University of Colorado head coach, Jon Embree, prepares to lead his team behind Ralphie for the start of the CU UCLA game.
University of Colorado head coach, Jon Embree, prepares to lead his team behind Ralphie for the start of the CU UCLA game. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )
Two years into his first head coaching job, Greg Schiano had a 3-20 record.

Heading into his third season in 2003, Sports Illustrated published an article about Schiano's team, titled, "Why Can't Rutgers Ever Win?" The long-suffering football team had not posted a winning record in a decade and lost roughly $2.3 million in 2002, according to SI.

The article quoted a member of the Rutgers faculty, Dr. Williams C. Dowling, who was the head of a group of more than 1,000 students and alumni who wanted Rutgers, the largest school in New Jersey, to drop Division I athletics.

"It'd be a shining beacon to every other public institution, an example for the nation that also gets us out of the morass," Dowling told SI.

Among the low-lights of Schiano's first two years was an 80-7 whipping from unranked West Virginia, followed by a 42-0 home loss against unranked Pittsburgh. The Scarlet Knights were pummeled by elite teams, and pummeled by bad teams, including two losses against another doormat, Temple, by a combined 50-22.

Colorado, which some feel is stuck in its own morass, knows how Schiano and the Scarlet Knights felt.

Today, Colorado (1-10, 1-7 Pac-12) will put an end to a miserable season when it hosts Utah (4-7, 2-6) at Folsom Field. If the Buffs lose, they'll finish with the worst record in school history. They are 0-5 at Folsom Field and face the prospect of losing every home game for the first time since 1891 -- CU's second season of football and a year that included just two home games.


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The current Buffs have been pounded week after week for the past two months.

Some CU fans are hopeful that second-year head coach Jon Embree, who is 4-20 since taking over in 2011, will be cleaning out his office before the two-year anniversary of his hire date, on Dec. 6. Others are hopeful that Embree can lead the Buffs to a Rutgers-like resurgence.

After four consecutive losing seasons, Schiano took the Scarlet Knights to six bowl games in seven years from 2005-11 before becomingthe head coach of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year.

Who would have thought that 10 years after serving as the butt of the joke in college football, Rutgers would be the source of inspiration for Colorado and other programs looking to climb from the depths of misery?

Mixed results

Embree isn't the first coach to go through a disastrous first two seasons, and he won't be the last.

Since the 2000 season, 26 other FBS coaches have won five games or less during their first two years on the job. Another 32 won fewer than nine games.

Among those 58 coaches, just eight were fired at the end of their second year. In most cases, schools gave their coaches several years to try to get it right.

That group of coaches includes several that never did -- or have yet to -- get their teams on a winning track. Duke's Ted Roof went 6-45 in four-plus seasons. Greg Robinson went 10-37 in four years at Syracuse. Stanford's Buddy Teevens was 10-23 in three years, Mississippi's Ed Orgeron was 10-25 in three years and Washington's Tyrone Willingham went 11-37 in four years.

That group also includes 18 coaches that eventually led their team to at least one bowl game (San Jose State's Mike MacIntyre will join that list this year).

Tommy West of Memphis (five bowls), Kentucky's Rich Brooks (four bowls), Kansas' Mark Mangino (four bowls), Arizona's Mike Stoops (three bowls), Ron Zook of Illinois (three bowls) and Ball State's Brady Hoke (two bowls) all led their teams to success after a poor first two seasons on the job.

No coach orchestrated a better turnaround than Schiano. A trip to the Insight Bowl in Year 5 ended a 27-year bowl drought. Arguably the worst team in the country through 2002, Rutgers became a Big East Conference power under Schiano.

Dealing with disappointment

Regardless of the end results, all 58 coaches went through disappointing seasons. Getting through those years isn't easy.

"I think it's very uncomfortable," said Stoops, who opened his Arizona tenure with back-to-back 3-8 seasons. "You're already in a stressful environment; it adds stress to your life. You can't let it. If you're doing the best, you've got to see the good in some of those small victories. For people like us (coaches), that's hard to quantify that because we want the whole thing. That's what is very, very difficult."

Today's coaches have a more difficult road than coaches of the past. Facebook, Twitter, bloggers, more TV exposure and a plethora of sports talk radio stations have intensified the scrutiny on coaches. That scrutiny can be brutal when a new coach struggles out of the gate.

