You never forget seeing grown men cry in absolute despair, even when it happens in sports like in November 1984, after the University of Colorado finished a 1-10 football season with an embarrassing 38-6 defeat at Kansas State, also a loser in those days.
Inside the visitors dressing room that day in Manhattan, Kan., players and coaches wept, many uncontrollably. They had believed they were heading in the right direction, so they couldn't explain why the year had gone so terribly bad. I remember trying to console Gary Barnett, then an assistant before he excelled as a head coach at Northwestern and CU. He was sure the Buffaloes, guided then by head coach Bill McCartney, still could go far.
And one of the emotional players that day was sophomore tight end Jon Embree, who would help Colorado rebound to seven wins and a bowl game the next year, followed by an upset over Nebraska and another bowl in 1986.
Those details came back to mind last week, after CU finished a disastrous 1-11 season with an exasperating 42-35 home loss to Utah. Embree, in his second year as head coach, had maintained the support of McCartney and other onlookers who felt the rebuilding job would require more time and patience — just as with McCartney in 1984.
But there were differences, which led to Embree being fired Sunday. Sure, in a perfect world, Embree might have deserved another year. Then again, as things are, he really didn't.
CU couldn't afford to let another year go by with a substandard staff, so many recruiting failures both in-state and nationally, and fast-dwindling fan support. Losing every home game for the first time in Folsom Field's 88-year history apparently was the last straw.
Embree left trying to compare now to 1984, but that's not appropriate. This team is nowhere close to making a dramatic breakthrough. Colorado had more talented players back then, and McCartney's staff was recruiting with success. Let's also not forget those assistants, a number of whom would go on to be well-known head coaches: Barnett, Gerry DiNardo, Lou Tepper, Jim Caldwell, Ron Vanderlinden and current LSU head man Les Miles.
That staff, one could tell even then, was special. Embree's staff had some familiar names, but nowhere near the depth of experience or expertise.
Something else surely pushed CU to give up now on Embree. The administration could look around the Pacific 12 Conference and see how three other schools made instant turnabouts this year by bringing in proven head coaches: Jim Mora Jr. at UCLA, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Todd Graham at Arizona State. All three pounded Colorado, and they're already far ahead in recruiting wars.
CU's only chance to avoid being left far behind for a half-decade or more was to make a change now. Not by dumping assistant coaches, but by starting at the top.
This means Colorado can't hire a coach-in-the-making anymore. No more feel-good gambles on an alumnus. In fact, athletic director Mike Bohn should feel intense pressure, because this hire could be his last. Bohn already is 0-2 in hiring football coaches, with Embree preceded by Dan Hawkins.
Colorado doesn't appear to have the wherewithal to pluck away a big name from another top-level program, but Bohn still might try. Who knows, perhaps someone like Chris Petersen at Boise State, Art Briles at Baylor or Gary Patterson at TCU would listen, though others are pursuing them. Let's remember, too, that Hawkins came from Boise.
Bohn courted Air Force's Troy Calhoun before hiring Embree two years ago, but that just doesn't look like the right match. Calhoun is heading for his sixth straight bowl game, and he has total job security at Air Force.
Instead, Bohn might try to find and recycle the next Mora, Rodriguez or Graham. More likely, though, Colorado will attract a second-tier head coach with a bright, wide-open offensive mind, like Gary Andersen at Utah State, Mike MacIntyre at San Jose State or Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State.
Whoever it is, though, CU has to find someone who can recruit anywhere and can assemble a first-rate staff. Not in a few years, but now.
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