BOULDER — The walls of Mel Tucker’s office are draped in glory.
On one wall rests a panoramic photograph of University of Phoenix Stadium as the confetti fell on Alabama’s National Championship victory over Clemson in 2016.
Across the room, which is absolutely massive in size, sits a game ball from the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, where Ohio State bested heavy-favorite Miami for the right to be undefeated national champions themselves.
Inside a showcase, multiple conference championship rings glimmer, the most recent representing Georgia’s 2017 conquering of the Southeastern Conference.
Nearly every inch of the walls, save for a large window on the South side of the office that opens up to a magnificent view of Folsom Field, is covered with memorabilia that says “champions” on it.
Melvin Tucker the second coached in all of these games.
In the center of the space is a grey L-shaped couch that would be too big for most downtown apartments, it’s lined in silver studs and covered in deep, soft cushions.
Tucker sits on the long side of the L, rocked back with his posture perfectly matching his calm and collected tone.
Over the course of an hour-long conversation, despite many attempts, the newly-minted head coach at the University of Colorado only breaks from football three times. Once to include his parents in his greatest influences, alongside coaches like Barry Alvarez, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel and Jim Tressel. Once to share that “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” is his favorite TV show of all time. And once for a conversation about how much better the food is in Boulder than in Athens.
Coach recommends the Churros at Boulder’s River and Woods, and as any good CU coach would, Pasta Jay’s.
As our conversation nears its end, I throw out one last attempt to learn about Mel Tucker beyond football.
“What’s the most life-changing thing you’ve ever experienced?” I ask.
“Wow,” he says as he brings his hand to his chin and gazes out the window at the stunning flatirons, taking his time to formulate his answer.
Maybe it’s his first date with his now-wife JoEllyn, which also happened to be the day he proposed to her—true story. Maybe it’s the birth of his two sons. Maybe it’s one of the two national championships. Maybe it’s getting the chance to be an NFL head coach for five games.
It’s none of those things.
“Probably 1998,” Tucker says. “I was at Michigan State, and we were not having a great year. That was my second year as a graduate assistant.”
It was November the Seventh, and the Spartans sat at 4-4. They were set to take on the undefeated, No. 1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes on ESPN.
Brent Musberger’s iconic voice welcomed fans into the game.
“You are looking live at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “The November weather is starting to change, but the red-hot Buckeyes are a four-touchdown favorite over Michigan State.”
Nobody gave them a chance.
As a grad assistant, Tucker had seen Saban prepare for this game. He knew how bad he wanted it. He knew how deeply the head coach believed they could win.
But early on, it appeared the rest of the world was right, as the Buckeyes jumped out to a 17-3 lead in the first quarter.
The Spartans chipped away with a couple of field goals in the second, but at the half, Ohio State remained firmly in control.
“We didn’t have a great first half but the adjustments that Nick and the staff made at halftime and what the message was to the team in that game, especially in the second half, was incredible,” Tucker says.
The boys from East Lansing were a different team in the second half, especially on defense, forcing multiple turnovers and holding the Buckeyes to just seven total points.
With 1:39 left in the game, Ohio State got the ball near midfield, needing a touchdown to win.
Within two plays, they were down to the 15.
That’s when Saban stepped in.
After a timeout, the head coach changed up his strategy.
“I think Nick might have called a max blitz on like four plays in a row,” Tucker said like a kid bragging about their older sibling.
He thought right. On play after play, after play, after play, Saban sent seven rushers at Ohio State quarterback Joe Germaine.
The first three led to incompletions. The fourth ended up in the hands of Michigan State DB Renaldo Hill.
“The No. 1 team falls!” Exclaimed Musberger on the broadcast. “The biggest win of Nick Saban’s coaching career!”
As the men in Green & White danced on the field, the young graduate assistant had an epiphany.
Mel Tucker knew what he was put on earth to do.
“Seeing the preparation that went into that game and seeing how big that game was for our program changed my life,” he added. “That meant a lot to me because we overcame adversity and did something that people didn’t think we could do, but it was that coaching had a lot to do with that. We had really good players, we had Plaxico Burress and guys like that, we had good players, but Nick’s leadership had a lot to do with us winning that game, and that’s really stuck with me.”
It’s now been 21 years since that fateful night in Columbus, and Mel Tucker hasn’t spent a day out of coaching since. He eats, sleeps and breathes football. But after all these years, Friday night will mark the first time he’s the one in charge of those halftime adjustments.
Despite his best efforts to hold it back, he cracks a smirk.
“I can’t wait.”