"It's so hard because the scrutiny never leaves," said Stoops, who was fired by Arizona after a 1-5 start last year and is now the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. "It lasts with you 365 days a year until you show some substantial growth. You're going to be gnawed at by a lot of people -- fans, media and even probably some boosters to a point.

"It's hard on you personally. Emotionally it's hard on you. It's the most difficult thing I've had to endure in my life without any question. Besides losing my father. It's to that level. I would think twice about rebuilding a program right now if I had to. It takes everything you've got every day. It takes so much out of you. That's the hard part. I feel (Embree's) pain because I've been there."

None of that changes in smaller markets. Washington State's Paul Wulff experienced the same pressure through a 3-22 record after his first two years in Pullman, Wash.

"You're battling not only trying to fix the team within, you're battling all the naysayers and all the negative out there via social media, radio, newspapers," said Wulff, now an offensive assistant with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. "That infiltrates, unfortunately, into your program."

Laying the foundation

Coaches all need to establish their own identity, install their own offensive and defensive systems and, in many cases, turn around the losing culture they walked into.

"Self-esteem was absolutely horrible in this program," Rutgers' Schiano told Sports Illustrated about the program he took over in 2001. "Negativity. Sarcasm."

Arizona was 2-10 the year before Stoops was hired and the Wildcats had not been to a bowl game in six years. Washington State hadn't been to a bowl game in four years when Wulff took over in 2008.

Each of the 58 coaches faced similar challenges, but had to attack those challenges in unique ways.

"All these programs that have to be turned around are different," Wulff said. "They're not going to all be turned around in the same time and manner."

Wulff uses this year's Texas A&M squad as an example. First-year coach Kevin Sumlin has the Aggies at 9-2 and No. 9 in the rankings this week. That's no surprise to Wulff, who said that previous coach Mike Sherman (who went 26-25 and took A&M to three bowls in four years before being fired after 2011) established a strong work ethic and recruited well.

"Then you have other programs where things have completely fallen apart on the inside and people just think they're going to come in and turn it around right away," Wulff said. "I think Jon (Embree) is kind of in that category."

While changing the culture, a coach also needs to build a roster that fits that culture and fits the schemes implemented by the coach.

"You've got to get better by recruiting and you've got to get better by getting rid of players," Stoops said. "Those are really the only ways you're going to get better in college."

Perhaps most important to the success of a new a coach is the support he gets from school administrators. Rutgers never would have vaulted to the top 10 of the national rankings in 2006 without the full backing of athletic director Robert Mulcahy and university president Richard L. McCormick.

"The only way you can overcome and get out of that hole is if the administration, meaning the president and the athletic department, are 100 percent behind you," Wulff said. "If they're not behind you, it makes it almost impossible to get turned around."

Even at 4-20, Embree said he feels he's got "a million percent" of support from CU president Bruce Benson, chancellor Phil DiStefano and athletic director Mike Bohn.

"I get a lot of letters of encouragement and phone calls from fans from not just here, but out of state," Embree said. "Phil and Bruce and Mike have been unbelievable."

Baby steps

While going 3-20 his first two years at Rutgers, Schiano made strides by beating bigger schools for in-state recruits. His Knights also had some good moments in losses to Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Miami -- all top-10 teams at the time.

Wulff's first two teams at Washington State played defense a lot like the 2012 Buffs have played defense, and were worse on offense than this Buffs' team. Year No. 3 was better for Wulff, and the ugly losses that spoiled his first two years became respectable losses in that third year.

In both his third and fourth seasons at Arizona, Stoops' Wildcats came within a win of a bowl game -- losing to rival Arizona State in the finale both years.

"You've got to really look at the little battles you win," Stoops said. "You might not win the war, but you'll win some battles along the way and that's really what you have to focus on.

"You keep knocking on the door, eventually you'll blow it down. That's what we hung our hat on."

Stoops and other coaches who have been through rebuilding say that the progress made in a program won't always be evident to fans.

Embree echoes that, insisting that CU is better off today than it was two years ago.

"There's a lot of stuff that people don't see that's changed for the better that affect our players on a daily basis that needed to be done," he said. "Unfortunately, it's not just as simple as, 'Hey go recruit Johnny and then go win.'

