As soon as the University of Colorado fired Dan Hawkins as its head football coach, athletic director Mike Bohn realized he had two options.
Plan A, which Bohn pursued briefly, was making a run at a proven, well-known figure in the college world, somebody who would offer special expertise. There was former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, who would know how to deal with joining the soon-to-become Pacific 12 Conference. There was LSU coach Les Miles, a former Colorado assistant during Bill McCartney's early years who has won a national title in Baton Rouge. There was McCartney himself, willing to come out of retirement at 70 and revive the Buffalo Nation. Last but far from least, Air Force's Troy Calhoun loomed as a successful, squeaky-clean winner.
Any of those coaches would have been an expensive gamble, for different reasons. McCartney seemed the most likely, except for the lingering question of whether he could revive the same magic after 15 years away.
But nothing jelled, so Bohn went to Plan B, with McCartney's full support. That meant choosing one of Coach Mac's former players, somebody who could pull together the past and present while building for the future.
The choice turned out to be Jon Embree from Mike Shanahan's staff with the Washington Redskins. But that was far from Embree's only qualification. He grew up in Denver and was a highly recruited prep star at Cherry Creek. He had offers from everywhere but stayed home at Colorado, though that would mean suffering through some of McCartney's painful early years, starting in 1983. But the Buffs began their turnaround in 1985 with a huge road win at Arizona and wound up in the Freedom Bowl. The next year, CU broke through with its first win against Nebraska in two decades and made it to the Bluebonnet Bowl.
Embree played a handful of years in the National Football League, then came back to Colorado in 1993 as an assistant for McCartney, then Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett. He left to join ex-CU assistant Karl Dorrell's staff at UCLA, moving on later to the NFL on the staffs of Kansas City and then Washington.
It wasn't a textbook path to becoming a head coach, but at 45, Embree did have several points in his favor. He knew what worked and what didn't through the years at Boulder. He also developed into a highly regarded recruiter, learning the Los Angeles-area market that has produced so many standouts for CU. Also, being on the inside of NFL game-planning surely added to Embree's understanding of strategy.
But nothing meant more than Embree being able to reunite the former players, coaches and fans — and since he hasn't been a head coach, his first contract won't approach what it would've taken to lure someone like Bellotti or Miles.
Hiring Embree also means a staff largely filled with CU connections, starting with offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, the All-American runner for the 1990 national title team. Four years younger, Bieniemy has the same attributes as Embree, plus extra emotion. He'll be the fire-and-brimstone guy, more than CU ever had with Hawkins. Embree was smart, too, retaining ex-Buff and longtime assistant Brian Cabral, most recently the interim head coach and still fully supportive.
Not to be forgotten here, too, is having McCartney back on board in an unofficial but still potentially valuable capacity. He's telling everyone that he totally believes in Embree and loves the way CU's new staff is coming together. Just imagine, when Colorado brings in recruits who need a little extra attention, how a quick meeting or conversation with McCartney might go over.
How will this all translate on the field? Colorado brings back a whopping 57 lettermen and 16 returning starters for 2011. The offense, with senior quarterback Tyler Hansen and runner Rodney Stewart plus talented receivers, will not be starting from scratch. Some defensive holes must be filled, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. And the schedule, including Ohio State before the Pac-12 wars, will not be easy.
It's not realistic to expect a bowl game in Embree's first year — but that probably is among his early goals.
How far can Jon Embree lead Colorado? A lot farther than many might think.