Blame can be shared in Colorado

Originally Published: November 28, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

BOULDER, Colo. -- You don't have to be Bill Parcells to figure out why Colorado fired second-year head coach Jon Embree. The Buffaloes finished their season Friday with a 1-11 record, worse than the 3-10 record of a year ago. You are what your record says you are, Parcells, the Super Bowl-winning NFL coach, famously said. Embree's record stunk even if buried in the snowpack beginning to accumulate on the nearby Front Range.

The Buffs fell behind Fresno State 35-0 in the first quarter. They trailed Oregon 56-0 at the half. With Colorado trailing Stanford 48-0 in the fourth quarter, radio play-by-play man Mark Johnson, looking to fill time, sent it down to his sideline reporter, former Buffs linebacker and NFL veteran Chad Brown.

"My mother said if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," Brown reported. "Back to you in the booth."

[+] EnlargeJon Embree
AP Photo/Brennan LinsleyFormer Colorado coach Jon Embree said he was caught off guard by his firing.

Bill McCartney, Embree's coach at Colorado in the mid-1980s and a Buffs icon, pronounced that Embree didn't get the chance to complete the task of turning around Colorado because he is African-American.

"I feel like, as a minority coach, when you get an opportunity, you want to try to help knock down barriers, help make it easier for the next guy," Embree said Tuesday in a phone interview. "I had an opportunity. I just feel awful that obviously, I didn't make it easier for the next guy. Those are the things that stay with you. ... People don't really realize when we do get an opportunity, we understand that it could be your only opportunity."

The funny thing is, if there was a coach in America who could be excused for not thinking he would be judged by his record, it would be Embree. McCartney went 1-10 in 1984, his third season, Embree's sophomore year. As a junior and senior, Embree played in a bowl game. In 1990, Colorado shared the national championship.

Embree was hired for that connection to McCartney. He took over a program in desperate straits and was given the charge to shepherd it into the Pacific-12 Conference. He coached as if he would have the opportunity to build a program the way that McCartney did.

"I know what the results say," Embree said two weeks ago in his office. "I really do like the foundation that is being laid, from the classroom, in the weight room, how they carry themselves. The lack of those things eventually will cause you to lose on the field. If you're late handling stuff in school, you're probably going to be late off the ball. That aspect is where we need it. Now we've got to get that to translate on the field. We have to get consistent. But I just think, having been through this as a player also, we are definitely moving in the right direction, and it's going to turn soon."

That may explain in part the tears that flowed down Embree's cheeks Monday in the news conference announcing his firing.

Asked whether he had been caught off guard by the firing, Embree said, "Yeah, I was."

When a program loses the way that Colorado lost -- early, often and by large margins -- the head coach has to deal with decommitting, the scourge of recruitment. That's what happened to Embree. The problem is the guy who decommitted is the guy who hired Embree, Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn.

Two days after the Buffs lost their season finale 42-35 to Utah, Bohn informed Embree that the university would start over again. Bohn said Tuesday that even if the Buffs had held on to their eight-point, fourth-quarter lead over the Utes, it wouldn't have changed his mind. He had made his decision last week.

"In the end," Bohn said, "it became very clear that despite all our best intentions and our deep desire for Jon to be successful, that we weren't going to be able to get it done."

In the end, actually, Colorado handed Embree a poker hand with a four, five, seven and eight and fired him for not drawing a six.

There is blame enough to go around. Colorado football has been in free fall for nearly a decade. Discipline problems during Gary Barnett's tenure resulted in the university appointing an independent commission to investigate the way that the football team recruited. In the athletic department, the investigation is referred to as "The Ordeal."

[+] EnlargeGary Barnett
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMISome of the problems at Colorado date back to Gary Barnett's tenure as coach.

The university instituted such tough recruiting rules that Barnett, who led the Buffs to one Big 12 championship and four Big 12 North titles in seven seasons, found them untenable. Bohn, who came in as athletic director in 2005, pushed Barnett out after that season.

Bohn hired Dan Hawkins, who won 19 games in five seasons. Hawkins got the university to curtail its restrictions on recruiting but bungled how he signed players. When Embree arrived, he found only two quarterbacks, eight senior defensive linemen and a converted tackle for a tight end. Put it this way: Embree didn't start six true freshmen this season because he wanted to.

"When you looked at the board," Embree said of his arrival, "you knew at some point you were going to have to be really young."

Embree lacked the résumé of the typical head football coach. He had never been a coordinator at the college or professional level. What he had was his connection to the glory days of Colorado football.

"It's important for you to understand the significance of him being a Buff," Bohn said.

Bohn hired a Buff because that connection to the past is what he had to sell to his constituents. Bohn hired a Buff because he discovered that Colorado didn't carry the cachet among prospective coaches that it once had.

