Mel Tucker will make his debut as Jaguars interim coach Monday night when the Jaguars play host to the San Diego Chargers. jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser sat down with Tucker this weekend to discuss his NFL head coaching debut.
A week ago, you were the coordinator of the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense. One tumultuous week later, you’re making your NFL head coaching debut. How have you approached it?
I think people would say, ‘You’re going to go in and just change everything.’ I haven’t done that. I made a conscious effort not to do that. I didn’t want to create chaos. There are too many moving parts, and there are too many people involved. You change one thing and it affects 100 people. We still had the same meeting time, the same schedule, the same practice plan. I changed some things, but not anything where you would look out and say, ‘Oh, they’re practicing in the stadium instead of on the practice field.’ I haven’t done anything like that, so that has given some continuity to how we operate. We have to get ready to play a game. Everyone’s already on-edge anyway, so I didn’t want to add to the anxiousness and anxiety.
I said, ‘Listen – I’m not going to try to do everything.’ I’m not going to all of a sudden try to become an offensive coordinator or a special teams coordinator. I’m empowering people to do their defined role, and verbally communicating that I have confidence in their ability to get the job done. I think that’s important.
Obviously, though, you’re not doing everything the same. If there was one area you wanted to see improve, or have a ‘Mel Tucker’ stamp this week, it would be . . .
The discipline, and the tempo, the intensity and the urgency with which we go about our business. I know those are things that you can change right away. That’s an expectation and it’s not just an expectation, but a relentless follow-through. I have to be relentless in the sense that I demand that certain things be done a certain way. When I talk to the players about a list of things we want to do, I told them, ‘It’s not a list of rules. I’m not trying to turn this place into Shawshank.’ I said, ‘It’s not a list of rules you’re writing down. These are cultural things – methods of operation, the way we do things here. This is the way it’s going to be.’ I think that has a different connotation to it.
There are some things that are different. When you come out to practice, you see the defensive players – that when they don’t have their helmets on, they’re lined up straight across on the line. Now, our team is like that. You say, ‘Why would you do that? What difference does it make?’ I think it makes a huge difference. It’s attention to detail. It’s discipline. It’s team. It’s accountability.
You’re confident in this team and you feel like what’s on the field is capable of having success . . .
I have a tremendous amount of confidence in this group. We’ve been close numerous times. I don’t see a reason not to feel confident about the group, because we’ve been close and everything I’ve asked them to do, they’ve done. The things I’ve asked them to do are the things I believe give us the best chance to win. I’m not saying they all wanted to do it, but they’ve done it. If I’ve laid out these expectations and there’s no response, I wouldn’t feel too good, but there are. I know there are certain things that give you a greater chance to win, and that’s all we’re asking for – to have a greater chance, a greater probability, to be in a better position on a more consistent basis. We want to do things a certain way to give ourselves a better chance of winning. Those are things you have to do in your preparation to take the test. That starts in the meeting room and the weight room and the training room and the locker room and the practice field. That’s all in the preparation for the test. The things that I’ve asked them to do, they’re doing, and I’m starting to see them doing it enthusiastically in quite a few areas. What I know happens is they start to take pride in that stuff.
So, you got done this past week what you wanted to get done in the time you had . . .
It was a good week. Now, in this business, you’re looking for wins to validate what you’re doing. What I’m not going to allow myself to do is say, ‘What if we don’t win.’ I can’t think like that because you never want your players to think like that. What you want is for them to say, ‘What do I have to do today to have the best chance to win,’ then you’re of the mindset that day in and day out I’m going to do the right things at a high level. Then, when the game comes, you should be able to execute at a high level more often with less doubt and more confidence to put you in a position to win the game. I always talk to the players about, ‘Don’t worry about making mistakes. Don’t look at the scoreboard. Just play fast and be relentless. Go, go, go. Play fast, play fast. It’s not a game of perfect, anyway.’ If you get guys not walking the halls with doubt in the back of their minds that they haven’t done certain things and you don’t have guys playing slow or not trusting their teammates, then they have confidence.
Are you more ready for this opportunity than you were, say, three years ago? And why? What made you ready for this now at this point?
Every year you gain more and more experience. Once you get around different people you see different ways to do it, good and bad. I never wanted to become a head coach without being a coordinator. That can happen, but to me, it’s not fair to the people involved if you become a head coach and you’re not prepared. I felt like the best preparation for me if I got an opportunity was to have experience as a coordinator. I have had that. When you’re a coordinator, you’re responsible for half the team. You have a staff of eight people. In college, that is your staff. Even beyond that, I’ve been in some very tough situations. There’s nothing worse than losing in the NFL. That makes you stronger and when you come out of stuff like that, you get more confidence: ‘Regardless of what happens, I’m not going to be swayed.’ I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been around first-year head coaches, which helps a lot. You see coaches grow. This has been a different dynamic every year that I’ve been here relative to me and my role. There has been roster turnover, so you’re taking it all in. Then, you get an opportunity and the front office calls you and tells you, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ I had no clue. So, you say, ‘Well, OK. Whatever you want me to do. I’ll do everything I can.’
And it’s not as if you had a big adjustment period . . .
Immediately, it starts: ‘Bam, this is what you’ve got to do here. This is how you clean this up.’ You have to tell them right away. You have to lay out the expectation: ‘Boom, boom, boom.’ You just go do it because you’ve seen it done. You’ve gone over it in your mind how you would do it. I know I’ve made mistakes, I’ve screwed stuff up, but I know that and I’ve learned. The late (Indiana University and Miami of Ohio coach) Terry Hoeppner told me, ‘You’re never going to be, like, ready, ready. You’re going to have to learn on the job.’’’