Colorado hoping new conference, coach sparks football revival
Jon Embree helped rebuild Colorado as a player; can he do it as a coach?
Hire met with little fanfare nationally, but has been a big hit in Boulder
Embree's goals heading into first Pac-12 year: improve attitude, recruiting
On the first day of spring conditioning drills at the University of Colorado, Jon Embree stood before the 85 football players he'd been hired to lead. Settling into the job he'd always hoped for at the school he'd always loved, the Buffaloes' new head coach led the early morning workout the best way he knew how.
Unbridled and full-throated, Embree delivered reminders of past failures and orders to push harder. He let the players know he'd been watching when the Buffaloes collapsed last season against Kansas, giving up a 28-point lead and allowing the Jayhawks to snap an 11-game conference losing streak. He knew all about the 52-7 loss at Cal and the 26-0 embarrassment against Missouri. The former Colorado tight end had spent the last five years as an assistant coach in the NFL, where colleagues weren't shy about mocking his alma mater's football ineptitude.
So now that he'd been hired to resuscitate the once-thriving program, Embree relished the opportunity to let the Buffaloes know how he'd felt. "Watching some of those games," Embree said, "as a former player, it was flat-out embarrassing."
Now it's up to Embree to help his fellow ex-Buffs save face. His hiring last December garnered little praise from the national press (Colorado's decision earned a "D" grade from SI.com's Stewart Mandel). The 45-year-old Embree had never worked as a coordinator, much less a head coach. He made his name coaching tight ends, most recently with the Washington Redskins. But he had certain qualifications: He'd long considered this his dream job, and with a $250,000 annual base salary, he could be hired relatively cheaply, vital for an athletic department that has been forced to make budget cuts in recent years.
In Boulder, however, Embree's already created a buzz. About 1,200 boosters showed up for a post-Signing Day luncheon at the Hyatt Regency ballroom, roughly triple the event's 2010 crowd. "His vision and energy is creating a lot of excitement around the program," Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn said. "He has this intense passion and competitive spirit, and that's been well-received by the recruits, by the fans, by the students, by the players, by everybody."
Embree's staff has also generated excitement. He brought in another Buffs' great, former running back Eric Bieniemy, as his offensive coordinator. Like Embree, Bieniemy has never been a coordinator, most recently serving as the Vikings' running backs coach from 2006-10. "There's a sense of being back home," said Bieniemy, who began his coaching career at Colorado in 2001. "We're obviously in the honeymoon phase, but the connection we have to the program brings a lot of excitement." At defensive coordinator Embree hired Greg Brown, who's now in his third stint as a Colorado assistant.
While Embree and his staff will be charged with improving on-field performance immediately, their long-term success may rest on their ability to recruit the state of California. "Recruiting that state is a huge piece of what we need to do," Bohn said. The most successful Colorado teams of the late 80s and early 90s drew heavily from the West Coast's talent pool. Both Embree and Bieniemy worked as assistants at UCLA, and with Colorado moving into the Pac-12 this season, they're confident they can revive the program's California pipeline. "When you look at the best teams in this school's history, they're built with Colorado kids and California kids," Embree said. "That's how this team needs to be built."
Whether building a team or coaching it, Embree competes relentlessly in everything he does. He tells a story of pushing his teenage daughter, Hannah, to be more ruthless in her tennis game. "I tell her there comes a time when you have to have this mindset when you go out there," he said. "You have to put your throat on the other girl's throat. You can't let her breathe.
"I say something like that, and then my wife tells me, 'You know, not everybody's like you. Not everyone wants to be like that all the time.' But I guess that's just who I am. No matter what it is, I just like winning."
Lately, that kind of intensity has been lacking in Boulder. "Under the coach we had before, it had gotten to the point where, for some reason or another, losing became acceptable," said senior safety Anthony Perkins, referring to former coach Dan Hawkins, who went 16-33 in his four years at Colorado. "In players' minds, it was just accepted that we were going to lose games. We'd get up for certain games, and then we'd have down weeks where we weren't giving it everything. That was the culture. That was the norm."
Embree has made it clear he won't tolerate that kind of attitude. "From day one, he let us know that the standards were going to be raised," Perkins said. "His first speech let us know that he expected more than what we had given."
As he screamed his way through the first day of drills, Embree acted as a sort of benevolent sadist, forcing sprint after sprint. At one point he organized the team into lines for 20-yard group sprints. He called the drill "Perfect 12s," representing the team's move to the Pac-12 conference. As each group ran, Embree and his staff counted the reps. If any player walked across the finish line, the sprint didn't count. If any player put his hands on his knees afterward, the sprint didn't count. If any player didn't go as hard as he could, failed to strive for Embree's definition of "perfection," the sprint didn't count.
The Buffs needed 12 perfect sprints to complete the drill. It took them 56 tries.
"That's when I knew," senior quarterback Tyler Hansen said, "this guy is not joking around. He's going to get us back to where we need to be."
Should Embree manage to turn around Colorado, it wouldn't be the first time he's sparked a Buffaloes' revival. When he played tight end in the 80s, Embree's teams finished 5-17 in his first two seasons. As a junior and senior, his teams went 13-12 and made a bowl game each year. Four seasons later, the Buffs were national champions.
"Being a part of a group that got this program turned around was special," Embree said. "That helped build the passion I have for this program. We were not very highly thought of. CU was an also-ran. But we built it up to where it became, in my opinion, a top 15 program in the country."
Now, Embree will attempt to repeat history.
"Having been a part of building this program up, having a chance to go through the same thing these players are going to go through, it's on my mind all the time," Embree said. "Going through that building process, having an idea of what we need to do now, I think about those experiences every single day."
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