Published: March 1, 2011 By

jon embree

Is CU at a competitive disadvantage in terms of its resources in comparison to schools in the future Pac-12, the conference the Buffs will join later this year? Jon Embree (Comm’89) was asked after being introduced as CU’s new head football coach in early December.

Embree’s answer: “Oh yeah, I’m sure we are.”

But CU’s highest-profile coach quickly followed up with a no-excuses addendum.

“At the end of the day, this ain’t the Yankees,” said Embree, a former CU player who came from the National Football League’s Washington Redskins where he was completing his first season as tight ends coach.

“You’re not going to buy a championship. Those 18-year-olds are who’s going to decide it. It’s not how many boosters give $100,000 or this or that, or they fly on a 747 and we take a bus. It doesn’t matter, because when you get on that field, it’s you against them.”

He added he felt the university’s advantages outweighed any disadvantages.

“We have the mountains, we’re a college town, and we’re 20 minutes away from a major city [Denver], so players can have the best of both worlds,” he said.

It’s certainly true CU doesn’t have the “money is no object” wherewithal for athletics that many Big 12 Conference and Pac-10 brethren do.

According to a USA Today’s report on college football head coach salaries, Embree’s predecessor Dan Hawkins ranked 10th among Big 12 head coaches. And although CU athletic director Mike Bohn says total compensation for the new football coaching staff has increased after being last in the Big 12 in 2010, Embree will make less than Hawkins did, according to Embree’s agent, Jack Mills.

Both Hawkins’ contract payout of $2.1 million and Embree’s salary will be paid out of revenue generated by football, not the CU general fund.

The football program had revenues of $26.2 million and expenses of $12.6 million in the 2009-10 school year, according to figures CU provided to the U.S. Department of Education. Much of the difference helps fund other sports.

...when you get on that field, it's you against them." 

In terms of overall athletic department revenue, CU trails most Big 12 and Pac-10 institutions. During the 2009-10 school year, CU ranked 10th in the Big 12 in total revenue generated by all teams. Among schools that will comprise the Pac-12, CU’s total revenue also ranks 10th.

Why are CU’s resources below average when compared with cohorts? First, the Big 12 and Pac-10 are two of the elite athletic conferences in the country. Second, in the top revenue-producing sports at the college level (football and basketball), the Buffs have struggled, going 21-40 in football over the last five seasons, and 43-78 in men’s basketball over the four from 2006-10.

And subpar teams usually translate into decreased revenue and less support from boosters. Sellouts at Folsom Field and the Coors Events Center have become a rarity, although the men’s basketball team made strong attendance inroads at the start of 2011, including a sold-out game versus Oklahoma State when the Buffs won 75-71.

Despite solid enhancements to CU athletic facilities — a new football practice bubble, improvements to the football and basketball locker rooms and the in-progress construction of a basketball/volleyball practice facility next to Coors Events Center — keeping up with other top conference schools is a challenge. The inability to give more than a few multiyear contracts to coaches or administrators because of state law also presents problems.

“It’s really not a level playing field of the haves in the Big 12 or the haves in the [future] Pac-12,” athletic director Mike Bohn says, noting some coaches earn $4 million a year. “We’re not a $4 million institution. Would I like to believe we can get there someday? Sure, if we can emerge from being dead last in the [future] Pac-12 Conference as far as number of donors and amount of money raised.”

Traditionally, CU athletics support hasn’t reached the long-term fervor or single-mindedness that some college sports powerhouses have garnered, especially those in the South and Midwest.

Some observers attribute that to Coloradans having more recreation options in proximity to the Rocky Mountains and a multitude of major sports teams in the Denver metro area. And the CU community may not buy into the importance of top-notch intercollegiate sports teams as much as other universities do.

But Embree, who played on the mid-1980s teams that started the Buffs’ ascendance under coach Bill McCartney, believes CU support is on the rise.

“It won’t be hard for me to sell this university because I have a passion for it,” Embree said. “I know where it’s been. Yes, we’re not where we were, but it’s a heck of a lot better than it was when I got here [as a player]. We had one dumbbell in the weight room; that’s where we started. You talk about rock bottom; that was rock bottom.”

Photo courtesy CU Athletics