The dirty trick played on Jon Embree wasn’t when he was fired at Colorado this week. It came when he was hired.
He thought he had gotten the job of digging out a once nationally relevant program.
He was hired because he was cheap, he was a former star CU player who had ties to the great-old days and he was black.
“It was never about me doing it again,’’ former CU coach Bill McCartney told The Denver Post two years ago, when Embree was hired after rumors that McCartney might come back. “It was about setting the table for a black man to come in. And he (athletic director Mike Bohn) hired one. Now, give him a chance.’’
As we know now, Embree didn’t get a chance. He was fired this week after two lousy seasons. His firing became a national issue about race after he said he would have been given more time if he hadn’t been black. When a CU official said Embree’s firing had nothing to do with race, McCartney, Embree’s champion, said that statement “offends every person of color.’’
We like nice, simple questions with nice, simple answers. But it’s selling this scandal short to just limit it to race. Did race play into it? Yes. It’s a factor.
But this just isn’t that simple. More than anything, this is a reflection of the system of college sports, which is now completely out of control. This is about the utter madness of a sport now built entirely around insane TV dollars and the endless money grab of conference realignment.
It’s about the BCS, the plight of black coaches trying to make it to the top, ESPN’s multi-billion national championship payout, Colorado’s jump to the Pac-12, an athletic director scapegoating a coach to avoid being fired himself. It’s about the most convoluted, messed-up major football program in America, still unable to recover from an alleged rape and sex-for-recruits scandal two coaches ago.
It’s the perfect storm of the college football disaster.
This week, the whole Embree era has become clear: He wasn’t hired to win or to build anything, though that would have been a nice side benefit. He was brought in to temporarily keep fans happy while the program bridged from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 during a schoolwide, even statewide, financial crisis.
It appears that Embree was used as a PR measure. There is no evidence of any commitment to him, ever. I don’t think he was ever meant for the long run; he was always just a place-setter. He just didn’t know it.
This was totally unfair to him from the start. They set Embree up to fail, and he was doing it fantastically. So he’s out, and now, suddenly, Colorado, which only had $750,000 a year to pay Embree, reportedly has $2.5 million a year to give to a new coach.
Let me start with Embree. I went to high school with him, and to Colorado. But we didn’t talk much more than just to say hello while passing in the halls.
But when we were at Colorado, less than 2 percent of the student body – going on memory – was black. Before one Halloween, someone put out a flier for a party that showed Buckwheat from Little Rascals in fear with bulging eyeballs and hair standing on end. The Denver Public League high school basketball coaches were advising their black players
not to go to CU.
It is probably impossible to find a college without racial tensions. But this is what was happening on campus while Embree played for McCartney. It is surely what helped to form his image of the place. Embree stayed close to CU over the years as an assistant coach.
But by the time CU hired him, he had never been a head coach before, had never been an offensive or defensive coordinator, either. He hired former CU star running back Eric Bieniemy, who had never been a coordinator, to run the offense.
Embree had great potential, but didn’t have the experience for such a major job yet.
Meanwhile, the state school system was broke, and CU had to pay fired coach Dan Hawkins – a Bohn-hire – to leave. It also had to pay a buyout to leave the Big 12. The team was weak under Hawkins, scandalous under previous coach Gary Barnett.
CU wasn’t going to pay big for a head coach, and reportedly was talking with McCartney about coming back. But he was pushing for CU to hire a black coach; he was pushing for Embree, the tight ends coach for the Washington Redskins. Even Barnett had talked about the school’s bad relationship with African-American communities. It is a long-standing issue.
But Embree thought he was coming in to rebuild his team, and Hawkins left nothing.
There is no point to arguing whether CU was any good under Embree. It wasn’t. He would say so. The Buffs lost to Sacramento State, were down 35-0 to Fresno State in the first quarter, 56-0 to Oregon at halftime. They gave up 46 points a game, worst among major colleges. They scored 17.83 points, fifth worst. Attendance was falling. Boosters were angry.
But Embree had just eight seniors, and was forced to play freshmen. The thing is: Coaching in college is all about player development, and how much development could Embree have been responsible for in two years?
The bigger questions are these: Would a white coach would have been allowed to have a third year to fix things? Do black coaches get the same amount of time to rebuild?
“We don’t get second chances, and that’s OK,’’ Embree said in a press conference, talking about his future. “You know it going into it. Tyrone (Willingham) did. I don’t know if there’s ever been another (black coach) fired who got another opportunity at the college level.
“But every minority knows that going into it. Eventually, that’ll change.’’
McCartney pointed out that in his third year, the Buffs went 1-10, and he was allowed to stay. He led CU to the national championship. Why did he get a chance? McCartney says it was because he’s white.
I don’t think so. That was over a quarter of a century ago. And with the money in the BCS and conference realignment now, patience doesn’t mean five years.
Three years, maybe. Gene Chizik was fired at Auburn two years after winning the national championship.
Bohn had to know that after hiring Hawkins and Embree, his job was in trouble. Meanwhile, even lowly Washington State in the Pac-10 has hired Mike Leach as coach. Bohn saw CU losing the arms race. And now that the program apparently has money to hire a top coach, patience was gone for Embree.
Bohn hired the wrong guy in Hawkins, and either did again with Embree, or didn’t give him a fair chance. It’s amazing that CU would let him hire yet another coach with the stakes what they are now, high enough to just throw over Embree.
Those stakes in college football are madness, with a sport completely out of control in its chase for dollars. It is a disease of greed. And remember, this is our education system.