As Jon Embree sat in his final press conference with tears welling in his eyes, one of his players yelled out from the back of the room.
"Thank you coach," the player said. "We love you."
Embree, a former Colorado tight end, was fired Sunday evening after a 1-10 record. He was given just two seasons to repair a program that had hit rock bottom under former coach Dan Hawkins, who spent five years dismantling it. Embree, who said during his press conference that he was given assurances that he would be given time to repair the Colorado program, seemed shocked and dismayed at the odd turn of events.
"I thought I would be here, be able to build it and have an opportunity to see it through," Embree said.
It's rare to see a coach get as emotional as Embree did during his press conference. There were times Embree could barely speak because he was fighting back tears. Most coaches in that situation would have just opted out of speaking to the media altogether.
But Embree's appearance at CU on Monday wasn't really about speaking to the media, it was about speaking to his players one last time in a public forum and showing the country that he was given an unfair shake.
No one could have taken Colorado — a program that hadn't been to a bowl game since 2007 — and turned it into a Pac-12 powerhouse overnight with a lack of facilities, money and support. However, some could argue that Embree's teams got worse. A year ago, the Buffs were 3-9. This year, just one win. Colorado wasn't very competitive in nearly every game it played.
But there's something to be said for keeping the team believing.
During the press conference, it appeared as though Embree's entire team was there to support him. Again, that's not something that happens when coaches get fired. But the Buffaloes wanted to stand in support of their coach. Five coaches, including offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, offered to resign so Embree could keep his job.
In the end, athletic director Mike Bohn said the "trajectory" of the program was not heading in the right direction.
"We had great hope and great expectations when we hired Jon," Bohn said. "And I continue to have strong respect for coach Embree.
"I'd like to reiterate the heartfelt desire we had that we wanted it to work. The importance of the third year, and if you don't have the momentum ... you begin to think did we not make the decisions quick enough."
At the same time, Bohn doesn't exactly have a strong track record with head coaches. He fired Gary Barnett, the program's last winning coach, hired Dan Hawkins, kept Hawkins around for five years despite a bevy of losing seasons and then yanked the cord on Embree before he was even able to have two real recruiting classes in his locker room.
Hiring a coach at Colorado will be an epic challenge. Not only does the quick firing of Embree look bad for the program, Bohn's track record doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. And Colorado will have to hit a home run with whomever they choose because the fan base is going to demand it.
According to Kyle Ringo of the Boulder Daily Camera, Bohn said he will not consider any candidate that doesn't have head coaching experience, so goodbye all high-level coordinators. He also won't take a coach that's been in any sort of trouble, so that would take Bobby Petrino and Jim Tressel off the board. And names such as San Jose State's Mike MacIntyre, Utah State's Gary Andersen and Fresno State's Tim DeRuyter are all great candidates, but none of them scream splashy hire. So who does that leave? Jeff Tedford, who was recently fired at Cal? How about Mike Belotti, who's been out of the game for the past four years? Gene Chizik? Derek Dooley?
These names aren't exactly appealing and Embree's firing isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. The investment in the football program is questionable. The Pac-12 gives CU a little more money with which to work, but it's not the type of money that entices a high-level leader. Also, Embree is being very transparent on interviews with various outlets by making sure whoever considers the job knows exactly what he's getting into. Embree airing dirty laundry probably won't endear him to many college athletic directors, but the chances of him staying in the college game were slim especially with options in the NFL.
As for Bohn, he has to feel the tide turning against him. While he thought firing Embree would be a popular decision, it's proven to be just the opposite. Now it's on Bohn to hit a home run and hope that whoever he hires can save his job.
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