Colorado fans wanted a Buff.

They got an impressive herd.

When the search for a new head coach began last November, the debate about who should get the job at CU morphed into a black and gold wish list, which consisted of Jon Embree, Eric Bieniemy, Brian Cabral and Bill McCartney.

The first three are all back in Boulder -- Embree as the head coach, Bieniemy as the offensive coordinator, and Cabral as the run game coordinator and linebackers coach.

And the legendary McCartney, who recruited and coached Embree and Bieniemy and hired Cabral as an assistant, was as excited as anyone about athletic director Mike Bohn's decision.

CU offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, left, and head coach Jon Embree watch practice last Wednesday.
CU offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, left, and head coach Jon Embree watch practice last Wednesday. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

"He's a Buff," Bohn said of Embree, a standout tight end for McCartney in the early 1980s, after making the hire. "He can rally all of the Buffs together. He can attract top coaches to join him. He has the ability to pull that together."

Other members of the new staff who also know what it's like to run out onto Folsom Field behind Ralphie include Kanavis McGhee (defensive line), Darian Hagan (director of player personnel), Jashon Sykes (director of football operations) and Jeff Smart (defensive graduate assistant).

Defensive coordinator Greg Brown grew up around the program and is entering his third stint as a CU assistant. Wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy is from Boulder and his passion for the game was sparked by watching McCartney's great teams as a kid. And offensive line coach Steve Marshall coached CU's dominant O-line during the 2001 Big 12 Championship season.


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Prepared, not pressured

Hiring familiar faces has been a big hit with fans in the aftermath of Dan Hawkins' disastrous 19-39 run with the Buffaloes over the previous five seasons.

Embree and his staff are still enjoying a honeymoon, which is headed to Hawaii for the 2011 season opener on Sept. 3, but understand that ultimately they'll have to win at CU for the seemingly perfect marriage to last.

CU football coach Jon Embree during his play days with the Buffs.
CU football coach Jon Embree during his play days with the Buffs. ( DAILY CAMERA FILE )

"To me, pressure is when you're not prepared. I feel like I'm prepared," Embree said when asked if there is more or less stress for him coaching at his alma mater. "To me, pressure is something outside people have different ideas or thoughts of what we're supposed to be, but it won't affect what I think we should be and how we should be performing.

"Believe me, there is no one out there that is going to be harder on me than me."

Embree is just as demanding of his players. But during taxing spring and summer practice sessions, most of the veteran Hawkins recruits have embraced the tough love.

Eric Bieneimy celebrates a long touchdown run during his playing days at Colorado.
Eric Bieneimy celebrates a long touchdown run during his playing days at Colorado. ( DAILY CAMERA FILE )

"I think coach Embree is a professional with the way he deals with everything in his life. He treats everybody the same, I don't care if you're a starter or a fourth-string guy, he's going to treat you the same," senior starting quarterback Tyler Hansen said. "He knows what we're going through. He just knows what it's like to be in Boulder, to play football here, to coach here. So he knows all the traditions and everything.

"I think that's what we needed, a guy who was a Buff and knows everything about the program."

Tough road ahead

After gaining some preseason momentum with the hiring of former Buffs player Linda Lappe and crowd-pleasing Greeley native Tad Boyle as the new basketball coaches, CU was able to enjoy successful campaigns at the Coors Events Center.

Kanavis McGhee in a Buffs game during 1990.
Kanavis McGhee in a Buffs game during 1990.

Embree's first season figures to be much more of an uphill battle, given the lack of depth on the roster and a daunting schedule.

"I think Jon is great. He and his staff have brought a great energy, not only to the football program, but to the community, to the university, to the athletic department," Boyle said. "He is a Buff, he bleeds it, and you can tell from talking to him. I'm really excited that he and his staff are here because I think they're going to get it turned around.

"Every situation is different, and he's facing the No. 1 schedule in the country with no bye weeks. There are a lot of things he has to overcome, but there is no question in my mind that Jon Embree is the right guy at the right time for Colorado football."

'This is us'

Cabral served as the interim head coach last season after Hawkins was fired with three games remaining. He guided the Buffs to a 2-1 record while restoring some old traditions that were ignored or eliminated since the Gary Barnett era ended.

Embree says he would be rebuilding a program the exact same way even if his first head coaching job were in the SEC or the Big Ten.

"It's who I am and what I know. I would still be like this. I would still be hard on the guys and aggressive," Embree said. "It's the only way I know, and I think it's the right way to go about doing it. ... I've gotta be me."

The coaching advantages true "Buffs" have at CU shows up on the recruiting trail. They understand from experience what kind of student-athlete will thrive on the unique Boulder campus.

"(McCartney) always used to say, 'Who are you? Where are you going? And how are you going to get there?'" Embree said. "Obviously, knowing this place like I do helps me explain to these guys who we are. ... They're starting to understand and embrace that. It makes it easier for them that when I say, 'This is us.' "

Blueprint in place

Bieniemy watched the team's first scrimmage of fall camp from a tower on the CU practice fields so he could get used to calling the offensive plays from the press box. CU's all-time leading rusher didn't need a megaphone as his message cascaded down loud and clear from on high.

"He wants our team to be tough, physical, and run the ball down your throat. And then we'll go from there," senior tight end Ryan Deehan said. "I think they're coaches that just want to win and they're coaching us hard so we don't get away with the stuff we used to get away with."

Defensively, Brown and Cabral inherit a respectable defensive line and bring a strong history of coaching and developing NFL-caliber defensive backs and linebackers.

"The advantage is the way we've been taught. The advantage is the way we've done it. It's proven," Cabral said. "We've been part of that tradition and know what a successful team looks like. We know how a successful team practices and we know how successful teams are prepared.

"We've got a blueprint and the blueprint comes from something that is proven."

From McCartney's deep-rooted coaching tree.

"He's obviously the guy I learned a lot from. He's got a great ability to get you to believe in yourself," Embree said. "I think that's the most important thing you can have as a coach. No disrespect to our players, and when I say our players (I mean) the guys who were playing back when I was here, but he tricked us a lot into thinking we were better than we were. We won a lot of games because we didn't know we weren't supposed to win. And that was all because of him."