Brooks: 'Embo' Returns Home, Eager For Challenge
BOULDER - Jon Embree knows and appreciates a typical NFL weekend, but the first weekend in December in East Rutherford, N.J., wasn't one of them.
There simply was no way it could be. It was a weekend of indelible memories, topped by the prospect of a long-awaited homecoming.
On Saturday night, between team/position meetings with the Washington Redskins, he tried to catch as much as he could of the UCLA-Southern California game. His interest: He coached at UCLA for three seasons and one of his sons, Taylor, is a junior receiver for the Bruins.
Said the father: "I was trying to watch as much as possible while everything else was going on with meetings and whatever . . . but that's the nature of this beast."
On Sunday afternoon, the beast had him. He was on the Redskins sidelines working for Mike Shanahan, his old boss, while his new boss, Colorado Athletic Director Mike Bohn, watched from a booth in the blustery upper reaches of the New Meadowlands Stadium.
Saturday night didn't turn out so well for the Bruins, beaten 28-14. Sunday afternoon was not a pleasant one for the Redskins, smacked soundly by the New York Giants 31-7. And therefore it wasn't a very pleasant time for Washington's former tight ends coach.
The fact that the fine details of Embree's agreement to become CU's 24th head football coach - "It's the only job I've ever wanted" - had been finalized fewer than 24 hours before kickoff had done nothing to alter his pregame focus or ease the postgame sting of a 24-point loss.
"I wanted to win this game, to help Coach Shanahan continue to build what he's trying to do here," Embree said early Sunday night before boarding a flight for Colorado with Bohn and search committee chairman Dr. David Clough. "When our game kicked off Sunday, there were no issues for me (related to his accepting the CU job). My focus was right where it should have been. Anytime you're in any competition, you want to win, to get after it."
CU, Bohn and a win-starved Buffs Nation are counting on Embree to bring his keen competitive spirit to Boulder and "get after it" - in a big way and in a big hurry. His hiring as Dan Hawkins' replacement was to be officially announced Monday morning at a news conference at Folsom Field's Stadium Club, kicking off a whirlwind first week on the job.
Embree expects to have his staff in place by "Wednesday or Thursday," he said. But two staffers are set: longtime Buffs assistant Brian Cabral, CU's interim coach for the final three 2010 games, and longtime friend/coaching peer Eric Bieniemy, currently the Minnesota Vikings' assistant head coach offense/running backs coach.
"The only person I've talked to is Cabral," Embree said. "I need to talk with (Darian) Hagan (running backs coach), and I haven't met the others. I do know Ashley (Ambrose, secondary coach), though. Between talking with (CU officials) and getting ready for the Giants, there just hasn't been a lot of time.
"But I want to get this (staff) settled. From my time in Kansas City (he was a Chiefs assistant for two seasons before a coaching change eliminated that staff), I know what it's like. I know how those guys feel. If I'm going to keep them, I'm going to let them know as early as I can. It's not fair to them or their families."
There has been wide speculation about the makeup of Embree's staff, but other than naming Cabral and Bieniemy, he declined to identify other potential assistants. The names were not collected in helter-skelter fashion over the past three weeks; Embree started his homework early.
"I feel like I'm going to have a great staff - some guys I've worked with, some I've come up with from research," he said. "I started in June, putting a potential staff together or at least thinking about it. Through that process, I identified some guys that would help us win, some guys that would help us recruit the best players, all guys with top credentials."
Bringing Bieniemy aboard as offensive coordinator was a given. In addition to their backgrounds as Buffs players, "Embo" and "EB" coached together at CU and UCLA. Their personalities are not quite polar opposites, but that's close. Embree is not exactly ice, but Bieniemy is 100 percent fire.
But they work so well together, Embree said, that they agreed to reconnect on another staff whenever the situation presented itself. Embree said Bieniemy, also a candidate for the CU head coaching position, would have hired him.
"Yeah, we always talked about that," Embree said. "I believe when the two of us have worked together, wherever we've been, we've been very successful. It's hard to explain, but we feed off of each other, we complement each other. I don't know how to explain it other than that.
