The fiery passion that you see on the sidelines or on the practice field from Coach Joe Tumpkin changes to a soft spoken, controlled demeanor in a one-on-one environment. Coach Tumpkin was born in Detroit, Michigan but grew up in the Miami, Florida where he actually got his first taste of Colorado Buffaloes Football when the Buffs played Notre Dame for the 1990 National Championship. Due to his grandfather’s time as a police officer, he was on the field in the corner of the end zone where Rocket Ismail had just taken the wind out of the Buffs sails with a dynamic punt return. But the wind picked back up when that flag said clipping on Notre Dame and nearly 25 years later the winds pushed Joe Tumpkin’s boat to Boulder to help right a defense that had struggled prior to him joining the staff February 2015 with Defensive Coordinator Jim Leavitt.
Coach Tumpkin worked his way up the coaching ladder and to this chapter of his coaching career through hard work, studying of the game and learning plenty from his peers and mentors. Tumpkin took the fundamentals he learned during high school and college to start his coaching career as a grad assistant coaching linebackers at Lakeland College despite playing defensive line in high school and college at Michigan Tech. Tumpkin’s continued understanding of the game has come from talking to peers, going to people he knew that coached those positions and constantly learning from them and studying the game. As his mother told him, “If you are going to be good at something, be good at it!”
Coach Tumpkin’s parents were huge influences on his life, especially his mother. His mother, Dr. Mary Tumpkin, passed away in November 2013. Dr. Tumpkin was a beloved pastor in the Miami area (her word spread across many other areas of the world) where she started her church in the living room of her own home. She helped make it grow to the point where a 22,000 square foot church, in Miami Gardens, Florida, was built to house the Universal Truth Center where she led more than 25,000 members. Coach Tumpkin shares his mother’s words through his #MyMomMonday tweets to help continue the legacy she built and to pay homage to someone dear to him that he loves with all his heart.
Coach Tumpkin chose to join CU’s staff after being offered the position but it was not made public until after signing day 2015 where Tumpkin finished out his duties at Central Michigan because as Tumpkin puts it his philosophy is to “finish what you started”. Coach Tumpkin joined the CU staff after taking a Central Michigan defense that was ranked near the bottom 25% of college football when he joined the staff in 2010 and turned the defense into a Top 30 defense as the Chippewas Defensive Coordinator by the time 2014 season ended. Tumpkin’s “ego is not too big” and the move from a coordinator in an FBS program to safeties position coach showed that. Tumpkin’s main goal when coming on board was to help bring Colorado football back to where it should be. Tumpkin pointed to the great defenses and players that have come from the CU football program and defense being a staple of what made CU a great football program and that being the place to get back to for this team.
Coach Tumpkin is on a staff with a head football coach that cut his teeth playing and then coaching secondary in Mike MacIntyre. Coach MacIntyre, Coach Leavitt and the staff give each other suggestions to help each other reach the same goal of winning. Again, the egos get checked at the door and it is solely about the staff coming together to relay the message Coach MacIntyre wants and that has shown on the field and in the words they all share. Coach Tumpkin used the term “Players make plays. Players win games.” which is a widely used phrase by Coach MacIntyre in “The Rise” series by CU Video. That playmaking ability and winning games had been something CU just couldn’t turn the corner on. Repeatedly during 2015 there would be a key play that would turn the tide of a game that Colorado had in it’s grasp to win, but missed out. The players and staff saw something different in the Michigan game. Despite similar results of losing a game they were in, players left feeling they truly let one slip away. It showed the following week in Oregon that things had changed when that third quarter turning point and getting down against a team they had been outplaying all game ended with CUs offense answering the bell and then CUs defense closing out the game by not allowing Oregon to score their last 3 series and sealing the game with an interception in the end zone by Ahkello Witherspoon. The “One Play and Clear” mentality showed and the need for critical plays to be made by everyone happened.
Despite the score of 41-38, Colorado’s defense had success due to those stops, due to creating turnovers and holding Oregon scoreless in the 4th quarter. Tumpkin shared his philosophy on why the game has changed from being how many yards are put on the board or how many points to eliminating opportunities and possessions; “The game has changed. The spread is a modified option football but instead of creating one on one match-ups and spreading a team horizontally, they are doing it horizontally and vertically. This creates seams where you are having to defend the entire field.” But the fast paced offense and spread offenses are less of an issue for CUs defense due to the offense Colorado runs and tempo Mike MacIntyre runs his practices. Despite the not measuring success on yards given up and points surrendered in today’s game, the success is showing in those areas and translated to CU being the 23rd ranked defense in yards per game given up overall and in passing along with 31st in points per game. In 2014, the season before Tumpkin and Leavitt joined CU, the Buffs ranked 113th, 102nd and 120th in those areas.
But how did CU get there in just two years? Coaching has been a big key with CU definitely upgrading in these areas but Tumpkin says “The maturity factor of the football team with the amount of upperclassmen and the talent they have” is showing. The three main contributors at safety that Coach Tumpkin works with are Tedric Thompson, Afolabi Laguda and Ryan Moeller, all three upperclassmen that have a drive to win, to get better and help this team win. All three have developed to this point and that is the key Tumpkin sees with this program and how great programs are built, by constantly developing. Tumpkin stated, “The two key areas to build a great program are Recruiting and Developing and keeping guys in your program.” Despite the recruiting rankings, CU is proving they have recruited Pac 12 level athletes that needed the opportunity to mature and develop. The same thing of everyone being on the same page as a staff came out in the same words Coach Darrin Chiaverini uses when Coach Tumpkin said “Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football. Recruiting is about relationships.” Those relationships built in recruiting turn in to what this program this staff and these players have built today, a program with a strong upperclassmen presence that is constantly developing. Tumpkin’s relationships helped CU land two players in the 2016 recruiting cycle in their main freshman contributors in South Plantation (Florida) players Tony Julmisse and Johnny Huntley. While CU will lose over 20 scholarship seniors to graduation, they only lose two regular starters on offense in Sefo Liufau and Alex Kelley while losing eight starters on defense. However, the Buffs return over 20 scholarship juniors for the 2017 season with many being regular contributors. Tumpkin addressed this by saying, “The goal is to constantly have a core of 50 kids you are constantly developing in your program, so when you graduate those 15-20 seniors, it becomes next man up and you don’t have an issue... The biggest thing is you can never be complacent.”
Coach Joe Tumpkin certainly has not been complacent in helping the programs he has been a part of continually develop that constant core of players and improve. The things Coach Tumpkin has done as a coach and his approach and demeanor are what you see in a person that make you understand they are better than what they do despite their humbleness. Coach Tumpkin has Power 5 level defensive coordinator or even a G5 level head coach written all over his resume and his ability and professionalism. Like many other contributing factors, Tumpkin is just another reason Colorado football is back on the national map and why he most likely will have his name on the national map.