BOULDER, Colo. • Colorado’s fiery former coach didn’t take long to raise his voice as he came to the defense of Jon Embree.
Unsolicited, Bill McCartney stood in front of a group of boosters on Tuesday, imploring — no, demanding — that fans give the second-year CU coach some breathing room.
Just 16 games into his regime and Embree is already feeling plenty of heat. Falling to rival Colorado State was bad enough, but then the beleaguered Buffaloes were beaten by FCS-level Sacramento State and trounced 69-14 at Fresno State.
McCartney, revered around these parts for leading Colorado to a national title in 1990, understands the frustration. He even acknowledged the Buffs may be “in over our heads right now.” But McCartney believes Embree can turn around the program if given time.
“There are no shortcuts,” McCartney said in his passionate oration that lasted more than 15 minutes. “It isn’t going to get easier. It’s going to get harder this year.”
The Buffaloes (0-3) likely won’t be favored in any more game this season, beginning Saturday when they kick off Pac-12 play at Washington State (2-1). They’re an 18½-point underdog against new Cougars coach Mike Leach and his explosive offense.
“Circle the wagons. Let’s close ranks,” said McCartney, who was one of the candidates when Embree was hired. “Let’s stand with these guys.”
It’s a message that resonated with former Colorado standout linebacker Chad Brown, who listened to his onetime coach’s motivational speech at a table in the back.
“This is not the NFL where you can scrap your roster and build over,” said Brown, who played 15 seasons in the NFL. “It takes a while to build a program and change a culture. I think Mac coming out is powerful, because it shows his commitment. But it’s also powerful because it reminds us what our perspective should be at this time.”
Sure, a vote of confidence is always nice, but Embree knows the only way to change perceptions is through performance. Embree has been meeting with each player individually for about 10 minutes, just to hear what they have to say.
And that they understood this: “I believe in them,” he said. “We can get out of it.
“There’s a bunch of resolve in that locker room. Those players, they’re anxious and excited to get back to work. I shared with them some ideas and how we’re going to get out of this.”
“I’m not going to share that,” Embree said, smiling.
For now, Embree said he will stick with the rotation of Jordan Webb and Connor Wood at quarterback. There will be one change, though, as offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy will call plays from the field instead of the booth.
“With some of the youth on that side of the ball, he wants to be down there where he can look into their eyes,” Embree explained. “Try to keep those guys going and energize them.”
Keeping his players driven could be an obstacle for Embree. The Buffs came into the season with lofty expectations, maybe even a bowl berth. Still winless, they’re about to face the teeth of their schedule, including road games with USC, Oregon and Arizona.
“Just because you hit a wall or hit a road block, doesn’t mean you stop preparing,” said Embree, who’s 3-13 since taking over the program where he once was an all-conference tight end in the mid-80s under McCartney. “You fight and find a way to knock it down.”
What has Buffs backers so rankled is the way the team has lost, blowing leads against CSU and Sacramento State and being blown out by Fresno State.
“We get into games and because the lights are on, they get so robotic,” Embree said. “That’s when you’re supposed to have fun. We’re not doing that. We need to have fun and part of having fun is winning.”
Offensive lineman David Bakhtiari recently had a heart-to-heart meeting with his teammates, just to keep heads up and morale high.
“It’s obviously not going to be extremely high,” Bakhtiari said of morale. “But it’s not as low as I thought. The way I look at it, we’re 0-0 in the Pac-12. We’re tied with every other team.”
A good attitude, because buying in is part of the solution. That’s Brown’s take anyway.
“I’ve played in Pittsburgh as a Steeler, where everybody from the guy cutting the grass, to the guy delivering the paper, to the guy who cleaned the parking lot, to the guy who was painting my house, believes the Steelers were going to win every Sunday,” Brown said. “There’s a reason that franchise is so successful — as a Steeler you walk around town and everyone believes in you. Everyone has your back.
“I’ve also been a Seahawk, where you stand in line at a club and you say, ‘Hey, I’m a Seahawk, let me in,’ and they go, ‘I should charge you more, because you guys aren’t so good.’ They don’t believe in you. So that collective belief is important to a psyche of a team and it actually influences what happens on the field.”
That was precisely McCartney’s point, too.
“Are you watching (Embree) in the wake of a devastating time? He is demonstrating that he believes in his players,” McCartney said. “During the most difficult times, that’s when people turn on people: ‘It’s not me, it’s got to be somebody else.’ You don’t see that.
“After what they’ve been through, this guy is not flinching. That’s how you recognize a leader.”