fairbanks away from the NFL’s New England Patriots.
This is CU’s latest coaching search since 1982, when Fairbanks abruptly left after Memorial Day. That June, the Buffs hired Bill McCartney.
What’s next for CU’s assistant coaches?
Head coaches often bring assistants with them, so it’s possible that some of CU’s coaches follow Tucker to Michigan State (four of the 10 followed him from Georgia to Boulder last year). Did Tucker assemble the staff at CU to his liking, or did he do what he could with a limited budget? With double the money to work with, it will be interesting to see how Tucker assembles his staff at MSU – and it could include some from CU.
Tucker fought to keep offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic in Boulder this winter; does he now try to lure him to Michigan State? Tucker also often praised CU’s strength and conditioning coach, Drew Wilson, and it’s interesting timing that on Thursday morning, the Spartans’ head strength coach, Ken Mannie, announced his retirement after 25 years at MSU.
For any coaches who leave CU to join Tucker, they will have to pay for terminating their contracts, but for most of the coaches, the amount owed decreases significantly after Friday.
Of course, even if assistants don’t leave for MSU, the Buffs’ next head coach will hire his own coaches and CU’s staff is sure to look much different next season.
What happens to the Buffs’ 2020 recruits?
The good news to this point is that several of the players who signed for the 2020 class have already publicly stated that they are still excited to join the program, but that could change if certain position coaches leave. Nobody has publicly stated they want out – although some are contemplating their decision.
Per NCAA rules, if a player does want a release from his NLI, he must request the release from CU. If CU grants that release, the player is free to go to another school. If CU denies the request, the player can file an appeal.
For any of the current CU players to leave, they would have to enter the transfer portal.