In the college football arms race, Colorado has played the role of Switzerland. The Dal Ward Athletic Center, a $14 million, state-of-the-art building when built in the early 1990s, remains the most recent armament purchased.

In addition, state law limits the university to signing an employment contract with only six people. In an era when assistant coaches get two- and three-year deals, Colorado can't offer them. Bohn hired Embree in part because more experienced coaches -- former Oregon coach Mike Belotti, most prominently -- judged that Colorado had too many impediments to win.

Embree came in with no experience as the boss. The coordinators that he hired, former Buffs All-American tailback Eric Bieniemy on offense and Greg Brown on defense, had never been in charge on their own, either.

A first-time head coach with first-time coordinators ended up playing first-time players. Most freshmen are not physically prepared to play Pac-12 football. Take Colorado freshman Vincent Hobbs. He is 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. When you eyeball him, you see a big wide receiver. But Hobbs played tight end, which meant he didn't have the bulk to make the blocks that tight ends make.



How do I feel? Really, I feel bad. I feel bad for our players.

 -- Ex-Colorado coach Jon Embree

Hobbs increased his bench press from 230 pounds when he arrived in June to 310 pounds. He caught 16 passes for 151 yards this season. But when Hobbs talked about what it's like to line up against 22-year-olds, he said the biggest difference is from the neck up.

"They're smarter," Hobbs said of the players defending him. "They've been in the game. & They watch film, and they know pretty much every move you're going to make, when you're in motion. It's that type of stuff. They learn more mentally than us younger guys do. It gives them a step ahead."

There aren't many coaches who had to deal with homesickness among their starters. Freshmen aren't used to the grind of a 12-game season that began for them when they arrived on campus in the first week of June.

"When [a freshman is] redshirting or a role player," Embree said, "there's not that constant pressure on you. They [the freshman starters] deal with it, trying to perform in the classroom and having to perform on the football field, against talent that's already been through what they're going through."

Their lack of mental experience cost Colorado in any number of ways.

"What you can do with true freshmen is so limited," said senior defensive tackle Will Pericak. "Mentally, they don't understand the game nearly as well as a senior or an upperclassmen. It's kind of limited [us] as to what we could run. That kind of put us at a disadvantage."

Pericak is a Boulder native. His mother, Wynn, works in the office of a university vice president. All he ever wanted to do was wear the black and gold. As a senior who is actually a grad student, he won one game.

"It's been tough," Pericak said. "It's incredibly frustrating. I just feel so bad that we haven't gotten the wins. It's a feeling like, I don't want to see anybody. I don't want to go out after a game, after we lost. I just want to go home."

Students stopped coming to games. So did alums. Ticket revenue plunged $2.6 million this year, a figure that turned Bohn's head. Even as he supported Embree publicly as late as two weeks ago, he took pains to describe the season as "deeply humbling."

Embree, who signed a five-year contract when he took the job, coached as though he had more time. He already had begun making changes for next season. He planned to shift from a pro-style offense to the spread. Embree already had told Brown and linebackers coach Brian Cabral that they would not return to his staff.

Cabral has worked for five Buffs head coaches since arriving as a graduate assistant in 1989. He served as interim head coach in 2004, when Barnett was placed on leave during The Ordeal. If there is a Mr. Colorado Football, it is Cabral.

[+] EnlargeJon Embree
Marc Piscotty/Icon SMIColorado under Embree had to deal with the steep learning curve associated with young players.

"His daughter got married this year," Embree said. "My family was there. It was a Sunday. I was here working. It is hard, because what he represents as a man and all that other stuff is what you want."

But the coordinator Embree planned to hire, whom he didn't name, coaches linebackers, so Embree had to push Cabral out the door. Now Embree is out the door, too.

"How do I feel?" Embree asked Tuesday. "Really, I feel bad. I feel bad for our players."

Even as the Buffaloes lost horribly week after week, his players stayed with him.

"Those kids played hard against us," said Rich Rodriguez, whose Arizona team walloped Colorado 56-31 earlier this month. "Are they as talented as the rest of the teams right now? No. They got kids who love football. They are still listening to the coaching staff. I thought they gave great effort. I told Jon that after the game."

Bohn said he will hire his third head coach in seven years as soon as possible. He said he doesn't expect to look at coaches who have won but are newly unemployed, such as Jeff Tedford or Tom O'Brien, late of California and North Carolina State, respectively.

In an office filled with photos and trinkets of Buffs successes, Bohn keeps a ticket from the 2005 Big 12 championship game, which Colorado lost to Texas 70-3. It is there, he said, to remind him of the pain of that night.

These days, it could be there to serve as a goal.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com