Many suspected that head coaching candidate Darrell Bevell would have been the former Badger who ended up on the Chicago Bears sideline this season. While Phil Emery ended up deciding against Bevell for the head coach position, the Bears did find another Wisconsin football player for the coaching roster. Meet Mel Tucker.
As a player, Tucker had a good run of luck at the University of Wisconsin. He rode into Madison as part of Barry Alvarez's first recruiting class in 1990 and rolled out with two straight bowl wins, including a 1993 Rose Bowl victory over UCLA. Tucker drew no interest from NFL teams as a player, but he stuck with the game as a coach. After a few years away from football, he returned to be an assistant coach at another Big 10 program, Michigan State, in 1997.
Having already learned defense from veteran coach Barry Alvarez as a player, Tucker was blessed with the chance to continue his development as a defensive coach under another guru of college defenses, Michigan State HC Nick Saban. Over the two years Tucker worked for Saban, Tucker's defensive backs recorded interceptions at clip of over one a game and posted strong pass defense numbers.
After a one-year stint at Miami of Ohio in 1999, Tucker rejoined Saban, who had since moved to Louisiana State University, for the 2000 season. While here, Tucker led the defensive backfield to the tune of 16 interceptions as part of an overall defense ranked in the top third of college football despite having the tenth-hardest overall schedule. With Tucker's assistance, LSU prevailed through this tough schedule to win the SEC Championship.
After all this bouncing around, Tucker finally found a long-term coaching job in 2001 at his third Big 10 school, Ohio State. Arriving as part of then-new HC Jim Tressel's staff, Tucker coached the Buckeye DBs from 2001-03 and then was promoted to defensive "co-coordinator" for the 2004 season. While Tucker was with the team, the defense never ranked below 28th in the nation in terms of points allowed, and Ohio State won three straight bowl games including the 2002 National Championship - not too shabby.
Ohio State's high profile in the football world put Tucker on the NFL map, and in 2005 he was hired away by the Cleveland Browns to resume his work as a defensive backs coach. Working for another member of the Bill Belicheck coaching tree - Romeo Crennel - Tucker got major production out of his position group. Over his four-year run in Cleveland, the Browns ranked fifth overall in interceptions (73) and fourth overall in passes of over 20 yards allowed (78).
His one year as the defensive coordinator in Cleveland wasn't all that impressive on the surface - the team ranked sixteenth in points allowed and in the bottom half of every rushing stat. Look past the top-line stats, however, and the 2008 Browns defense shows some signs of competent coaching despite a somewhat talentless roster. The 2008 Browns had the second most interceptions in the NFL, an impressive stat considering that the Browns had the third fewest passing attempts thrown against them and languished in sack statistics.
At least one NFL mind was impressed with Mel Tucker's work in Cleveland, as Tucker immediately found work as a defensive coordinator after he was fired along with Romeo Crennel in 2008. Tucker was hired by the Jacksonville Jaguars to be the team's DC. After coaching a 3-4 defense the previous season, Tucker switched back to a 4-3 defense under head coach and defensive mastermind Jack Del Rio.
On first glance, his defensive record in Jacksonville seems somewhat suspect.
Jaguars Defensive Stats -
2009: 24th in points allowed, 23rd in yards allowed, 28th in DVOA
2010: 27th in points allowed, 28th in yards allowed, 32nd in DVOA
2011: 11th in points allowed, 6th in yards allowed, 5th in DVOA
2012: 29th in points allowed, 30th in yards allowed, 28th in DVOA
(Note: Tucker's "big board" of NFL stats can be found here.)
If we dig a bit deeper into these numbers, we can again find a silver lining. First of all, Tucker was not the defensive play-caller until 2011 - HC Jack Del Rio was. The team immediately jumped up in the rankings when Tucker took over, going from the absolute worst all the way into the top five.
Five was also the magic number for the 2012 season, as Tucker only had five starters play all 16 games for him on defense last season. Given that Jacksonville's starting roster isn't that great to begin with, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt that he could have done better with better, healthier players.
Tucker's press conference after his 2011 promotion to interim head coach gives a good hint at why Emery and Trestman must have liked the guy: he comes off very much as a Lovie Smith style "player's coach" with the "player development above all else" philosophy of a Rod Marinelli. Plus, Tucker's range of experience in both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses should give him the ability to help adapt his schemes to fit the strengths of the Bears roster.
While the Bears DC job is a prize on its own because of the franchise's reputation, Tucker could continue to be a man on the move if he does well in Chicago. Only 42, Tucker passed on a chance to be the head coach at the University of Wisconsin. By refusing a college HC job that he very well could have held for life, Tucker has shown his sights are firmly set on NFL success and a chance to be a non-interim head coach in the future.
Regardless of where Tucker's career is taking him, there is no question about the quality of his background. The Bears' new DC has studied the game under some great defensive minds: Alvarez, Tressel, Crennel, Saban, and Jack Del Rio. This range of knowledge should serve the Bears well. Tucker has some big shoes to fill, it's true. But as a motivated young coach with a talent-filled roster, Mel Tucker has what it takes to maintain the fearsome reputation of the Bears defense.