"Both of us know the mentality of our players, we both get after guys. Now, maybe he's a little more demonstrative, but I know when I've had to get after a player he remembers it, too. I always felt when we left (CU) to go to UCLA, we had all that success, the 10-win seasons . . . then we both left for the NFL. We always thought if either one of us had a chance to run a program, we would be there together. You want people around you that you trust, people who have the same philosophies."
Embree conceded that prying Bieniemy out of the NFL, where he was considered an ascending assistant coach, required reworking some of the CU head coaching package that otherwise would have remained in the Embree account. Not a problem.
"The way I look at it, I don't know what the (salary) numbers of a first-time head coach might be," Embree said. "But knowing this is my first time, and seeing a new staff come in, my mindset is, 'If we win, I'll be fine (financially).
"All I know is that Mike Bohn did a tremendous job of stepping up for me and what I wanted to do with a staff. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter: I'm all about team. I benefit by helping this program get to the next level, get to bowl games. To me it was a no brainer: I want good coaches to be here, and I want to help them stay here. I want great people. Jon Embree won't be the guy that carries the Colorado Buffaloes; it's not a one man job."
Neither Embree nor Bieniemy has been a coordinator, although Embree was UCLA's passing game coordinator for a season and Bieniemy has a hand in the Vikings' offense. Embree doesn't believe holding either the offensive or defensive coordinator spot should be a prerequisite to becoming a head coach. Neither does he believe that CU is gambling on him or Bieniemy.
"No, they're not," he said. "When most people see my staff, they'll understand. There'll be former head coaches, former coordinators . . . I think sometimes people focus too much on why someone hasn't been a coordinator. A lot of coordinators have failed as head coaches; some head coaches have failed when they took other jobs.
"The only question to me is, 'Are you the right guy at the right time?' I believe I am. Yeah, I'll make some mistakes. There'll be calls on the sidelines, timeouts that some people will dispute, that kind of stuff . . . I'm not worried about that. I can lead, motivate, recruit and evaluate talent. That's what makes you a successful head coach."
Embree, 45, wants to succeed for myriad reasons, among them the fact that he will be only the fifth minority head coach among 65 BCS schools and, at this time, the only African-American head coach next season in the Pac-12 Conference.
"From that aspect, this opportunity means a lot to me," Embree said. "But it also means that there's a responsibility for me to succeed. My success could create more opportunities for African-American coaches. Some people are never going to be happy at end of the day (and) race is a touchy subject.
"But I think my career speaks for itself. Players - whether they're white, black, Hispanic, Asian - will tell you what kind of coach I am. But I do believe I have a responsibility to succeed in this, to create more opportunities for other African-American coaches."
Embree signs on with CU at an historic time. The Buffs recently completed their final season in the Big 12 Conference and, with Utah, will push the Pac-10's membership to a dozen next season. Embree is familiar with the West Coast both from his tenure as a UCLA assistant and as a recruiter for CU.
"I have an idea of what the Pac-12 is going to be about; I think I'm going to know its strengths and weaknesses," he said.
He wants CU's recruiting emphasis to be focused on getting Colorado's best players, then scouring California, the other 10 Pac-12 states and Texas - once a fertile priority stop for the Buffs that hasn't been cultivated as much recently.
Having spent the past four seasons away from college football, Embree has been away from recruiting. He isn't concerned about reacquainting himself with the rules, the energy required to do it right or the process: "Recruiting is about selling the university and yourself," he said. "To me, that never changes."
With Hawkins' in-season dismissal and the accompanying uncertainty surrounding the program, CU's recruiting could be in an unstable stretch. Embree understands the need to reclaim lost ground and in some cases re-sell CU, but he adds, "I don't want to get in a rush of just finding guys to be finding them. I think our recruiting (in this cycle) can be good. I want to find players who are going to fit into our system and make us better."
No surprise, but the offensive and defensive systems Embree wants to install are predicated on physical play. He expects the Buffs to have an aggressive ground game and an attacking defense.
