What Is It Going To Take to Bring the CU Program back to its Winning Tradition?

Mel Tucker set the bar high, right from the very beginning.

When his hiring was announced on December 5, 2018, Tucker didn’t mince words.

“The expectations I have are extremely high. We’re here to win championships,” said Tucker upon his hire. “That’s OK with me.”

Tucker maintained the “no excuses” mantra, even as the Buffs struggled. “I haven’t even considered us being a young team,” he said with a shrug after the Buffs fell in overtime to Air Force in September. “I haven’t talked about that before and don’t see a reason to talk about it now. We have good enough players at enough positions to get the job done. … Eliminating bad football is what we have to do.”

Tucker’s belief in his team continued, even after the Buffs dropped their fourth straight, a heart-breaking 35-31 loss to USC in which the Buffs held a 10-point fourth quarter lead. “I said (to the team in the locker room after the game), ‘You can look at this two different ways. You can sit there and feel sorry for yourself and say woe is me. Or you can look at yourself and say this is the type of team we can have. If you take care of the ball, take it away, run the ball, finish in the red zone, stop the run and get off the field on third down, then you have a really good chance to beat anybody.”

Even after the debacle against UCLA, Mel Tucker was staying the course. The Bruins came into the game with the same 3-5 record the Buffs possessed. The UCLA defense was just as porous as the CU defense, ranking 112th or worse nationally in pass defense, total defense, and scoring defense.

What did the CU offense put together against such a sieve?


The first four drives by the Colorado offense against UCLA went as follows:

  • Three plays, four yards, punt;
  • Three plays, four yards, punt;
  • Three plays, minus-three yards; interception;
  • Four plays, ten yards; punt.

UCLA had 17 points on the board before the Buffs registered their first first down of the game. This was not just bad football, this was Jon Embree 2011-12 bad football.

And yet, Mel Tucker remained philosophical as to the 31-14 loss to UCLA. The fact that the Buffs battled the Bruins to a 14-14 draw the remainder of the game was of small consolation.

When asked about how he was going to deal with his team, now on a five game losing streak, Tucker replied: “It’s based upon individual guys. Everyone reacts differently, and that’s what we have to do as coaches is find ways to keep our guys going, to get them better. Get the young guys to understand what’s required and keep moving forward.

“There’s nothing easy about it,” Tucker continued. “You can’t sprinkle dust on it. You can’t wave a magic wand, it’s really difficult, and I expected it to be. Any time you come into a first year in a program – in my experiences and I think this is my eighth time including high school being in the first year of a staff – it’s very, very difficult. There’s ups and there’s downs, and you have to stay the course and make adjustments along the way.”

Compare Mel Tucker’s comments to those of Nebraska head coach Scott Frost after the Cornhuskers lost to Indiana last weekend (mind you these comments were made before Nebraska went out and lost Saturday to a two-win Purdue team, 31-27).

After going a laundry list of player mistakes which contributed to the 38-31 loss to the Hoosiers (Indiana’s first win in Lincoln since 1959), Frost stated: “We’ve got some guys on this team who are tough and dedicated enough, but we don’t have enough of them yet … I told the team, ‘Right now, we’re just okay’. I’m not going to be happy with just okay. I want a bunch of team players who are not going to be happy with just okay … Just okay never existed in a locker room when I was at Nebraska … I don’t want guys who go out in hoodies at Minnesota for warmups (Nebraska lost to Minnesota, 34-7, in a game which was 37-degrees with a “wintry mix” at kickoff) … You got ridiculed or beat up if when I was playing if you did that”.

(Talk of not having enough talented guys on the roster “yet” came despite the fact that Nebraska brags about how many underclassmen they have on their roster. From Nebraska’s Game Notes: “Overall, 69 percent of Nebraska’s roster is comprised of underclassmen. Additionally, 103 of the 154 players on the roster have been added in Scott Frost’s two seasons”)*

Um, Coach Frost, sir … This just in: Those guys in the Nebraska locker room who are “just okay” – they’re your guys.

Instead of embracing the players in the locker room like Tucker’s “I believe in this team”, Scott Frost has no problem throwing his team under the bus.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take Mel Tucker’s approach.

In Year Two of the Scott Frost era, the Cornhuskers (who were the Big Ten media’s pick to win the Big Ten West) are 8-13, with two losses to Colorado (and now two losses to Purdue).

Want more?

