BOULDER | Mel Tucker arrived at Colorado from Georgia, vowing to give Buffs fans a long-forgotten taste of what big-time college football is all about.
Over a tumultuous and ultimately truth-challenged 72 hours, he did that in a most painful way — flirting with Michigan State, making overtures he wasn’t going there, then doubling down on his commitment to CU, before finally leaving for the Spartans for double the pay.
Tucker’s late-at -night departure to Michigan State and the lure of the Big Ten left the Buffaloes searching for another coach. It will be their third head coach in three seasons.
This all came a week after national signing day and left Colorado scrambling to retain what’s largely considered a top-35 class that Tucker had recruited but will not be on hand to coach. And it came just when things were looking up in Boulder, with Tucker’s style, to say nothing of his recruiting, starting to take hold in a more tangible way than the 5-7 record in his lone season here might have suggested.
“Look, I don’t feel jilted at all,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said Wednesday.
But George was certainly in the minority around Colorado, where a school that has spent nearly three decades trying to recapture the glory of its 1990 national title finds itself still squarely in the “have-not” category in the college-football landscape.
Tucker’s sudden departure also re-framed a larger debate: Outside of, say, Clemson, and the teams in the SEC, from whence Tucker came, or the Big Ten, which is where he’s going, does anyone have a chance to compete with the big boys on a regular basis?
George definitely thinks so.
“The coach that we bring in, just like Mel, knew what resources we had,” he said. “Our donors have been incredible. Our alumni have been incredible in supporting our efforts and what we’re doing. … We’ll keep investing in that to make sure that we get this program back where it historically has been.”
But it would be wrong to say Colorado, and Colorado recruits, didn’t feel the sting of this move, the latest in a never-ending example of how college sports really is a business and how its coaches are held to a different standard than its players.
Former Dallas Cowboys great Drew Pearson, the grandfather of CU recruit Toren Pittman, tweeted: “MEL TUCKER IS A CON MAN! He recruited my grandson to go to CU said he wasn’t going anywhere then ups and leaves. Sat there and lied to my face he wasn’t going anywhere! So I want to beat him up today on social media.”
Tucker’s well-regarded recruiting class also included Brenden Rice, son of NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.
George chose assistant head coach Darrin Chiaverini as the interim coach to lead the Buffaloes into spring practice that begins next month. His search for a new head coach could include a Colorado player (like Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs) or an outside prospect.
“We’re going to go out and hire somebody that shares the same expectations that I do, that we’re going to win a championship,” George said.
Tucker’s departure caught many by surprise, especially after he and George issued statements Saturday that seemed to pause the speculation of Tucker going to Michigan State.
The 48-year-old Tucker even made the media rounds Tuesday, delivering the message that he was committed to building the program into a contender. He’s also been meeting with the school’s alumni and donors to drum up support.
Then, he was gone.
Denver Broncos tailback and former Colorado standout Phillip Lindsay posted on his Twitter account: “Respect is given when you put words to action. Consistency and Commitment is all these young ball players want.” He concluded it with the hashtag, #wow.
Colorado hired Tucker in December 2018, and gave him an opportunity to run the Pac-12 program after he was Georgia’s defensive coordinator. He was given a five-year, $14.75 million contract to lead the Buffaloes.
The move wasn’t out of the blue. Tucker, who was a defensive back at Wisconsin, has roots with Michigan State. His first gig was as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban in the late 1990s.
In the wake of Tucker’s departure — he has a $3 million buyout — George met with the team Wednesday morning.
“I would probably say somber,” he said of the mood of the players. “We need them to stick together and have confidence that we know what we’re doing and where we’re going.”
The AD stressed calm as he searches for the next head coach.
“What I would say to them is that our program is in a better position than it was 14 months ago,” George said. “We’re going to hire an incredible coach to lead their sons and coach their sons. Have patience, we’re going to move as quickly as we can. We’re going to get a great football coach in at Colorado.”