PHOENIX — Who is Mel Tucker?
Alabama’s defensive backs wanted to know the same thing when he was suddenly named their position coach not even a year ago. Tucker didn’t get the appointment until Jan. 29.
But in that time, he has made a significant impact with the Crimson Tide.
“He’s a great guy, first and foremost,” said Cyrus Jones, a senior cornerback and punt returner. “Very motivated. He knows how to get the best out of his players. A lot of coaches really don’t click with players a lot. He’s definitely one of those guys you can’t help but love to play for.”
“That’s my boy right there,” safety Eddie Jackson told Al.com. “He brought a lot of energy. He preaches at us, screams at us, yells at us day-in and day-out: ‘Break on the ball, scoop and score, rip it out, rip it out.’ Things like that. It really motivates us and gets us going.”
Primarily, Tucker, 44, is a very experienced football coach, mainly on the NFL level. In addition to secondary coach at Alabama, he was also assistant head coach for the Tide. Kirby Smart moved from coaching defensive backs to inside linebackers in order to accommodate Tucker’s addition.
And now Tucker is about to add Georgia defensive coordinator to his resume. By all accounts, he is following Alabama’s defensive coordinator and the Bulldogs’ new head coach to Athens.
That news hasn’t been officially been announced by Georgia, but Tucker’s players spoke about it as a foregone conclusion weekend during events at the College Football Playoff national championship game. And they’re not thrilled about losing him.
“He’s a mild-mannered guy but once he gets on the field, you know, he’s fiery,” Jones said. “He gets that out of his players. We try to go out there and bust our butts for him and make him proud, just like the rest of the staff.”
Tucker has only recently returned to college ball. He was not retained as defensive coordinator by new Chicago Bears new head coach Jon Fox after the 2014-15 season.
That was Tucker’s third NFL tour as a defensive coordinator. He also coordinated defenses with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Cleveland Browns.
The Bears were 26th in the NFL in total defense Tucker’s last NFL season. But the narrative that he was not successful in the pros is not necessarily a fair assessment.
“For years in the NFL, Mel was considered not only a top coordinator but a head-coaching candidate,” said Ian Rappaport, NFL Network national insider. “He’s been an interim coach in Jacksonville, and really commanded the respect of players. Sharp, diligent, he always got the most out of his guys.”
Tucker actually had a short stint as an NFL head coach. He was named interim head coach after Jack Del Rio was fired in 2011. So he brings a 2-3 head coaching record to Georgia.
Rappaport said Tucker simply got stuck in a bad situation in Chicago and got stuck in the middle when the Bears cleaned house.
“The talent he was coaching was awful, it was a bad atmosphere and the product was bad,” Rappaport said. “He fell off the map in the NFL, as did everyone else in that regime. For him to be available and not yet working as a DC in the NFL and college is pretty amazing.”
In stepped Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has known Tucker for well over 20 years. Saban actually first met Tucker when he recruited the Cleveland, Ohio, native as Toledo’s head coach.
Tucker ended up signing with Wisconsin, where he played defensive back for four years. But Saban and Tucker would get reacquainted He gave Tucker his coaching start as a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1997.
“He is an outstanding coach all the way around and really does an excellent job in terms of teaching the players,” Saban said when Tucker was hired. “When you look at his college and NFL experience, his resume is very impressive.”
After spending two years with Saban in East Lansing, Tucker went to work full time for Miami of Ohio as defensive backs coach, joined Saban for a year at LSU before going to Ohio State, where the Buckeyes went 14-0 and won a national championship in 2002. He became co-defensive coordinator there in 2004.
Some of his best work was done this season at Alabama, however. He inherited a Crimson Tide secondary that didn’t have its normal All-Americans around which to build. Rotating players liberally, Alabama was 18th nationally against the pass and once again finishes the season ranked among the Top 5 defenses in the country.
“I thought Mel was one of the least spoken-about improvements on the Alabama football team this year,” said Gary Danielson, who as lead college football analyst for CBS did four Alabama games this season, including the one against Georgia. “He took more of an NFL style approach to their secondary. … They moved some smaller quicker guys to safety and made sure those corners were willing to hit in run support. … And that’s straight from the toughness that Mel Tucker brought to the table.”
The big question when Tucker got to Tuscaloosa was how he would mesh with Smart. After all, both of them were used to calling their own shots on defense.
By all accounts it was a fairly seamless transition.
“He and Nick’s demeanor almost mesh perfectly because he’s got a great demeanor with the players – calm, cool, collected – and when Nick gets fiery on them he can say something funny and make them laugh,” Smart told the Tuscaloosa News last month in Dallas. “He’s really good in the meeting room. He keeps things mixed up and has been an unbelievable asset for us here.”
Tucker said it hasn’t been a big deal.
“Kirby’s a tremendous coach, I think everybody knows that,” Tucker said Saturday in Phoenix. “He’s a high-character guy. … We’re all team guys and want to do what’s best for the program, do what’s best for the players. We always make sure we’re on the same page. So it worked out great.”
It certainly has gone well for Alabama. The thought is Smart and Tucker can bring such synergy to Georgia.
“With him and Kirby, if that happens, everything will be fine,” Jones said. “They spent the year together, they got to know each other, both have extreme passion for the game. I think once you’ve got that, it’s hard not to jell. When you play for them you want the same thing. You feel the same way about the game.”