Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Reality bites: It's won't be easy for Colorado
By Ted Miller
Sometimes a new coach arrives with new energy and new ideas and a smooth transition immediately leads to success.
But not often.
Particularly when a program has been downtrodden for an extended stretch, as Colorado has been. The Buffaloes haven't had a winning record since 2005, and the early returns on new coach Jon Embree's first year are that streak will extend another season. Colorado is 1-4 through the seemingly easier part of its schedule.
Jon Embree's Colorado Buffaloes have had a disappointing start to the season and will soon face a slate of tough games.
Up next is a visit to No. 7 Stanford on Saturday. Then there's a trip to 4-1 Washington. Then No. 9 Oregon comes to Boulder. Then a trip to the desert to take on No. 22 Arizona State. And USC comes to town on Nov. 4.
That's three road trips -- the Buffs have lost 20 consecutive games away from their home state -- three ranked teams and five foes with a combined record of 19-4. Fair to say this is the most rugged stretch of a 13-game, no-off-week schedule that is among the most difficult in the country.
It's obvious that Embree didn't expect to be here, even while he recognized the Buffaloes' talent deficiencies. This is a veteran team -- 18 starters back from a 5-7 crew -- that showed competitive sparks late in the 2010 season after Dan Hawkins was fired.
But presently, Embree's team is finding ways to lose instead of ways to win. It had chances to win in the fourth quarter of three of the four losses, and blew leads in the final frame against California and Washington State.
After Embree watched the Buffs surrender a 10-point lead in the final five minutes against Washington State, he could barely contain his frustration.
A couple of days later, after watching film, Embree's emotions were in check, but the verdict remained darn near the same: This team hasn't figured out how to win.
"We've got to start finishing these games," he said. "There are two games, Washington State and California, that we had opportunities to win and really had the game and we found a way not to do it. At some point, I told them, 'When is enough, enough? When is it that you are so tired of losing games in this manner that we finally figure out a way to win it?'"
A coach, particularly a new one, often finds motivational tactics a spider's web of competing interests and personalities and locker room undercurrents. Veteran players can be hungry to go out with a taste of success. Or they can throw up their hands, having accepted losing. Young players can be uncertain, take hard coaching badly, and fall into the old, negative culture of losing.
When does a coach kick them in the pants? And when does he slap them on the back?
After calling a team meeting and talking to his leadership counsel, Embree said that he still senses a locker room buy-in.
"They are all on board," he said. "We'll be encouraging of them but still at the same time when you mess up we're not going to act like nothing happened."
It won't be easy to regain confidence at Stanford, a program that can beat you up with physical play on both sides of the ball, while showcasing the best player in college football in quarterback Andrew Luck. The Buffs have injury woes in the secondary, which has forced them to use inexperienced players: see the broken coverage that turned into a 63-yard game-winning touchdown for Washington State with one minute left.
What's Embree think of Luck? "I see a guy I wished left, I know that," he quipped about Luck's decision to return to the Farm and not become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
Embree is selling competing against Luck as an opportunity.
"I told our team that, for those who will not get an opportunity to play professional football, you're going to get an opportunity to see what it's like to go against Peyton Manning," he said. "He's everything you look for in a quarterback."
Whining about the schedule won't help. The only thing the Buffs can do is keep working and hope things click into place. Those pining for a magical season have been slapped by reality. There will be no magic. Instead, the Buffs solution is mostly what every other rebuilding program must endure.
Said Embree, "We've got to improve every week and eventually the wins will come."