Ex-Buff Embree out to rebuild at Colorado brick by brick

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Jon Embree has a degree in communications, but had he known the task before him as the new head coach at Colorado, perhaps he would have opted for an architecture or engineering degree.

You see, he is very aware of the task at hand. It's not just rebuilding his alma mater, it's reconstructing just about every facet of the program -- from the weight room to the conference logo on Folsom Field. This is Embree's chance to turn the program around and hopefully return it to its early '90s heyday when conference titles were the norm and winning nearly every game was commonplace.

Jon Embree embraces the opportunity to return CU to its heyday. (US Presswire)  
Jon Embree embraces the opportunity to return CU to its heyday. (US Presswire)  
It's not going to be easy, Embree is the first to acknowledge, but he has a plan. A plan that involves, quite literally, bricks.

Gold ones.

"There's a brick wall in our building and under Coach [Bill] McCartney, if you won a big game, you used to paint a brick gold and put the score and the date of the game on there," Embree said. "You knew game week, this was for a brick and it was a big game."

Colorado hasn't played in many big games recently. The wall full of bricks that was so much a part of the program at its peak has been lost, painted over several years ago just like a random wall in the bathroom.

Perhaps it's fitting that the wall is gone for a team desperately searching for a new identity following the disastrous Dan Hawkins era. The team has had a losing season in seven of the past 11 years and the turnaround, according to Embree, starts one brick at a time.

"What I've challenged this team is, because of the nature of our schedule and the nature of being in this conference, there's going to be a lot of opportunities to get bricks," he said. "To qualify for a brick, it has to be a top 25 team or a unique situation that will count. For us this year, we'll probably have seven or eight opportunities. Our first opportunity to earn a brick is Hawaii. We've lost 18 games in a row on the road and we need to end that streak."

The 18-game losing streak is just one issue the program hopes to rectify as it starts fresh in a new conference this year. There's not a single player on the current roster who has been part of a win on the road and the first-year head coach is not shy in addressing the issue.

"The kids, they talk about they want to win championships and bowl games, but every team says that at the beginning of the year," Embree said. "If you can't win on the road, you're not doing anything. I want these kids to understand that it's not just what you want to do at the end of the season, it's about the process and the journey. If you want to do what you say you want to do, then it starts with winning on the road."

The road game at Hawaii is the first test for what is one of the toughest schedules in college football this fall. The Buffs play 13 games straight and go to Ohio State, Stanford and Arizona State in addition to hosting Pac-12 division favorites Oregon and USC. Embree understands the road athletic director Mike Bohn has laid out for him is going to be a tough one in his first year, but that hasn't stopped him from not just talking about, but believing the Buffs will turn things around.

It might not happen this year, but Embree's plan is to take the program from one brick to eventually, he believes, having a wall full of gold.

More on Embree/Pac-12

"You have to become consistent," he said. "We have to develop an identity and know who we are, where we're going and how we're going to get there. Coach McCartney used to say that all the time, who are you, where are you going and how are you going to get there.

"We can't get so far ahead of ourselves thinking about all these things that we want to do that we forget about the process and the journey. There's some things we have to get done from a fundamentals standpoint before we can start talking about all these grandiose things."

McCartney is expected to be much more a part of the program he built to be national champions than he was under Hawkins. Embree was one of "Coach Mac's" first recruits upon taking the job and the two men have remained close ever since. They have had lunch together several times since Embree took the job and have even gone out for a round or two of golf.

The 45-year-old Embree has taken cues from his mentor but also wants to leave his mark on the program in his first head coaching job. Having the opportunity to lead his alma mater out onto the field is something the former Buffaloes tight end has been looking forward to ever since joining the coaching ranks. That he is able to do so this season is almost a surreal experience.

"There's nothing like it, there really isn't," said Embree, whose previous job was an assistant under Mike Shanahan with the Redskins. "Colorado is obviously a special place for me. It's a place I believe can be relevant again in college football. To have the opportunity to kind of restore the swagger and the luster back to that program, it means a lot.

"This is the only job I ever wanted. Some feelers have been put out before about an opening here or there but I just wasn't feeling it. This was the place where I wanted to be."

While interviewing for the Colorado job, Embree pitched his plan for building a coaching staff that had deep connections to the program. All but two of his staff members are either from the state or played or coached for the program. Surrounding himself with people who had an emotional tie to what they were doing, such as with offensive coordinator and former Buffs running back Eric Bieniemy, was a priority in building his staff for many reasons.

"Part of it is they believe in what I'm trying to do and they also believe in me," Embree said. "As a head coach, you can't be everywhere, there are things that you have to do. I'm very happy and confident on both sides of the ball that I have people who can get the job done like I want it done."

Bieniemy and Embree in particular have a close bond. The two men have helped each other both in their careers and in their personal lives.

"This is something that he and I had talked about from day one. When he first got into coaching, I helped him get into coaching back in 2001. It was something that we always talked about, if we ever got an opportunity to do it together and it just came to fruition," Embree said.

"It's almost like brothers, it really is. We have a lot of similarities, he wears his emotions on his sleeve a little more than I do but there's been plenty of times that he's told me, 'Hey, calm down.' We think a lot alike as far as our philosophy about football, how you coach, how you handle certain things. It's just a natural fit."

Receivers coach Bobby Kennedy has a connection with the city of Boulder, having graduated from Boulder High in the 1980s before playing at nearby Northern Colorado. Luring him back home from a well-paid position at Texas was no easy task for Embree, but the well-regarded recruiter was just someone he had to have on staff.

"I think he's a great coach, his record speaks for itself," Embree said of Kennedy. "He was at Washington and coached Reggie Williams and did a tremendous job. He coached Ryan Yarborough at Wyoming and he won the Biletnikoff. He had Desmond Clark at Wake Forest who as the all-time ACC-leading receiver when he got through playing. Then obviously he had success at Texas and Arizona. There was no doubt in my mind I was getting a good coach along with a good recruiter."

Recruiting is one area where Embree has already reversed course. The move west to the Pac-12 was seen as a natural fit for the school because of the ties to California, particularly on the recruiting trail. Without many high-caliber athletes on a somewhat depleted roster, hitting the talent-rich states of Texas and California has been priority No. 1 under Embree.

"When you look back at the great Colorado teams, those were the states where we got a lot of good players from," he said. "Currently, I think we have four or five kids committed from Texas and about the same amount out of California. We're on that road back to getting players out of those states. Sprinkle in kids from Colorado and a few other areas and that's how we're going to build it."

Just a few days away from beginning fall camp, Embree isn't sure quite sure what his first season at Colorado holds. But he understands that this year is about building that base for future campaigns.

"I'll have a better feel for things after this first year," he said. "I'll have a better feel from where we are as a program standpoint and a little bit better feel for what we really need. We will have played everyone in the league except for Oregon State so we'll have a really good barometer of where we are. Ask me in December and I'll have a better idea."

For now though, he is worried about Hawaii. And bricks.

"I can't wait to run out and have the stadium filled. It will be a surreal moment I can imagine.

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