Just in time for the Buffs’ move to the Pac-12 Conference, newly-named CU football head coach, Jon Embree, aims to raise the bar.
“We’re going to get swagger back in this program,” Embree said.
Called “a true Buff in every way” by C.U. Chancellor Phil DiStefano, Embree had an impressive collegiate career as a tight end for the Buffs from 1983-1986.
A graduate of Cherry Creek High School, he made his mark immediately, earning CU’s Lee Willard Award for the most outstanding freshman in 1983. As a sophomore, he set two single-season records for CU, in receptions (51) and receiving yards (680), and earned All-Big 8 honors.
He continued to be a crucial tight end for the Buffs through his junior and senior years, landing in the top five in the record books in catches (80) and yards (1,116). Twenty seven years later, his stats keep him in the top 20 in these categories.
After graduating, Embree was a sixth-round draft pick for the Los Angeles Rams in 1987. He played there for two years, then joined the Seattle Seahawks for part of the 1989 season, before suffering a shoulder injury that ended his career as a player.
Embree’s first return to Boulder was as a volunteer coach under Bill McCartney in 1991. His head-coaching dreams began during his first practice with McCartney.
“After my first practice, [McCartney] said, ‘What do you think?’ I couldn’t tell him what I thought, because what I thought was, ‘I’m gonna come back and take your job,’” Embree said.
From that practice on, he kept his coaching dream alive, beginning a long career that eventually brought him back to Folsom Field.
“It’s like I tell my team: ‘If you don’t believe in you, no one else will,’” Embree said. “I never doubted in my mind that I would be standing here one day.”
After a one-year job as assistant coach at Douglas County High School in Colorado, Embree returned once again to CU, this time with a paid coaching job. He was the tight ends coach for McCartney’s Buffs from 1993-1994.
When Rick Neuheisel took over in 1995, Embree switched to coaching the defensive ends. With the start of Gary Barnett’s career with the Buffs in 1999, he returned to the tight ends for two seasons and finally worked with the receivers and place-kickers in 2001 and 2002.
After the 2002 season, Embree left Colorado to coach the receivers at UCLA under head coach Karl Dorrell. In 2004 and 2005, Embree moved up the ranks to assistant coach, passing game coordinator and tight ends coach.
Embree then moved on to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he worked as tight ends coach from 2006-08. He next accepted a position as tight ends coach for the Washington Redskins in 2010.
After just one season with the Redskins, Embree is taking the opportunity to return to his roots as he replaces Dan Hawkins as head football coach of the Buffaloes.
“I am honored and humbled to be chosen to lead this great program,” Embree said. “The biggest challenge is going to be raising the bar … It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it.”
That challenge is certainly a difficult one. For the past two seasons, under Dan Hawkins, the Buffs went 2-6 in the Big 12.
With a move to the Pac-12 Conference approaching in July, that level of performance will not be tolerated.
“A lot of people out there are doubting us; they’re not sure about us,” Embree said. “And that’s okay, it’s a process. But I want you to know that I’m not a patient person, so I’m gonna try to speed this process up.”
He was part of the CU coaching staff during the 2001 season, in which the Buffs were Big 12 Conference champions, so he knows what potential Colorado football has.
“You can’t get to where you want to go if you don’t know where you’ve been,” he said. “I know where this program can go, and I’m more excited about that than what’s happened in the past two years.”
Raising the standards of his team is not the only challenge Jon Embree will face. When the Buffs join the Pac 12, he will be the fourth African-American head coach in that conference’s history.
Embree said this is an honor and a responsibility, but it does not define him as a coach.
“At the end of the day, I’m a football coach,” he said. “I understand the responsibility, and if I didn’t understand it … I never would have asked to be in this position … And one day, you won’t have to ask that question [about race].”
Embree will be working with assistant coach Brian Cabral, who took over as interim coach during the search process following Hawkins’ firing.
The new head coach said he looks forward to working with an assistant coach who is familiar with the Colorado football program.
“If [the coach] is not a Buff guy, how are they gonna know about the passion?” Embree said. “How do they know about the details that were put in this program that made it successful? I think you got a little glimpse of that when Cabral took over.”
Eric Bieniemy, CU’s all-time leading rusher and assistant head coach and running backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings, will step in as offensive coordinator. Embree and Bieniemy worked together at CU from 2001-2002, under head coach Gary Barnett, and in the 2001 season they helped the Buffs win their only Big 12 Conference title.
“[Bieniemy] thinks like me, he knows what I want, so there will be no gray areas,” Embree said.
Chancellor Phil DiStefano said he has high hopes for the Buffs under the leadership of a new coaching staff and as part of a new conference in the coming season.
DiStefano said he wants “to improve the performance and consistency of our team on the field while cultivating the talents of our student athletes to achieve a winning tradition in the Pac-12 and return to national prominence.”
President Bruce Benson said adding two Buffs to the coaching staff is a promising start to a successful year of CU football.
Benson said, “Part of the plan for building a successful program is having a passion for CU and Colorado, and Jon and Eric have that passion.”
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