(Boulder, Co) – On December 5, 2018, Mel Tucker was named the 26th Head Football Coach of the Colorado Buffaloes. Tucker parlayed three successful seasons as the Defensive Coordinator at the University of Georgia under Head Coach Kirby Smart into his first college head coaching job. (Tucker did have a five-game stint as a Head Coach in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011 when he took over after Jack Del Rio was fired, and went 2-3, including wins over Tampa Bay and Indianapolis).
His first job was to assemble his coaching staff, which can total 10 assistant coaches, additional strength and conditioning coaches and four graduate assistants. It is fascinating to see how the process unfolds, as the coaching fraternity is a close-knit group. Relationships are formed over the years that eventually lead to full time opportunities.
Tucker, like his former boss Kirby Smart, has deep roots with Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban. He got his coaching start as a gradate assistant at Michigan State under Saban and was named to Saban’s original coaching staff at LSU in 2000. After a 10-year stint in the NFL, Tucker once again joined Saban on the Alabama staff for the 2015 season. He left the following year to go to with Smart.
In building out his staff at Colorado, Tucker started by bringing four coaches that he worked with at Georgia:
1-Offensive Coordinator – Jay Johnson was an offensive quality assistant at Georgia the past two seasons. Johnson is an alumnus of Northern Iowa, where we he was the starting quarterback from 1990 through 1992 (NFL Hall-of Famer Kurt Warner would succeed Johnson as the starting quarterback in 1993). Johnson will be the player caller, which he has done in the past with Minnesota and Louisiana-Lafayette. In his role as an analyst at Georgia, Johnson was not allowed to coach players at practice per NCAA guidelines, but he could watch practice, assist coaches behind the scenes and sit in the press box. Johnson played a role in the development of Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm.
2-Defensive Coordinator – Like Johnson, Tyson Summers was an analyst on the defensive side of the ball at Georgia last year. Summers has been down this road before; he was the original defensive coordinator on Mike Bobo’s staff in 2015 at Colorado State. He left after one season to take the head coaching job at Georgia Southern (Interestingly enough, Bobo also came to Colorado State after a long-time stint as an assistant coach at Georgia).
3-Outside Linebackers Coach – Brian Michalowski came to Georgia from Memphis as defensive analyst in 2018 (he left Memphis with LB Coach Dan Lanning, who took Tucker’s place as DC for the Bulldogs). Originally hired by Tucker to be the director of Quality Control for the defense, the 29-year-old Michalowski was moved to a full-time assistant in February 2019. In addition to his stops at Georgia and Memphis, he was also the defensive coordinator for a team in the German Football League in 2014.
4-Defensive Bank Coach – Travares Tillman joined the Georgia staff in 2016 as a defensive analyst after his NFL career was complete. A four-year starter at Georgia Tech, Tucker is gambling that Tillman will develop rapidly in his first season as a full-time assistant.
Tucker then retained three coaches from previous head coach Mike MacIntyre’s staff:
1-Wide Receiver Coach & Recruiting Coordinator – Darrin Chiaverini begins his fourth year in Boulder. He had a stellar four-year career with the Buffaloes under Head Coach Rick Neuheisel. He caught 97 passes for 1,199 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 12.4 yards per reception in his career, exiting at the time as CU’s seventh all-time receiver (he remains in the top 15 in both catches and yards). He led the team as a senior with 52 catches for 630 yards and five scores.
After a four-year NFL career, Chiaverini entered the coaching ranks. Including stops at UCLA and Texas Tech. With Johnson being named the Offensive Coordinator, Chiaverini gave up some of the play calling duties, but has been freed up to focus more on recruiting, which is a strong suit.
“I’m excited to be a Buff,” he said in January. “I’m a Buff for life and obviously getting a chance to be retained and be on coach Tucker’s staff, I’m really excited. I’m excited to work with coach Johnson.”
2 – Inside Linebackers & Special Teams Coach – Ross Els joined the Buffalo staff last year after serving as the defensive coordinator for Purdue. He has extensive experience in his 28 seasons, including time at Nebraska, New Mexico State and Ohio. It’s interesting to note that when Els began his coaching career in 1989, Outside Linebacker Coach Michalowski was one-year old.
3- Running Back Coach – Darian Hagan is the dean of the staff, as he begins his 14th season.He is firmly entrenched into the Mt. Rushmore of Colorado Buffaloes as the quarterback of the national championship team from 1990.
During his tenure at quarterback, the Buffs were 11-1 in 1989, losing to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, but went 11-1-1 in 1990 with a win over the Irish in an Orange Bowl rematch to give CU its first national title in football. CU was 28-5-2 with him as the starting quarterback for three seasons, including a 20-0-1 mark in Big Eight Conference games as he led the Buffs to three straight league titles in 1989, 1990 and 1991. His 28-5-2 record as a starter (82.9 winning percentage) is the 37th best in college football history.
Hagan brings a presence and instant credibility for the entire program, qualities that Tucker had to have to solidify his staff.
That left three positions to be filled, and Tucker went outside the program to round out his staff.
1 – Defensive Line Coach – Originally, Tucker retained Kwahn Drake from the prior staff, but Drake accepted an offer to join Les Miles staff at Kansas just days later. Tucker moved quickly by hiring former Maryland co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Brumbaugh.
Brumbaugh has a track record of developing players and preparing them for the next level. A veteran of the SEC grind, he played at Auburn and coached at LSU and Kentucky.
2- Tight End Coach – Tucker went to Weber State to find his tight end coach. Al Pupunu will enter his 15th year of coaching. He has an extensive NFL resume, including a 43-yard TD in the 1994 Super Bowl for the San Diego Chargers.
Tucker said of Pupunu ““He is a veteran coach who was an outstanding player who played for several years in the NFL. He, too, is an excellent teacher and relates well to the student-athlete. His strong ties to the west coast will be vital in recruiting. He has great energy and is a straight shooter, and he’ll be creative in utilizing the tight end in our offense, both in blocking and receiving.
3-Offensive Line Coach – Tucker rounded out the staff with Chris Kapilovic, who was the offensive line coach at North Carolina for the past 7 seasons. Kapilovic has been a below-the-radar type coach and has gotten more results than media attention.
Kapilovic brings in the mentality that Tucker wants to see up front. Look for the Buff line to be bigger, more physical, and power run based. Kapilovic created comradery and strength with aids such as sledgehammers, cinder blocks and old cars. The line will have a noticeable improvement from the start of the season.
With the staff in place, August 30 is circled on everyone’s calendar. That’s when the Buffaloes open against Colorado State at Mile High Stadium. Two former Georgia coordinators battling for the supremacy of the Centennial State. Based on Tucker’s pedigree and background, there is a lot to get excited about for the Colorado faithful.
I have covered local, college and professional sports for 12 Local and Regional Newspapers over the past four years. A lifelong Georgia Bulldog fan (I attended my first game in 1978 when I saw the Dawgs beat Baylor), I love to find the compelling story lines that make the game so great.