When he received the offer in December to become the University of Colorado Boulder’s 24th head football coach, Jon Embree (Comm’88) was prepared. Oh, was he ever prepared.
Embree, whose CU roots run deep as a former standout player and three-term assistant coach, spent some spare time during his most recent NFL off-season plotting, formulating and researching the Xs and Os of becoming a head coach. His first choice, of course, was to be hired by the Buffaloes.
“It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted,” he said at the time.
His master plan was all-encompassing.
Embree compiled a ready list of preferred assistants, projecting the staff he would assemble when given the chance. He knew how he would conduct practices and what he wanted on game day. He reviewed the head coaches he had worked under — most recently the Redskins’ Mike Shanahan as well as ex-CU coaches Bill McCartney, Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett — and envisioned blending their best into a leadership style of his own.
Good pupils recognize whom they should emulate, but Embree also targeted the importance of autonomy. He is, after all, the starting and stopping points for accountability within a win-starved Buffs program — a massive responsibility for a first-time head coach.
But Embree, 45, is eager to assume it.
“The only question to me is, ‘Are you the right guy at the right time?’ I believe I am,” he says. “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.”
McCartney, who recruited Embree to CU out of Cherry Creek High School in 1983, is fond of recounting Embree’s willingness to accept a new but not necessarily starring role in a revamped offense. A highly recruited tight end, Embree made an immediate impact in his first two CU seasons, setting school records for receptions (51) and receiving yards (680) as a sophomore.
But prior to Embree’s junior year, McCartney saw the wishbone formation as CU’s best route to success. It was the right move at the right time for Buff football, he thought, but if a tight end wanted to flourish as a receiver the run-oriented wishbone wasn’t the right vehicle.
Good hands and running good routes — both Embree trademarks — gave way to good blocking fundamentals. Embree was good with that, too. It was the way of the wishbone, and McCartney was deeply appreciative.
“I knew what he was sacrificing, as did Jon,” McCartney recalls. “But he never complained; he knew what we needed as a team and he went out and did his job, humbly and efficiently.”
Embree shrugs off that personal sacrifice of two-and-a-half decades ago, but it clearly impacted him and what he will expect from his CU players. He believes many of the ills that recently have surfaced in college football stem from a sense of entitlement among some high-profile student-athletes.
As Embree’s rosters take shape, count on them being stocked with talented players but also with players who put team above self.
A stalwart tight end for the Buffaloes in the mid-1980s, Jon Embree (Comm’86) returned to his alma mater from the National Football League’s Washington Redskins. He was in the process of completing his first season as tight ends coach under former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.
It was among the things Embree learned under McCartney and others, and he believes it will be paramount to an eventual turnaround as the Buffs compete in the Pac-12 Conference. Embree’s mantra as that historic shift looms: “Raise the standard . . . all of us are going into the Pac-12, not just the football team. When we get there, we’re all going to be sending the same message. I want us to be the flagship university for the Pac-12.”
Embree isn’t entering foreign territory. He has coached and recruited in the Pac-10, spending three seasons (2003-05) at UCLA. Enough is on the agenda to make 2011 a special year for him, but the next-to-last regular season game will be memorable within the entire Embree family.
On Nov. 19, CU plays UCLA, coached by Embree’s ex-boss, Neuheisel. Embree’s oldest son, Taylor, is among the Bruins’ top returning receivers entering his final season of eligibility.
Youngest son Connor is a walk-on redshirt freshman receiver at Kansas, and their father jokes (or maybe not) that his two sons “knew the CU fight song before they knew The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The school is that special to Embree, as are its former athletes. In 2005 he collaborated with a pair of ex-football players to found Buffs4Life, a nonprofit organization designed to reach out to former CU student-athletes in their times of need. The organization conducts one annual fundraiser and hopes to maintain the family-style commitment that Buffs before and after Embree have experienced.
For instance, Buffs4Life helped out with the Buffs’ all-time leading tackler Barry Remington’s (Mktg’87) medical bills for his 18-year-old daughter’s heart transplant last year. Samantha Remington received her lifesaving heart from a family who had lost their son.
“I think if you have gone through one of those kinds of things, you enjoy the simple things in life,” a grateful Remington told the Boulder Camera. “It gives you a reality check about how to look at things.”
Remington works at KOA News Radio 85 and lives with his family in Superior, Colo., near Boulder.
Embree is CU’s first African-American head football coach and will be only the fourth in Pac-10 football history. He will be the Pac-12’s only minority head football coach in the expanded league’s debut season this fall.
“From that aspect,” Embree says, “this opportunity means a lot to me. But it also means that there’s a responsibility for me to succeed. My success could create more opportunities for African-American coaches . . . But I think my career speaks for itself. Players — whether they’re white, black, Hispanic, whatever — will tell you what kind of coach I am.”
Embree recognizes opportunities and takes none of them lightly. CU fans can be assured that nothing has been done overnight as he prepares for his biggest opportunity yet.