A man walks out to a standing applause onto the stadium’s club level balcony, with all of Boulder laying behind him. Alongside stands the most powerful figures at CU: university President Bruce Benson, Chancellor Phil DiStefano, and athletic director Mike Bohn.
This man does not seem out of place, wearing a black and gold tie, and talking about necessary changes.
He may not be recognized at first glance, but his name is Jon Embree, and he returns to Boulder as the new head coach for the Colorado football team, with plans in hand. After spending some time in the NFL, Embree is back to take the reigns of his dream job.
And though the Buffs limp into the Pac-12 conference after an era of coaching disappointment, Embree said he expects his team to be in full sprint soon.
“It may take some time, but I want you to know I’m not a patient person,” he said during his formal presentation on Monday.
He endured the program’s lows and relished in its highs. As a tight end for the Buffs, Embree went through a 1-10 season his sophomore year. As a coach for ten years at the school, Embree learned under winning coaches like Bill McCartney and Gary Barnett, becoming very familiar with ten-win seasons and January bowl games.
During these tenures he showed off his flexibility; coaching tight ends, defensive ends, wide receivers, and even kickers.
Still, Embree never coached at a coordinator position. In such a telling time for the program, hiring a coach who does not have familiarity with leading a team seems a little dubious.
“People out there may look at it as a negative, but I don’t,” Embree said. “At the end of the day, you’re going to judge me by my wins and losses on the field.”
A team that has not seen a winning season since 2005 calls upon a native son (Embree is only the third graduate of the school to be its head coach) to return a forgotten swagger. When Jon Embree speaks about his school, his voice booms loud and carries an implicit pride.
“When I watch Colorado play, I didn’t sense they really believed they could win,” he said. “They thought it, but they didn’t believe it. I didn’t sense that competitiveness that I was used to seeing in this great program.”
Helping him return the program’s “luster,” as he calls it, will be another former Buff, one who has coached with Embree at CU before.
Embree points over to his shoulder to the east side of the stadium. There a black slate with “Bieniemy No. 1” hangs alongside the surnames of Colorado’s best. With nearly 4,000 career-rushing yards from 1987-90, Eric Bieniemy remains the school’s all-time leading rusher. Now, he is the school’s offensive coordinator.
Bieniemy is wearing his Big 12 Championship ring from the 2001 season, when he served as running backs coach with Embree under Barnett’s staff.
“This is important to show these kids that we’ve done this,” Bieniemy said. “We’ve had a great deal of success as coaches. We want to make sure that our kids understand that it takes a tremendous amount of work and a tremendous amount of sacrifice to earn one of these.”
Bieniemy, who must first finish out the season as running backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings, is a proven college recruiter. When Embree left for UCLA to be the assistant head coach, Bieniemy came with him. Now that Embree has a head coaching gig of his own, there was one name Embree knew he had to call.
“I would not want to do this without him by my side, because he thinks like me,” Embree said. “He knows what I want. He can help get the message through to the players.”
Along with Bieniemy, this season’s interim head coach, Brian Cabral, has officially accepted a spot on Embree’s staff. Running backs coach Darian Hagan is expected to return from last year’s staff as well.
Any further changes to the coaching staff should be finalized by the end of the week. Embree repeats that the team’s identity will assume one of excellence and past tradition, no matter who joins his staff.
“You can’t get to where you want to go if you don’t know where you’ve been,” he said. “It’s important for players to understand who we are, where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there”
Next season CU will have seven road games, including Ohio State, Stanford, and Utah. Home games against current No. 1 Oregon, USC, and Arizona make Embree’s dream job seem like a nightmarish task. He has the responsibility of turning a team that is 21-40 in the past five seasons into the national competitor it once was.
Back on the podium, Chancellor DiStefano reverberates these historical sentiments. His words are clearly measured, but not clichéd, when considering who the last head coach was.
“If Jon Embree doesn’t understand CU’s traditions, CU’s expectations, and CU’s values, then nobody does,” DiStefano said. “I believe he’s the right person to lead our program at a key moment in its history.”
A hiring within the family contradicts the aspirations of some fans and alumni to grab a big name coach from LSU, Air Force, or Boise State. (Never again shall we mention that blue-turf school and coaching hire in the same sentence.)
Unlike those other coaches, this is not Jon Embree’s stepping stone. This is home.
Nearly twenty years ago Embree was lying in a hospital bed after elbow surgery. There came a phone call. It was his old coach, Bill McCartney, calling from his old home in Boulder.
“Embo, I want you in my office at 8 a.m.” McCartney said. Embree told his coach it might take some time to get out of the hospital. McCartney continued with commands, telling Embree he needed help coaching tight ends.
The former player told his former coach that he had another job lined up and wasn’t interested. McCartney must not have heard him.
“Well that is what you’re going to be,” McCartney continued. “That is who you are.”
Embree finally agreed to help out, at least just for the spring. Then Coach Mac dropped the hammer.
“Oh, and you’re going to do it for free because I can’t pay you.”
Embree went on to volunteer at his alma mater. Then after spending a year coaching a local high school team, he came back as a full-time assistant during McCartney’s last years in Boulder.
“I couldn’t tell him what I thought,” Embree said at the press conference announcing him as the new head coach. “Because what I thought was, ‘I want to come back and take your job, do what you’re doing.’”
It turned out that McCartney was right; Embree was meant to be a coach for the Buffs. Now, he even gets paid to do it.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Michael Krumholtz at Michael.email@example.com.
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