Here are a few other coaching won/loss totals worth bearing in mind as we endure yet another losing season. Mel Tucker is the only new coach in the Pac-12 this year, but there are a number of second-year Pac-12 coaches who have had a mixed bag of success:

  • Chip Kelly, who is now once again seen as an evil genius with UCLA’s current three game winning streak … was 3-9 in his first season, and is 7-14 overall at UCLA;
  • Herm Edwards, who is considered to be doing quite well at Arizona State, is still a less-than-robust 12-8 in Tempe;
  • Kevin Sumlin, brought over from Texas A&M to restore order at Arizona, is 9-12 in Tucson (and on a four-game losing streak of his own);
  • Jonathan Smith, who is riding high after Oregon State posted a 56-38 rout of Arizona, is 6-14 in Year Two in Corvallis.

Buff fans are – unfortunately – forced to look at the Mel Tucker program through the prism of the past 15 years and the meltdown of the 2018 season.

We did get caught up in the heady 3-1 start, including two wins over ranked teams (matching Mike MacIntyre’s six-year win total – 2-20 – against ranked teams). It wasn’t the talent level that had been holding the program back, we thought, it was just the lack of decent coaching.

Then injuries set in, and the lack of talent (or, at the very least, the lack of depth in talent) was exposed. Tarik Luckett, who a year ago was a wide receiver recruit from the Class of 2019, and who two months ago was slated for a red-shirt season to learn how to be a defensive back, earned his first career start against UCLA.

I don’t care if you are Nick Saban, you aren’t going to win too many games starting a true freshman at defensive back who up until a few months ago was a wide receiver slated for a red-shirt season (and I’m not trying to pick on Luckett, who is actually doing well under the circumstances – I’m just trying to illustrate a point).

What is it going to take to bring Colorado football back to respectability?

There are a myriad of answers, and we will be exploring them in depth as Colorado endures yet another nine-month off-season after the Thanksgiving weekend beat down by Utah.

But, at least for now, we have to, as Coach Tucker puts it, “stay the course”.

“We’re here to change the culture, to win football games,” Tucker said. “And we have to be going all out every day as a coaching staff to get this program where we want it and to keep it there. So there’s no end to it.”

We’ll just have to keep waiting for it to start …


* Not that it matters in the real world, but if you were wondering how Nebraska can have a roster with 153 players, it doesn’t. The Cornhuskers have 85 scholarship players, just like everyone else. Nebraska, though, traditionally has an over-sized walk-on program. Most FBS programs carry a roster of around 120 players (Colorado currently has 111 players on its roster).

… and finally, if you have gotten this far, you deserve a little pick-me-up. I’m sure you have seen this Coke ad, but it is now usually shown in a 30-second condensed version. The full minute ad has run only a few times, but can be found below. I don’t know about you, but it gives me a smile in these dark days …



6 Replies to “What Is It Going To Take?”

  1. I am looking forward to the December signing day.
    Will Tucker get first rate defensive players out of high school?
    Will Tucker get a graduate transfer QB? It seems obvious he is not grooming anyone on the present team to step right in next year.
    Will he get JC and grad transfer linemen who are pass rushers?
    If it’s just we got some guys who chose us over Nevada and New Mexico State, the the present scenario will play on and on and on.

  2. Unfortunately this is about leadership, and it starts and ends with Montez. I’ve never heard anyone say he is a leader. Sefo was as talented but he was a leader and he led the team to a pac12 south championship. I hate to say it but if he gets drafted he will be a bust like Paxton Lynch, just doesn’t have the work ethic/leadership to lead an average team to greater heights. Viska is obviously getting advice to stay healthy and preserve his draft status, which I think will drop with him not playing but still remain a first rounder.

  3. I will give this coaching the staff the benefit of the doubt, but what I don’t understand is the unexplained lack of utilization of the team’s undisputed best player. Laviska Shenault is spending more time on the sideline than the playing field. The TV announcers are questioning what’s going on… is it injury???, personnel groupings??? What??? If he’s injured, his play on the field doesn’t really reflect that as he is still extremely productive when the ball is in his hands. Tucker & Co. have a player this team rarely sees and his under utilization is puzzling, frustrating and just a bad look for the coaching staff. Also, I think there’s enough body of work to say Montez is either “On or Off”. He is what he is; a decent to good college QB. How many other teams in the conference would he start for??? In a game like last nights, why not put Stenstrom in and see what he has? Maybe the team rallies behind new leadership… Maybe he creates a spark? I don’t know and really, no one else does either. So while I still hope this thing is going in the right direction, I think there are plenty of decisions this coaching staff have made that can be questioned.

