New Colorado football coach Mel Tucker still recalls the majesty he felt when a small prop plane brought him into the Rocky Mountains for the first time.
Coming from Cleveland, he had never seen anything like it.
“I fell in love with the place,” he said.
Only, this wasn’t in Boulder. It was in Colorado Springs.
Tucker very nearly came to the Air Force Academy as an option quarterback after playing in an identical offense in high school. He even committed to Fisher DeBerry’s program, much to the elation of his mother.
But his dad was a Big Ten guy, and he encouraged Tucker to keep his options open. And when an assistant who had been recruiting him at Notre Dame said the Fighting Irish wouldn’t have a spot for him, but Wisconsin – with the newly hired coach Barry Alvarez – would be worth exploring; Tucker decided to take another visit even though his official visits were used up and he would have to pay his own way.
His mom informed Air Force, and the next week he came from school to find Falcons assistant Sammy Steinmark in his living room with his mother to make one final appeal on behalf of the academy.
It didn’t work.
“My mom was heart broken,” Tucker said this past week on a visit to Colorado Springs.
“She’s gotten over it by now, though,” he added.
Tucker’s played four years as a defensive back for Alvarez and the Badgers, graduating in 1995. He then caught on as a graduate assistant at Michigan State under Nick Saban and launched a coaching career that has included stops at LSU, Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia, as well as ten years in the NFL – including seven as a defensive coordinator and five chaotic games as an interim head coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars that began with a Monday Night Football contest as part of three games in 11 days.
“I don’t need a lot of sleep,” he said when recalling that stint. “I sleep fast.”
The speed with which Tucker will not be measured will be quickly he can return Colorado to contention in the Pac-12 and nationally. The Buffaloes escaped a decade of futility in 2016 by reaching the conference championship game and No. 17 ranking to close the season, but that was followed by consecutive 5-7 seasons and the ouster of coach Mike MacIntyre.
Tucker has said the cupboard is far from bare with a roster that includes Heisman Trophy candidate Laviska Shenault Jr. at wide receiver, longtime quarterback Steven Montez and linebacker Nate Landman.
Six starters return on offense and five on defense.
He said fastest way to turn around a program is through recruiting, and he certainly has experience bringing in top talent at his previous stops. He said the efforts will also go to the state level, where he’s dedicating two extra assistants to Colorado to be a resource to high school coaches and ensure talent doesn’t escape the state.
“Jim Tressel made it clear to us that we were at Ohio State to serve the people of the state of Ohio,” Tucker said. “That’s been ingrained in me. That’s how we feel here. Even if Colorado Springs isn’t producing a player this year or next year, we’re going to be visible here.”
Discipline has also been a focus and intensity in practices has increased.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Can we just not beat ourselves. Can we just not have penalties and holding calls and jump offsides and illegal formations and line up offsides?’” Tucker said. “That’s all discipline.”
And nowhere will that discipline be tested as it will in his third game when Air Force visits Boulder just a week after Nebraska plays at Folsom Field. The game against the Falcons will be the first for Colorado in 45 years after the series was halted amid turmoil near the end of the Vietnam Era.
“We thought it was important that we renew that,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said. “I know Mel doesn’t absolutely love it, but I think it’s good for the Front Range.”
Tucker knows what it requires to defend that system, having nearly played in it and then having coached against Georgia Tech’s similar attack while at Georgia.
Thinking back, he recalled more than the mountain’s majesty from that first trip to the academy. He also remembered the fear from that small plane dipping and diving in the rocky air. It was something for which he wasn’t prepared.
This time, when the academy comes to him, he’ll be ready for the unexpected.
“My job was to prepare the players to play whoever is on our schedule,” Tucker said. “I don’t care who it is. Anxiety comes from not being prepared, not being ready.”
And those preparations are already under way.
“I bought knee braces for our defensive line,” he said, adding only a laugh when asked if they were bought specifically for Air Force’s cut-blocking scheme. “’I’m just saying we’ve got ‘em. We’ve got em if we need them.”