Mel Tucker could have started his head coaching career almost anywhere. As a prime-of-his-career 47-year-old accomplished defensive coordinator, he has a resume stuffed with plenty of references.
A member of a national championship staff at Ohio State and Alabama. Ten years in the NFL. His former bosses -- Jim Tressel, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart -- can vouch for him.
Something you won't find on any resume: Tucker was one of the most valued assistants in the country. At least in college, wherever he went, teams prospered.
Ohio State in 2002 and Alabama in 2015 won championships with Tucker on the staff. In consecutive years, Georgia played for the College Football Playoff National Championship (2017) and won the SEC East (2017-18) with Tucker coordinating Smart's defense. As defensive coordinator the last four years with the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide, his units never finished out of the top 20 in total defense.
What then is Tucker doing at … Colorado?
"I had all these boxes, and Colorado just kept checking the boxes," Tucker said. "Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. It was an easy decision."
Nothing specific and nothing against the Buffaloes, but the program seems below Tucker. Since 2002, there have been exactly three winning seasons at Colorado. Mike MacIntyre became national coach of the year in 2016 when he led the Buffs to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Two years later, MacIntyre was fired.
Into that void jumped Tucker, a defensive back in Barry Alvarez's first recruiting class at Wisconsin and a Cleveland native who has no discernible ties to the West, the Pac-12 or Colorado.
"It was kind of one of those things," Tucker said of his SEC experience. "'Is this guy going to go back to the NFL? Is he just stopping here for a year?' It forced me to realize I was in college football to stay."
Colorado should be so lucky. If we're going to criticize schools for hiring coaches with ties to the program, then we must praise CU athletic director Rick George for landing one of the best names on the board.
In a conference known for its offense, George went for a defensive guy. Of the 27 new hires in 2019, Tucker is one of only six with defensive background. If the Pac-12 is going to get better on the field, maybe it starts with Tucker.
"My story is a little bit different because I was in college for eight years, then I was in the NFL for 10," Tucker said. "They're not the same world. I disappeared from college football, and I came back in 2015 with Saban."
That relationship started in 1997 when Saban hired Tucker as a graduate assistant at Michigan State. Saban went on to hire him twice more at LSU and Alabama.
"He is one of the brightest coaches in our profession," Saban said when Tucker was hired.
"He is an exceptional coach, coordinator and trusted friend," Smart said. "Mel has been one of the major influences in the success we have had, and we will certainly miss him."
So what's wrong with playing a little defense in the Pac-12? That's how Pete Carroll turned around USC. For all the Heisman Trophies won, USC had almost as many consensus All-Americans on defense (seven) as offense (eight) during Carroll's time.
Bill McCartney turned Colorado into a national power three decades ago by recruiting California and building a defense that matched up with Nebraska in the Big Eight.
"I played against those teams when I was at Wisconsin," Tucker said. "We got blown out."
As for the "why" of Colorado …
"How many places are they the program in the state and you a strong in-state recruiting base?" Tucker said. "We won a national championship at Ohio State our second season. They hadn't won since 1968. Georgia hadn't won since 1980."
Colorado hasn't won a national championship since 1990 or a conference title since 2001.
Tucker is still in that honeymoon phase in Boulder, Colorado. When asked about his 18-hour days spent getting CU up to speed, he said, "I sleep fast."
Why CU? For some reason, the state has become somewhat of an incubator for SEC coaches. Jim McElwain went from Alabama offensive coordinator to Colorado State ] coach to Florida. Current Rams coach Mike Bobo is entering his fifth year at Colorado State after arriving as Georgia's offensive coordinator.
"It's not only if we do win, but how do we look on the field," Tucker said. "When you leave the stadium, you want people to say, 'Those guys are smart. Those are winners. They're in great condition. They play with passion.'"
Colorado fans would settle for a reasonable facsimile of Georgia and Alabama.