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March 24, 2011
Embree out to restore bragging rights for Buffs
MORE: Colorado spring practice preview | More spring practice coverage
Highlight shows, newscasts, Web sites and crawlers updating scores are so unnecessary for NFL players. They often get results of Saturday college football games via teammates' attire at meetings and meals.
"That's the thing about the league on Saturday nights," said new Colorado coach Jon Embree, who spent four seasons as an NFL tight ends coach, including last season with the Washington Redskins. "When you have snacks or team meals, guys love wearing their school colors. We used to laugh because we knew when Donovan [McNabb] was dressed in orange, Syracuse won. If he wore jeans or a suit, we knew Syracuse got beat."
Based on that, it's safe to assume former Colorado players -- such as Embree -- didn't don the black-and-gold gear too often in recent seasons.
It has been 21 years since the school that sits at the foothills of the Rockies has been atop the NCAA football mountain as national champion. In fact, Colorado hasn't celebrated even a conference championship in 10 years.
In the past decade, the program has gone downhill faster than the Colorado's national-champion alpine skiers. The Buffaloes haven't won a bowl since '04. They haven't had a winning season since '05. They're just 50-63 over the past 10 seasons.
It's Embree's job to lead a climb back to national relevance.
"He is the right person to lead our program at a key moment in its history," Colorado chancellor Phil DeStefano said when Embree was hired in December. "He will make it possible for student-athletes to compete in the winning tradition of the Pac-12 and return [the Buffaloes] to national prominence."
There are skeptics. Although Embree was an all-conference tight end at Colorado in the 1980s and served as an assistant for 11 seasons in Boulder, he's never been a head coach or even a coordinator.
In addition, bigger-name candidates were available. But Colorado had gone that route before and got disappointing results.
Gary Barnett was a hot commodity after turning perennial doormat Northwestern into Big Ten champions. And though he did win the Big 12 championship in 2001, his seven-year stint produced a good-but-not-great 49-38 record and was marred by off-field incidents. Barnett's replacement, Dan Hawkins, was 53-11 at Boise State. But his five seasons in Boulder rendered a mere 21-40 record and no winning records.
Embree is convinced Colorado can recapture the glory of the years under Bill McCartney, whose tenure was highlighted by a 58-11-4 mark from 1989-94.
Embree said that will require toughening up a team that too often appeared soft. Ultimately, he also must establish a firm recruiting foothold in California to subsidize the shallow talent pool within the state of Colorado.
"I do think it's realistic to think we can be a top program again," Embree said a few days before Colorado began spring practice on March 11. "You don't have to get all the five-star guys. It's more about getting players that fit your system, developing your players and having some difference-makers here and there."
Until the difference-makers arrive, Embree is determined to make a difference in the way Colorado players approach football.
Perhaps no word is more reviled than "soft" in the football community. Yet, there has been an aura of softness around the Colorado program for a while. Hawkins acknowledged it in 2007 when he responded to complaints about players not getting enough time off with a famous rant that ended, "Go play intramurals, brother. Go play intramurals."
Last season, the Buffaloes ranked 85th in the nation in rushing offense and 48th in rushing defense. Those aren't the stats of a team winning duels at the line of scrimmage.
Embree didn't actually use the word "soft" to describe the team he inherited, but made it clear the team wasn't as physical as he wants.
"The first thing I want is for us to be physical on both sides of the ball," he said. "We need to have the ability to run the ball. We need to create an identity here. We need mental toughness, physical toughness, to be fundamentally sound and be a team that will compete.
"Mental toughness has a lot to do with how we do in the weight room, physical toughness in how we practice. We have to learn how to practice. In watching tape ... we can't be physical if we practice like that."
He also implied that game tapes revealed guys not giving full effort on every play, which may explain a blown 28-point fourth-quarter lead in a 52-45 loss to a bad Kansas team, a setback that ultimately prevented the Buffaloes from attaining bowl eligibility last season.
"We have to be more competitive from the standpoint of playing every snap hard instead of just playing when you feel like it," Embree said. "It's got to be an all-the-time thing. It's not a light-switch deal."
Senior guard Ryan Miller said that won't be an issue.
"You can ask anyone on this team ... close will never cut it," said Miller, an all-conference-caliber player. "That [Kansas game] left a bad taste in my mouth I never want again. But I feel we can match up with any team on any Saturday, whether they're in the Big 12 or the Pac-12."
Miller also disputed that the Buffs are soft.
"I felt we were a different kind of physical last year," he said. "We were fairly physical up front. Now, we'll be more physical. When teams play the Buffs, they will hope they have a week off to prepare for the next game."
No doubt, Embree likes that attitude. All coaches want players with swagger. But he has to find out if there is substance behind the bravado.
"I'll have a better feel [for the team] after spring ball," he said. "I know they want to be good, and that's part of the battle. They've had a demanding offseason to date, and they pushed and shoved their way through that. I know we don't have a lot of depth and that's not going to change no matter what happens this spring. We'll have to work around that."
Building up depth will require a lot of work out west.
The state of Colorado has produced just 13 four- and five-star prospects combined in the past four recruiting cycles, and only six of those players signed with Colorado. Obviously, Colorado cannot build its foundation on in-state talent the way programs such as Florida, LSU, Texas and USC can.
Indeed, when Colorado was a national power it was boosted by California talent. There were 33 Californians on Colorado's 1990 national championship team. Among them were running back Eric Bieniemy, quarterback Darian Hagan and cornerback Deon Figures. Bieniemy and Hagan now are assistants on Embree's staff.
With Colorado moving from the Big 12 to the revamped Pac-12, having recruiting success in California will be even more vital.
"I don't think that is overstating it," Embree said. "When Colorado was a top-15, -10 team, we had a lot of key players from the state of California. It's very important that we get kids from California, and we'll have the opportunity with the Pac-12 Conference.
"At least they know for sure they will come back home at least one time a year. Those opportunities are there for mom and dad to see them."
Embree's 2011 recruiting class of 19 players included eight from California.
With a renewed recruiting emphasis in California, Embree can envision his program having similar success to McCartney's in the late '80s and early '90s.
He won't go as far to predict the Buffaloes will frequently make run at national championships, but he is confident they can consistently show up in the national polls and periodically make a run at a national title.
"Look at Wisconsin and Iowa," Embree said. "Those are two programs that don't necessarily get the great [prospects]. But they know their systems, they develop players and have an identity of what they do on offense and defense.
"They sprinkle in some playmakers here and there, and they have success. Are they top five every year? No, but they're around there, and in my mind they're top-level programs. I think we can be, too."
That would probably be sufficient for fans who have waited a long time for Colorado to be nationally relevant again.
And that probably would be enough for former Buffaloes in the NFL to proudly wear their Colorado gear to Saturday team meetings.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.