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Jon Embree: A Look Back At His Time As Head Coach Of The Buffaloes

It was only two seasons, but there are still plenty of lows and a couple of highs to look back on.

Doug Pensinger

As I'm sure you've heard by now, Jon Embree was let go less than 48 hours after the final whistle of the Colorado Buffaloes 2012 football season. And what a disastrous season it was. It began on a sour note well before it began, with Paul Richardson tearing his ACL. And then it was downhill from there. And now we're saying goodbye to a true Colorado Buffalo, the founder of Buffs4Life and a good guy. But we're also saying goodbye to someone that led this team to some pretty preposterous lows. In his time here, the Buffaloes went from being a bad team to being a national laughingstock, and while a lot of people seem to have issues* with Embree getting canned after only 23 months, what's done is done.

I want you to remember WAAAAY back to the end of the 2010 season when Dan Hawkins was fired with 3 games to go and Brian Cabral took over as interim coach. Everyone had their ideas about who we wanted. Mike Bohn and his search committee looked at a number of different kind of people, including guys like Mike Bellotti, Gus Malzahn, Troy Calhoun, etc... Basically a lot of different types of guys at different stages of their careers. And that list included some former Buffaloes. The CU fanbase and many former players and Coaches made their preference for a guy with ties to the program known, and so guys like Jon Embree and Eric Bieniemy moved to the top of the list. In fact, each of them interviewed with the plan of bringing the other one along as his offensive coordinator. They are best friends who coached at CU and UCLA together, and you know what, they got their wish! Jon Embree and Eric Bieniemy returned to CU, and they brought along a number of friends. Embree had never been a head coach before, nor did he have any coordinator experience. He was known as a great recruiter and had experience on both side of the ball, but he was the guy picked to lead the Colorado Buffaloes out of the cellar we had been hiding in for 5 years under Hawkins. Bieniemy, a guy who had never been an offensive coordinator was picked to do just that, coordinate the CU Offense, and Greg Brown was asked to come back to CU, this time as defensive coordinator (a position he had never truly held, save for the 2010 season as co-defensive coordinator at Arizona). These guys brought passion for CU back into the fold and we had hope that they could build upon the positive 3 game span that Brian Cabral oversaw where the Buffs went 2-1 to end the 2010 season.

In short: they couldn't do it. A brutal 2011 schedule saw the Buffaloes go 3-10, suffer a number of injuries and force a bunch of true freshmen into the mix. That was a team with a ton of Seniors, 28 to be exact, so Embree was able to sign a very full recruiting class that year. While the transitional class had been okay (though was considerably less so after the prize of the class, Paulay Asiata, left the team because football wasn't important to him after all), there was a lot of hope for the big class that Embree, Bieniemy, Cabral, and the rest of this staff (of which recruiting was supposed to be their biggest strength) went after. And we got some talent. That included some blue-chip defensive backs that we ended up seeing a lot of in 2012 and a bunch of players at positions that desperately needed some depth.

So we started 2012 with a difficult combination. We lost a lot of experience, but at the same time, we were gaining some talent that we hoped would start to come around by the end of the year. Then, our best player tore up his knee in the spring and one of the QBs that was going to be competing for the starting spot broke his feet... a lot. And then, August practices were closed. This rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, especially because we all had no idea what to expect out of this team. There was a lot of hope and even some optimism. We were going to be facing 6 teams with brand new head coaches and an FCS squad. And then there was Jon Embree's declaration that our goal this season was to win 6 games and make a bowl game. Since we couldn't see practices ourselves, all we had to go on were the coaches remarks all summer. And we heard some good things. Obviously, they weren't going to tell us the players were terrible, but everything that was said fully went along with the expectations that Embree & Co. set for us of a bowl berth. And then the season started.

We lost to a CSU team that would end up going 4-8. It only got worse from there. Unlike 2011 where we kept most of the early games respectable, we quickly found out that this team wasn't ready to compete. We lost to Sacramento State, a mediocre team... on the FCS level. And then, well, then was one of the lowpoints of my CU football watching career. Fresno State (a team that ended up being solid this year, but still...) began pulling their starters in the 1st quarter of their victory over our hapless Buffaloes. Yes, gametime temperature had something to do with it, but I've never seen that. Even Oregon waits until halftime to start pulling their first-teamers. But then we see something positive. We beat Washington State and Mike Leach! But that was it. We didn't give up fewer than 40 point for the rest of the season, and we get blown out in just about all of the games, save for the Utah game to end the season. Recruiting was suffering and we were the butt of countless jokes. Things were bad. We had no quarterback and just about every unit was underperforming. Even in games where we kept things close in the first half, we were absolutely blown off the field in the second. We set a number of records for ineptitude, many of which have already been talked about so I won't rehash them here. But I can sum it all up here: 2012 was arguably the worst season in Colorado football history.

And so, now we find ourselves in search of another head coach, just two years after our last search. I set out to write about the highs & lows of JE's time here, and I truly struggled to find the highs, but there were some. We set records each of the last three semesters for GPA, which is great and important, and Embree was able to get the AD to add to its academic support staff. There were off the field incidents (the Airsoft gun incident and Austin Vincent come to mind first), but not to the degree that there were under Hawkins. Jon Embree convinced the administration that we needed to spend more money on assistants, and hopefully that is a trend that sticks.

But in the end, it's on-the-field performance that counts, and we just didn't have enough of that over the past two seasons. Hopefully, we'll be talking about Jon Embree in the same way that we talk about Jeff Bzdelik, as a guy who helped to lay the foundation for the next guy who comes in and is able to turn the program around. I can't think of a single person who didn't want Jon Embree to succeed once he was named the guy, and I can't imagine that any Buffs fans wouldn't support whoever is named his successor. And now all eyes are on Mike Bohn, who will be sinking or swimming early with whoever is the next football coach at CU. Whoever it is better win early and often.

*If you think Embree should absolutely, unquestionably gotten another year, I would like you to ask yourself a question: Would a guy without JE's ties to the program have been excused for a performance like we saw this year? What about a guy with some head coaching, experience? What about one with coordinators on staff with some experience? What gives you any confidence that these guys were going to get this figured out enough to repair the significant damage that was done to CU's reputation outside of the 'closed doors' that keep getting referenced? All I hear is that 'JE should've been fired after 3 seasons, not 2', and that is unacceptable to me. Tell me which position coordinators and position coaches deserved to be retained after the onfield performance the last two seasons? What was going to change for these coaches that would keep them from getting completely out-coached next season?

Basically, I don't like it, but I think this was the only option. I can't tell you how many people have told me they think of us as a complete joke, how many times people here in LA have seen me with my CU gear and told me that we're giving the Pac-12 a bad name, that we should do the conference a favor and drop football or leave the Pac 12. People don't even say they're sorry or pat me on the back anymore, they just laugh.