Mel Tucker

The Illusion of Choice

First-year head football coach Mel Tucker talks about clean slates, preparing to win and “turning it loose” at Folsom Field.

What’s the biggest improvement you want fans to notice this fall?

I want fans to see the best-conditioned football team. When you're in great condition, you can play harder and longer. You can be disciplined. You can finish. You can start fast, be aggressive and compete at every play. I believe your team is built in the weight room.

How do you coach players to be more physical?

In addition to being in the best condition, we have to have a smart football team. I don't want that to go unnoticed. You want to have a team that doesn't beat itself, doesn't make the same mistakes over and over again. When they know their assignments, they can play fast. The faster you can play, the more aggressive you can play. Those are the elements that you have to have in place to be a rugged and physical football team.

What were the first decisions you made at CU?

I had to hire staff and recruit. I got here on a Wednesday and took a tour. Got up Thursday, met with the team, met with the athletic department, had a press conference and then recruits rolled in on Friday.

How does a new staff navigate offers made under a previous regime?

We honored all commitments except for one. I wanted to secure as many of those commitments as we could.

Did you have time to recruit players who weren’t originally considering CU?

I got a text or call every 90 seconds for about two weeks. I'm still returning calls and voicemails.

What happens with existing players who don’t fit into the new system?

I would never have a system where I’d say ‘this kid doesn’t fit.’ The system's so big and it has so much flexibility. You get an incongruence when standards of effort, academics or behavior are not up to what we need. Everyone has a clean slate. The two main factors to be successful are environment and expectations. We've created a culture of accountability here.

You were formerly Georgia’s defensive coordinator. How do you plan to emphasize defense in the Pac-12?

I don't mind winning a game scoring 54 points. I just don't want to win 54-53. You still have to be able to stop the run and make an [opponent] one-dimensional. Get off the field on third down and create turnovers. It doesn't matter what league you're in. You have to do those things.

You’ve mentioned that “it was an easy decision” to come to CU. What made it so?

When I went to Georgia, I promised my kids that I wouldn't move until they graduated from high school. The first thing I did was talk to them. They’re smart kids. They did some research and were like, “If this is what you want, we're with you.”

And [Athletic Director] Rick George is a football guy. These facilities show a commitment to winning. His vision for is the same as mine: We should be able to compete for championships.

CU fans loved seeing you mixing it up in the basketball student section. What have been your impressions of students on campus?

The students are ready to explode. We want them to be loud and intimidating. I want our stadium to be a lock-the-gates place. We’re going to get after teams for the whole 60 minutes. We’re going to turn it loose.

How do you help your student-athletes balance school, football and health?

You have to surround players with structure and people that can have a positive impact on a day-to-day basis. There’s been a big push on mental health, so to be able to get a kid help, the same day, that's huge.

What would you say to people who claim that football is too dangerous?

Football is safer now than it's ever been. It starts with educating players and coaches, the rule changes and how you teach and play the game. It's our responsibility to be on top of best practices. I'm committed to providing a safe environment.

How is ratcheting up physicality different from playing more violently?

Football inherently is a contact sport, and it’s all about moving the other team against its will. You have to be firm. If a player wants to go left, you make them go right. If you can impose your will on your opponent, then you have an advantage. You take control. And whether that's mentally or physically, the speed at which you play and the schemes you have, you need to do it better. I don't ever want anyone want to look on the field and say that the Buffs are getting pushed around. That's not the name of the game.

What are your goals for this season?

To have a chance to win, certain things have to be done. It’s the illusion of choice. We don't talk about winning games — we talk to our players about doing what it takes to win. Everyone wants to win on Saturday. But you have to prepare to win, and be at your best when your best is needed.

Condensed and edited.