Although he will have to acquaint himself with CU's returning players, Embree said he favors a pro-style offense that will feature "playmakers on the edge. I want to make big plays down the field. I want our receivers to be making 50 to 60 catches a year. But everything starts with the run. It always does."
From his recent time in the NFL, he also said many college players enter pro football uninformed about the importance of special teams play, as well as the need for a team's top players to be on those units.
"It's a college's fault if they don't learn that," he said. "In the NFL, you have to play on special teams, and that's how it should be at this level. If you're the starting tailback, tight end, linebacker, whatever, I want my best players on special teams. I want to win football games anyway I can."
When Cabral replaced Hawkins for the final three games, one of his first priorities was to re-emphasize some CU traditions that are familiar to Embree. A large portion of CU's fan base identified with what Cabral was doing - and Embree also took notice.
Hiring a head coach with a Black and Gold background topped the lists of many alumni and fans. And Embree agreed it might have been difficult for an "outsider" to rally the CU constituency at such a critical time. Hiring someone with Buffs roots "means a lot to a lot of people - alumni, former players, current players," Embree said.
"Brian Cabral shed a little light on what it means to be a Buffalo . . . when someone knows and understands that, he can share it with the kids. Success breeds success. You've got to be able to tell a kid the history of what's happened here, a history of the really good player.
"When we were recruiting (former linebacker) Hannibal Navies, we said, 'Hannibal, you remind us of Chad Brown.' You have to know who Chad Brown was if you're going to tell Hannibal that. You try to recruit great players who are similar to the great players who've been here.
"There's an obligation here to represent the past and play for each other. Tradition matters."
Embree's association with CU spans four years as a player and 10 as an assistant under three coaches (Bill McCartney, Rick Neuheisel, Gary Barnett). He's seen Buffs football from all angles, and on a moment's notice, these are his top three memories:
- The 20-10 victory over Nebraska in 1986: "If I had to pick one as a player, that's it. It was a watershed moment. It wasn't popular to go to CU at that time. It just felt great, as a player, for Coach 'Mac.' Things weren't going so good for him at that time. I don't know if he would have survived in the Internet age. I felt we were letting him down as a team, until that game."
- Michael Westbrook's "Miracle at Michigan" catch that gave CU a 27-26 win in 1994: "That was just great . . . particularly what it meant to 'Mac' in going back to Michigan (where he coached before coming to CU)."
- The Buffs winning the Big 12 championship in 2001, defeating Texas 39-37: "It was great seeing Daniel Graham, Andre Gurode, Victor Rogers and those guys win a championship. We'd kind of gone through a dry stretch. As you build a program, you want a chance for your players to get at least one ring - whether it's as a freshman or a senior. When you do that, you can say you've built a program."
Since he left Boulder prior to the 2003 season, Embree has been waiting, hoping and working for a return to CU. The initial call to come home came late last week, followed by a Saturday night detail meeting with Bohn and Clough in New York. The outcome produced a dream-come-true, an opportunity that he and his wife, Natalyn, seemingly had mulled forever.
"It's an opportunity I've been waiting for," Embree said. "It's really the only job I've ever wanted. Knowing what the program means, having the chance to return that luster to it, it really means so much to me. It's a great university, the absolute best place to go to college and be a student-athlete."
His calendar will be jammed for the foreseeable future; few days will be open. Few nights either. Like most head coaches, he can't get too far ahead for fear of leaving something behind - or undone. Forgive him for allowing himself a peek into next November - Nov. 19, to be exact.
When asked, he knew immediately that CU plays UCLA in the Rose Bowl on that day in the Buffs' next-to-last regular-season game. Moreover, he knows it will be Coach Jon Embree on one sideline, senior receiver Taylor Embree on the other.
"Yeah, it will be," Jon said. "That'll be interesting. I'm looking forward to it, and he is too. He wants to beat his dad in anything - basketball, football, pool, whatever."
Has he ever done it?
"He's never beaten me at anything, come on."
Former CU teammates and colleagues know that answer is vintage Jon Embree. Current CU players, recruits and anyone else who pays close attention are about to make the same discovery.