  4. Good realistic article Stuart. You pretty well covered it all. Yes, it is a process and there have been no instant answers for lo these many years now. Looking back on the 3 coaches that I have observed that oversaw relevant winning CU programs, Dal Ward, Eddie Crowder (Eddie had a terrible time ever beating NU), and Bill McCartney, (Sonny did it by cheating) they all took time to establish something. There are so many factors that come into play for a school like CU as opposed to the traditional Football Schools that enjoy annual success year after year.

    I could go on and on regarding those issues but the one glaring thing at least in my opinion that stands out right now with Mel Tucker is he seems to be very aware of the fact that both sides of the ball up front require great big strong kids that have athletic ability and want to play hard. If that is accomplished by Coach Tuck then the skill players will look and perform a lot more skillfully.

  5. Yo Stuart,
    It’s time for Tucker to take a good long look at his offensive coordinator. His play calling has been sporadic at best all season. Yeah, great, he called that flea flicker from the endzone at Arizona State. The bad calls have greatly overshadowed that.

    It’s also time to let ANYONE else play quarterback. I loved Montez and was one of his biggest supporters as a young QB backing up Sefo. I thought Steven had a much higher upside and a better skillset at his disposal than Liufau. I still do. But he’s had his time. But he hasn’t grown as a quarterback. He still makes the same mistakes over and over. Not what you need from a 5th year senior with 30+ starts. I blame all his QB coaches for that failure, but somewhere along the line Steven’s gotta take a little personal responsibility for his failure to improve.

    Tucker needs to realize that this year’s possibilities are OVER. Done with. Colorado will gain absolutely nothing by continuing to start a guy at QB who will be gone at the end of November. I won’t be surprised when after the season several of the young QB’s we have on the roster bolt for greener pastures and better QB coaching.

    And most importantly, those young QB’s at least want a chance to play. The coaches have said since the got here that the guys who are making the plays will see the field and the guys who are not will be taken out of the lineup. I guess they also know that particular philosophy does not count for the quarterbacks.

    I think that’s why the offense gave up yesterday. That’s when I switched the tv to the Oregon thrashing of USC. Both the Trojans and the Bruins have very young quarterbacks who make lots of mistakes. One can excuse their youthful exuberance. But at least they have some exuberance, which is sorely missing from the position at Colorado.

    We all understand that Mel Tucker has a plan. But as Mike Tyson used to say, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Tucker’s Buffs have been punched in the mouth a lot this year. Bad luck with injuries. Bad play calling and QB coaching. Those are some knock down shots. What’s Tucker going to do to get his guys off the canvas?

    He’s got three more games this year to motivate the guys who could be here next year to work hard over the off-season… or to see how many enter the transfer portal. The buck stops on the desk of Mel Tucker.

    Unlike his predecessor, Mel accepts that. He doesn’t trash anyone to the outside world. But he has to hold his coaches accountable. The OC/QB coach needs to get out of the booth and get on the field with his quarterbacks. It’s not just the fans watching, the players are watching as well.


  6. I’m rehashing what we all know. CU football has a losing culture. The older players are only used to losing and waiting for the next shoe to drop. A fragile team with a new coaching staff including a leader who has never been a head coach before is a bad combination for this immediate season. In any relationship, it’s trust and knowing that someone has your back that counts. The coaches asked the players to believe for the USC game. They did. The coaches blinked. That, IMO, was the subconscious end of the belief for this season. Does that make the coaches bad? No. Just inexperienced. What is it going to take? Time. And graduating players who will be replaced by those who don’t carry the losing mentality. Early miscues (like the false start after Shenault ran for 9 yards), dropped pass by KD, pick by Montez) are all indications of the lack of confidence and belief. It doesn’t make the players bad. It’s just what it is. We are back to where we have been with Hawkins, Embree, Macintyre. None of them were able to get through the cultural transformation. Mac2 would say he did. I disagree. What he built was for one year and wasn’t sustainable. Can HCMT do it? Another long journey ahead will tell. If there are things I think would help: a dynamic freshman playmaking QB leader to build upon and getting rid of our D coordinator who typically doesn’t respond until CU is 3 scores down. There have been some encouraging signs so I will keep the faith. No choice anyway but go on this ride.

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