The Old Guy. Two things you can say about Dan Hawkins as Colorado's head coach: He was as earnest and relentlessly positive as Division I coaches come, and he kept his shop clean of any hint of the scandal that covered the program in infamy under his predecessor, Gary Barnett. At the same time, there was never a hint of Hawkins' outfits performing on the level of the teams that won four Big 12 North titles in Barnett's last five years, either — in four full years under Hawkins, the Buffs turned in four straight losing campaigns, and didn't bother to keep him around to finish the fifth after an epic collapse at Kansas all but ensured another losing record last November.
It's easy to forget now how well-regarded Hawkins was in 2006 for putting tiny Boise State on the map with 45 wins and four straight WAC championships from 2002-2005, because both coach and program seemed so consistently in over their heads after his arrival in Boulder. Hawkins' Buffs went 4-11 against rivals Colorado State, Missouri and Nebraska (1-9 against the latter two), never appeared in either major poll, never finished better than ninth in the Big 12 in total or scoring offense and watched the most hyped recruit in school history slink out of town as a bona fide bust after barely a year on campus. If not for an inexplicable upset over eventual Big 12 champ Oklahoma in 2007 and one of the truly classic press-conference rants of the decade, there would be no positives to show for the entire experiment.
The New Guy. Outside of Colorado (and maybe some places in Colorado, too), the reaction when Jon Embree was hired in December was "Who on earth is Jon Embree?" But the name was certain to ring a bell with Buff fans of a certain vintage, which is part of the point: Embree grew up in Denver, was an All-Big Eight tight end before sainted coach Bill McCartney converted him into a blocker in a wildly successful move to the wishbone offense in the mid-eighties and returned to CU in 1993 for a decade as an assistant under three different head coaches. Now, he returns for a third tour at age 45 as the face of a concerted reunion of the McCartney-era teams that put together eight straight top-20 seasons with a pair of Big 8 championships and a national championship from 1989-96.
His staff is equally "Colorado to the core": Five new assistants either played or coached under McCartney, including both coordinators, Eric Bieniemy (the school's all-time leading rusher, an All-American running back on the 1990 national title team and later a CU assistant alongside Embree in 2001-02) and Greg Brown (CU secondary coach from 1991-93). Two other staffers, Steve Marshall and Jashon Sykes, were part of the program under Barnett. Even Embree's sons, Taylor and Connor, are both playing for former Colorado coaches at UCLA and UNLV, respectively. They'd have to import Eric Cartman as the play-by-play guy to get any more Colorado.
Which is good for Embree, because outside from the "All in the Family/Return to Glory" vision, he's never been a coordinator at any level, much less a head coach. If he wasn't an alum, his resumé would be more or less identical to another former NFL tight ends coach, Tim Brewster, before his ill-fated stint at Minnesota.
Immediate Impact or Slow Burn? Spring practice was an all-business counterpoint to Hawkins' more … inspirational approach, specifically emphasizing bottom-of-the-pyramid fundamentals like "toughness" and "intensity." That suggests a long-haul schedule that demands patience, which should be in no short supply as the Buffs move to a new conference — and, hopefully, a better foothold in the greener recruiting pastures of Southern California — with a woefully understocked talent base. If Embree successfully projects the image of a down-to-earth professional with a tangible vision, it could buy him two full rebuilding seasons before the demands for a return on investment in the standings take priority.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.