Thursday, November 29, 2012

Buffs were right to fire Embree

I'm a sucker for motivational speeches.  When I attended Jon Embree's first meeting with Buff fans to talk about the 2011 recruiting class I was excited (I wrote about that luncheon back then).  "The Buffs are on the verge of something great," former CU coach Bill McCartney told the crowd that day.  McCartney praised CU's move to the pac 12 conference, and the skills of Embree and the coaching staff Jon had assembled ("it matches up to any staff I had at CU" - Mac said).  "Bringing back successful coaches and players from Colorado's past to lead the Buffs into the Pac 12 is a good move," I wrote that day.  "I expect next season will have its struggles, but as Coach Mac said I think the Buffs have the right leadership in place now and fans just have to give them time."

Boy was I wrong! I now think CU made the right move in firing Jon Embree this week and not giving him more time.  What caused my 180 degree change in opinion?

On field performance.  Under Embree the Buffs had 4 wins and 21 losses over his two year reign.  Last season's 3 - 10 record was acceptable for Embree's first year given the downtrodden state of the program after Dan Hawkins 5 year term.  In 2011 the Buffs beat their instate rival CSU and finished the season winning 2 of their last 3 against pac 12 foes (including a big upset at Utah in the finale to end a long 24 game road losing streak).  Things were looking up.

It was this season that did Embree in.  Instead of building on 2011 the team got worse, much worse.  Losing to CSU and to Division II foe Sacramento State to start the season, followed by many blowout losses to Pac 12 opponents.  "I saw Colorado play 3 times this year. Folks, it's the worst Div. 1 football program in a major conference I've ever seen," said ESPN's Colin Cowherd on his show yesterday. Would Cowherd renew Embree for a 3rd year? "After two years, in a sport you HAVE to bring people into the stadium because it's the only sport on a campus that makes any money. Colorado football, at the end of this year is HOPELESS. No one is going to these games," he said.  It was obvious to anyone watching Buff football this year that the team had taken a big step back in 2012.

Embree now discounts the win/loss record.  "I get it, 4-21 is not good, but there is a lot that went into that,” he said in a radio interview, and went on to explain how he was doing other things to help the program.  The wins will come if you give him more time, according to Embree.  That's a different message than what he was preaching at that recruiting lunch in February 2011.  "Instead of hoping to win, expect to win. Even next year," Embree said that day, in how he was going to change the team's attitude.  It seemed to me the 2012 Buffs expected to lose before every opening kickoff.

Poor recruiting.  Embree only had a few weeks to recruit after he was hired in December 2011 and he came up with a credible "transition" class, including starting freshman cornerback Greg Henderson.  His February 2012 class showed promising signs, ranking #36 in the recruiting site Rivals rankings - a respectable showing after a 3-10 season.  This year, though, Embree's recruiting is trending downward (with a current Rivals national rank of #65).  Recruits do not want to play for a doormat, and Colorado's poor 2012 season no doubt has contributed to the Buffs having a hard time attracting talent.

This is disappointing to me because this coaching staff was hyped to be great at recruiting.  Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was said to be one of the best recruiters in the nation when he was an assistant at Colorado and UCLA, and now with recent NFL experience (he was the Minnesota Vikings running backs coach) he was supposed to be an even better recruiter this time around with the Buffs.  The top high school running backs I expected to sign with Colorado because of Bieniemy never materialized.  Embree, too, was said to be a top recruiter at UCLA and at his former stint at Colorado as an assistant.

I followed the program closely during Coach McCartney's rise from a 1-10 season in 1984 to a National Championship only 6 years later.  During the down years I remember then Dallas Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm saying "the one thing Colorado has going for them is Bill McCartney's recruiting."  Even though the results on the field weren't good yet, the recruiting experts of those days gave the Buffs high marks.  Not so in 2012 - Colorado's recruiting is getting worse, not better.

