A tearful Jon Embree bid Colorado farewell on Monday, but not before addressing some of the deep-seeded problems plaguing his alma mater’s football program.
“I did things the right way. I don’t care what they say, or what anyone says,” he said. “We had the highest GPA the last three semesters here at this school that the football program has ever had. We stay out of trouble. You guys represented yourselves well and all the guys that played before you. You set a legacy and a standard.”
The justification for firing Embree was pretty clear. Friday’s 42-35 loss to Colorado sealed the worst finish in program history, a 1-11 debacle that included losses to Colorado State and Sacramento State. CU went winless at Folsom Field, the first season that had ever happened. The Buffaloes also suffered a 30.8 average point per game margin of defeat in Pac-12 play.
Someone tweeted at me that this CU team was the worst in BCS conference history. Assuming that encompasses just the 14 years since the Bowl Championship Series was introduced, I am hard-pressed to disagree. The Buffaloes were bad, no question.
CU athletic director Mike Bohn alluded to other Pac-12 schools’ success during Monday’s press conference in a loud, rambling diatribe that never specifically addressed why Embree was fired just two years into his tenure.
Colorado’s struggles under a new head coach are magnified when juxtaposed against the success first-year leaders Jim Mora, Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez. They are a combined 23-13. All three are taking their teams to bowl games.
Programs like Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA facilitate a coach’s immediate success because the pieces are in place for success; they just require the right guidance to put them into place.
Then there was Mike Leach. An upset of Washington in the finale spared Leach’s Cougars a winless Pac-12 slate and ended Washington State’s season 3-9 – one game worse than its 2011 finish. There’s no coincidence Washington State has the longest bowl game drought of any Pac-12 program, because the program is being constantly rebuilt; more on that in a moment.
Colorado football was a mess requiring massive retooling when Embree was hired after the 2010 season. Dan Hawkins was hired to replace Gary Barnett and uproot some of the systemic issues that plagued the latter’s tenure. Hawkins ran a clean program, but he ran into a common pitfall for coaches asked to scrub away the stink of off-field transgressions.
Hawkins had difficulty finding the necessary balance between off-field character and on-field quality. Colorado’s is a roster simply not up to par with others around the conference.
Embree’s job was maintaining the level of character that Hawkins strived for as head coach, while building a competitive lineup. My stance has always been that, barring malfeasance, a coach should be afforded a full recruiting cycle before he’s called onto the carpet. Massive rebuilding projects require even more patience.
Perhaps Bohn and others were prescient and CU was never going to get on track with Embree. But then, maybe current leading contributors Christian Powell, Kenneth Crawley and Nelson Spruce, all freshmen, were the cornerstones of Colorado regaining relevance.
Someone has to be the foundation when a program is being built from scratch. The aforementioned Washington State hired Paul Wulff before the 2008 season, and after a rash of problems plagued Bill Doba’s program.
Wulff was tasked with cleaning up WSU football, which he did. Doing so required basically tearing down the program to the ground and rebuilding anew, and WSU was trending in the right direction.
Now, it’s back to rebuilding. Colorado’s about-face is a bit less dramatic given the program is currently at rock bottom. But because CU is so low, the project is going to take time. As Embree asked, “how long does he have?”
CU had hit rock bottom once before, the last time it slogged through a season with just one win. That was in 1984, the third year Bill McCartney was head coach. McCartney is the most celebrated coach in CU history, having led the Buffaloes to a national championship just six years after going 1-10.
Embree may not have been Bill McCartney Ver. 2.0, but had university administrators had the same philosophy with McCartney there never would have been a Ver. 1.0.
Each new coaching staff translates to rebuilding, save those rare instances when a coach leaves a winning program like Nick Saban departing LSU for the NFL.
Every time the athletic department reboots, he sends the program back into the rebuilding phase. Colorado has not been a viable player in college football since the early 2000s; when it names its new head coach, he will be the fourth in the last six years. There’s a direct correlation.
Embree made no distinction between the previous regime’s recruits and his own, and said as much in his press conference. All he saw were Buffaloes, which makes his firing even more difficult to stomach. Players embraced him after he addressed the media; star wide receiver Paul Richardson, who missed this season due to injury, told CUBuffs.com writer B.G. Brooks: “We’re already on the right path; coach (Embree) laid a nice foundation for us. We’re headed in the right direction.”
Among the early reported front runners to take over at Colorado? Mark Mangino. After commending Embree’s dedication to his student-athletes, is CU brass seriously considering a coach fired for abusing players?
Mangino has a track record for turning a lowly program around, building perpetual Big 12 bottom feeder Kansas into an Orange Bowl team. The message being sent here is that Bohn and Co. want wins, but if the Mangino rumors are true, it conveys hypocrisy as well.
One defense of the decision to fire Embree is that CU never should have hired him at all. He was an assistant in the NFL with no head coaching experience, and was six years removed from the college game. If that is indeed the case, though, that isn’t an Embree problem; that’s a management problem. There are several glaring examples of managerial problems exposed at CU.