I like Mel Tucker.
I liked him at his introductory press conference. He had a presence that commanded the room, something that inspired confidence.
I liked him during his first season as the Buffaloes head coach. His team played hard, they were physical and CU rarely beat themselves with mental mistakes.
And I liked him during his first full offseason. He has been willing to compete against the top-flight programs on the recruiting trail, which is the only way to ever compete again with the big boys.
At the risk of painting with too wide of a brush, I would contend that the vast majority of CU fans feel the same way. A little more than a year into his tenure, Buffs backers are on board with the football team’s current head coach.
That said, there is still plenty of work to do.
Tucker took over a 5-7 football team and led them to the exact same record during his first season in Boulder. The year before he arrived, Colorado was 2-7 in conference play and finished dead last in the Pac-12 South; Tucker matched that performance in year one.
In short, the positive feelings about the coach don’t have a lot to do with what’s transpired on the field. Yes, he beat Colorado State and Nebraska in his first season, but Mike MacIntyre also made Buffs fans happy with that double whammy during his final campaign at CU.
That said, a Friday night report that Tucker was being considered for the head coach opening at Michigan State caused quite a stir. Twitter exploded and Buffs fans semi-freaked out. Myself included.
Objectively, it was a curious reaction. After all, it’s not as though the Spartans were trying to steal someone who had put down deep roots in Boulder and created a perennial winner.
Part of the negative reaction was simply the shock of the news. Tucker seemingly just arrived. He’s still learning where all the best restaurants are located on Pearl Street. How could he already be considering a move?
Some of the venom was geared toward the business of college football. It just doesn’t seem right that a head coach who is under contract, who just convinced 18-year-old kids to commit to spending the next four years in Boulder, could be allowed to bail. How is that okay?
And a portion of the backlash was due to disappointment. Fans are genuinely optimistic about Tucker, so they want to see where the head coach can take the program. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t get to see if he can turn around the Buffs?
But deep down, those weren’t the real reasons why Friday’s news was jarring. In the end, Tucker looking at Michigan State upset Colorado fans because of what that type of move would mean. It would demonstrate that CU had devolved into a program that is a stepping-stone for head coaches.
There are plenty of those around the country. And sometimes, it’s not a negative thing.
For non-Power Five schools, it’s actually a badge of honor. It’s a sign that the program has reached the pinnacle in its current realm. Boise State is a prime example. The success the Broncos have enjoyed in recent decades led to Dirk Koetter going to Arizona State, Dan Hawkins landing at Colorado and Chris Petersen ending up at Washington.
But for Power Five universities, being a stepping-stone program is a sign that the school is among the “have-nots” and not the “haves.” It suggests that coaches know that they have to move to a higher echelon within one of the big conferences in order to compete at the highest level.
Typically, this all comes down to money. The lesser programs don’t have the support that the top ones enjoy, which impacts facilities, attendance, salaries and a host of other things. And there’s no reason to believe it’s ever going to change; stepping-stone programs tend to remain stepping-stone programs.
A coach comes into these situations, wins more games than expected and knocks off a couple of the perennial powers, and suddenly becomes a hot commodity. The “he won 10 games at Kansas” portion of his resumé opens doors to more prestigious jobs.
Had Tucker left Colorado for Michigan State, or really even considered making the move, it would’ve been a sign that the CU program had veered toward this territory. With all due respect to the Spartans, it’s not the type of marquee job that is understandably tempting.
If Notre Dame, USC, Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State or another storied program came calling, everyone would understand why a coach had to listen. Those kinds of jobs are few and far between.
Michigan State isn’t that kind of gig. They’re a second-tier Big Ten program.
Losing Tucker to a place like that would’ve been a tough pill for Buffs fans to swallow. Instead, the mere notion of it can serve as a wake-up call.
In reality, Colorado has become a graveyard for head coaches. The past two decades have not been kind to the men in charge of the Buffaloes.
Gary Barnett was run out of town in 2005. He hasn’t coached since.
Hawkins last until 2010. After bouncing around for seven years, he finally landed the top job at UC-Davis.
Jon Embree was ousted in 2012. He’s currently the tight ends coach for the 49ers.
And MacIntrye left in 2018. He’s now the defensive coordinator at the University of Memphis.
All but Embree had chances to leave CU at one point for other (greener) pastures. They all decided to stay. In hindsight, those decisions were bad for their careers.
Surely, Tucker is aware of this history. It’s why he’ll continue to be tempted by other jobs in the future.
In order to avoid the fate of his four predecessors, it’ll be difficult for Tucker to not go down the path taken by Rick Neuheisel in 1998. After four good seasons at Colorado, the coach jumped to Washington, chasing money and resources.
While it would be disappointing to see Tucker make such a move, at least it would be reversing the current trend. Being a stepping-stone program is better than turning into a place where coaching careers go to die.
Eventually, the Buffs want to become a destination school. They want to be a place where coaches aspire to land, the type of job they’d never imagine leaving.
That’s going to require a commitment from everyone involved – the school, the athletic department, boosters and alumni. Hopefully, the moment of panic that transpired on Friday night will provide the impetus for each group to up their game.
Colorado doesn’t want to be a stepping-stone program. They certainly don’t want to be even worse. It’ll take all hands on deck to prevent that from happening.