Bad decisions at quarterback.  The Buffs had a returning senior quarterback for the 2011 season in Tyler Hansen.  Hansen's play helped the team salvage 3 wins that year.  I attended a spring practice before the 2011 season and I thought Hansen looked great.  But what were the Buffs to do once Hansen graduated for the 2012 season?  I hoped that Embree had a plan.  His moves to shore up the quarterback position have not worked out.  One of his first signees, junior college transfer Brent Burnette, never played a down for the Buffs.  Texas transfer Connor Wood worked with the scout team in 2011 and reports were promising that he'd be the starter for 2012, but Wood was a disappointment.  Kansas transfer Jordan Webb won the starting 2012 quarterback job, despite only arriving on campus in July, and had a terrible year.  In the last game holdover Nick Hirschman looked to be the best of the bunch (leading the Buffs to 35 points vs Utah), yet Hirschman was buried on the depth chart for most of the season.

Embree did recruit promising quarterback Shane Dillion who redshirted this year.  If Dillion is the real deal he'll help the next coach, but I still think Embree could have done more to bolster the quarterback position in the short term.  Stevie Joe Dorman was another Embree recruit at quarterback who had no other offers from BCS schools (Dorman also redshirted this year).

Closed practices.  When Embree took the field in the Spring of 2011 he at first was open to having fans and the press view his team's practices (I attended one of the first workouts).  But soon Embree closed all practices to the public and gave the press limited access.  This was a change from Dan Hawkins who always opened a few practices for public viewing in the Fall followed by a public scrimmage in August in Folsom Field.

I remember as a kid watching the 1971 CU team scrimmage featuring many sophomore starters on TV before heading off to Baton Rouge to play LSU the next week.  Then coach Eddie Crowder was not concerned about giving away any secrets by having open scrimmages - his team upset LSU and ended up finishing #3 in the nation that year.  Embree had an almost paranoid attitude about his Buff teams, not wanting any practice reports to get out on the internet that might present a less than positive view.  The secrecy in the program did not help in building good will to the fans or with the media.

Race had nothing to do with it.  Earlier this week Coach McCartney accused Colorado of firing Embree for racial reasons.  "I believe black men have less opportunity, shorter time, if you will. It’s just like, Dan Hawkins got five full years. Why not give Jon Embree five years? You signed him to a five-year contract," Coach Mac said.

The Dan Hawkins comparison is not valid.  Hawkins' CU team went to a bowl game in his 2nd year, playing Nick Saban's Alabama team to a competitive game in the Independence Bowl before losing 30-24.  Hawkins 3rd year almost produced another bowl team (a last minute 57 yard field goal by Nebraska in the season finale prevented that). It was only in Hawkins' 4th year that cracks started to show (with a 3-9 record).  Hawkins should have been fired after that 4th year, but the school's financial state at the time prevented a buyout from happening.  Had Colorado had access to the 20 million/year Pac 12 TV money they now have, Hawkins would have never coached a 5th year in Boulder.

Racial discrimination is no doubt still a serious problem in this country, but the Embree firing is not a good example of it.  Floyd Keith, the director of the Black Coaches association, recognizes that Embree's on field performance was the reason Embree was fired.  "I'm disappointed for Jon because I thought he might get another year," he said. "I would have been pleased if he had gotten another year, but I'm also not blind. I think the thing that did him in was the loss to the FCS team (Sacramento State). What can you say about that?"  On the All Buffs CU fan message board, a minority media person from the South writes, "I find it MUCH more offensive that someone like Bill McCartney, and many others, former black players included, would not give me or anyone else of color the benefit of the doubt that we could decide on our own accord that it was the atrocities on the field that led to Embree's firing, not his color. I applaud Colorado for having hired a man with Embree's qualifications or rather, lack thereof, regardless of his race. LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, etc. would NEVER do that." (read the whole post here)

In February 2013 I'll probably be attending another recruiting luncheon with yet another new Colorado coach spouting optimism about his plans for the team.  And I'll believe every word of it.  This time I hope it works out.  For a team I have followed since I was a kid in the 1960's, I miss the good old days of winning CU football.