"There's been a lot of stuff that we needed to fix and change and tweak. It's been done and it's headed that way with some other things, too. That's why I feel good about the direction it's going and where we're headed."

With a 3-10 record in 2011 and 1-10 so far this year, it's hard to sell CU fans on those improvements, but Stoops cautions fans, "You're going to see it on the scoreboard last."

Patience

A coach will never blow down the door if he's not allowed the time to do so.

Imagine if Rutgers had fired Schiano after he slipped to 1-11 in his second year. Illinois might have missed out on a Rose Bowl trip in 2007 had it fired Ron Zook after a 4-19 start to his career, and Temple might have never ended a 30-year bowl drought in 2009 had it dumped Al Golden after three losing seasons.

Wulff believes he was the victim of impatience, and the numbers validate that thinking.

After a disastrous first two seasons and a better third year, Wulff's Cougars made great strides in 2011. They won just four games, but that was a two-game improvement over 2010, and it included two three-point losses. His offense, despite losing starting quarterback Jeff Tuel to a broken collarbone early in the year, made a giant leap forward in 2011 and the defense was better than it had been in his first three years.

Despite those obvious signs of improvement, the Washington State administration fired Wulff at season's end. They brought in a big name coach, Mike Leach, and figured the Cougars would take off. Instead, Leach's Cougars enter this week at 2-9, 0-8 in the Pac-12 and star receiver Marquess Wilson has quit the team.

Wulff can't shake the disappointment in not being allowed to finish the job he started.

"I thought this year our team was going to be capable of competing with Oregon for the North Division title if that same group was back and came together, running the same system and doing everything," he said. "Now they get to live with what they did because of a lack of patience."

Akron, Memphis and Kansas all grew impatient last year, too. All three schools fired their second-year head coaches at the end of the 2011 season. This year, those schools are a combined 5-29, proving change doesn't necessarily lead to a quick fix.

One issue for Colorado fans is that the Buffs have taken a step (or two) back from last year on the scoreboard. That's not uncommon, however. Wulff and Schiano both posted two-win seasons in Year 1 and one-win seasons in Year 2.

"I've seen it happen quite a few times where the second year can be an even rougher year," Wulff said. "It was in my case."

Despite Colorado's regression in results, Wulff said CU could continue a cycle of losing if it fires Embree too quick and doesn't allow him -- or future coaches -- time to turn the Buffs around.

"I'd hate to see Jon or anybody go through all the hard work of building something back and then they get it pulled out from underneath them," Wulff said.

Sweet rewards

Not every coach that undertakes a rebuilding project finds success.

Of the 58 coaches since 2000 to win eight or fewer games through two years, just 18 (31 percent) of them eventually took their team to a bowl game. That includes Embree's predecessor, Dan Hawkins, whose tenure at CU would hardly be considered a success.

Of the 18, just 10 went to multiple bowl games, so clearly the odds are against Embree.

The good news for Embree and the Buffs, however, is that it can be done and when it is done, the taste of success is so sweet.

Within four years of Sports Illustrated profiling its retched program, Rutgers played in two bowl games, vaulted into the top 10 of the national rankings and gained a major victory in recruiting by beating traditional power Ohio State for tackle Anthony Davis, one of the top prep players in New Jersey. Davis was an All-American at Rutgers and became the No. 11 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson (4-20 through two years) led the Commodores to a bowl game in his seventh season. It was Vandy's first bowl appearance in 26 years.

Rich Brooks' second season at Kentucky was significantly worse than his first -- statistically and on the scoreboard -- but in his fourth season, he took the Wildcats to their first bowl in seven years. That sparked a streak of five consecutive bowl appearances.

In his fifth year at Arizona, Stoops finally took the Wildcats to the postseason, defeating BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. That was the first of three straight bowl games for Arizona.

"We won the bowl game at Arizona, it was bigger than winning the national championship game (at Oklahoma) for me personally," Stoops said. "That's what I felt like."

Today, as the Buffaloes prepare to face Utah, that type of success seems so far away.

Embree, however, smiles as he sits on the steps of the Dal Ward Center looking out at his practice facility and watching some of his young players head home for the day. He likes the talent on his roster, he feels support from those around him and he feels confident he will be the man to return Colorado to postseason play in the near future.

"Yeah," he said. "Without a doubt."

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