ATHENS — I first met Mel Tucker in 2015. At the time he was secondary coach at Alabama.
I’d gone out to Phoenix cover the Alabama-Clemson national championship game because Kirby Smart had been appointed Georgia’s new head coach and he was still the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator. There were rumblings that Smart was going to bring the Bama DBs coach with him to Georgia as his defensive coordinator and, at the time I knew very little about him.
I learned a lot in those next few days (among them that Tucker prefers to communicate via email rather than text or phone call). It didn’t take long to realize that the Bulldogs and Smart were very fortunate to have Tucker joining them in Athens.
Everybody I talked to, from the NFL to the college ranks, raved about the abilities of this relatively young coach. He was 42 at the time. Now he’s 46 and he just landed his first head coaching job. That it’s a Power 5 job in the Colorado Buffaloes tells you the level of respect this man carries in the business.
I still see the Pac-12 and West Coast region as bit of an odd fit just because it doesn’t fall into Tucker’s professional footprint. But, as they say, coaching is coaching, regardless of where it’s being done. With that in mind, I firmly expect Tucker to have great success.
He sure did as Smart’s right-hand man at Georgia and Alabama. I could cite stat after defensive stat, but the bottom line comes down to Tucker fielding top 20 overall defenses every year he was with the Bulldogs. That was the case again this season as Tucker was charged with rebuilding a unit that had lost seven starters to graduation and/or the NFL.
Not the least of that rebuild was having to be done in the defensive backfield, where Tucker also served as position coach. Three-fifths of the group that helped Georgia make to the National Championship Game was having to be replaced. The new guys were going to have to come from a pool of talented but young players, many of whom Tucker had a hand in recruiting. The Bulldogs signed 12 DBS in the last two recruiting classes. They started a freshman at one cornerback all season, and sent in first-year players with every rotation.
With that group, the Bulldogs were able to finish the season with the nation’s 15th-ranked pass defense, allowing just 180.5 yards per game.
“We always want to play great defense here regardless of who the players are,” Tucker said during Georgia’s preseason camp. “There are always going to be changes, there are always going to be new players step in and great players leave so that’s our job to get them ready. That’s why we’ve recruited well and we expect these guys to step in and play great defense for us.”
The knock on Tucker as he heads out to Boulder was that this wasn’t really his defense at Georgia, that it was Smart’s and Tucker served as merely a buffer between the fiery head coach and the players.
Smart shot down such a notion whenever he got the chance.
“Mel’s a great leader,” Smart said this past season. “He commands great respect. Players really follow Mel’s lead. He does a tremendous job of game-planning, X-and-O-ing, calling the game. But more important than that, he’s a very loyal soldier that helps guys out. If guys are struggling or their confidence is struggling, he’s able to go to pep them up. They follow his lead.”
Georgia fans love watching those hype videos that the football program produces and, to be sure, no school does a better job with that. But one of the voices that often could be heard on those was Tucker’s as he shouted and cajoled in the locker room and on the field. He is an incredible motivator and always knew just what to say to his charges when he needed to get more or something different out of them.
With his résumé, it was just a matter of time before Georgia lost Tucker to a head coaching job somewhere. Truthfully, it’s the primary reason he came back to the college ranks. He’d already had success — and failure — at the highest level in pro ball. He was a defensive coordinator by age 36 in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and went 2-3 as the interim head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
When he was fired as defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears in 2014, he called Nick Saban, who’d hired him in 2000 as LSU’s DB’s coach, to talk about re-tracking his career through the college ranks. Saban, no stranger to coaching talent, brought him in and found a way to fit him up with Smart.
Obviously, those two have been a tight and successful duo. But it was time for Tucker to break free and carve his own path. And he’s certainly doing that at Colorado. The Buffaloes, who parted ways with offensive guru Mike MacIntyre after 11 games this season, were looking for a defensive-minded coach who could lift them out of the mediocrity, like finishing 54th in total defense this year.
That part, Tucker should have covered. This is a guy who was named co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State just five years after becoming a full-time assistant coach. No, spearheading recruiting and getting players out of California and Texas will is the new unknown for Tucker.
Had Georgia defeated Alabama and gotten into the College Football Playoff a second straight year, I suspect Tucker would have stayed with the Bulldogs like Smart did with Alabama and try to do both jobs. But with the national championship now out of Georgia’s reach, Tucker will head on to Colorado to put all his energy into this significant rebuild.
He’s going to be missed by the Bulldogs, for sure. But for his work in Athens and achieving a life’s goal of becoming head coach, Tucker deserves nothing but applause he his moves on to the next thing.