The Jon Embree resume is familiar to most Buff fans…
As a Player … Embree was born in California but grew up in Colorado, graduating from Cheery Creek high school in Denver. An honorable mention All-American in high school, Embree decided to stay home and play for the Buffs rather than pursue other offers. As a sophomore at Colorado in 1984, Embree was an All-Big Eight selection at tight end, collecting 51 passes for 680 yards, both new school records.
Colorado switched to the wishbone in 1985, severely reducing Embree’s stats, but he still caught the eye of NFL scouts. A sixth-round selection by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1987 draft, Embree played for two seasons in the NFL before an elbow injury ending his playing career.
As a coach … Jon Embree spent ten years as an assistant coach at the University of Colorado, coaching under Bill McCartney, Rick Neuheisal, and Gary Barnett. While in Boulder, Embree coached tight ends (1993-94; 1999-2000), defensive ends (1995-98), and wide receivers/kickers (2001-2002).
Embree moved on to UCLA in 2003, named as assistant head coach/wide receivers (2003), and assistant head coach/tight ends and passing game coordinator (2004-05). While in college, Embree coached two John Mackey Award winners—Daniel Graham at Colorado and Marcedes Lewis at UCLA .
In 2006, Embree was hired as tight end coach by the Kansas City Chiefs, where he coached All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez. Under Embree, Gonzalez led all NFL tight ends with 99 catches for 1,172 yards. After three years with the Chiefs, Embree joined the staff of the Washington Redskins as tight ends coach in January, 2010.
Those are the statistics, here is what you need to know about the man…
Jon Embree didn’t have to be a Buff
True, Jon Embree grew up in Denver, giving Colorado a decided advantage when it came time for the All-American to select a school for which to play. Embree was a three-sport star at Cherry Creek, earning three letters in football, three in basketball, and four in track.
Embree had 24 catches for 480 yards and seven touchdowns for Cherry Creek as a senior, helping lead the Bruins to the state AAAA title. Embree could have gone almost anywhere to college, and was offered a scholarship by schools such as USC, Ohio State, and Oklahoma.
Embree chose to stay with Colorado, even though during his high school career the Buffs had posted records of 3-8, 1-10, 3-8, and 2-8-1. Bill McCartney had been the coach for the 2-8-1 team in 1982, and there were no obvious signs that the Buffs were improving. Still, Embree came to Boulder.
Jon Embree was a success from the start of his Colorado career. One of only three true freshman to letter in 1983, Embree had a break out season in his sophomore season. Jon Embree, in 1984, broke the school records for receptions (51; besting the 45 by Monte Huber in 1967) and receiving yards (680; over 100 yards better than the 557 posted by Loy Alexander in 1983). Embree was a first-team All-Big Eight selection at tight end, the future looked bright for the sophomore star.
The problem was that while Embree was a success on the field in 1984, his team was not. Colorado slumped to a 1-10 record, and head coach Bill McCartney decided to change his offense. The Buffs would go from a pro-style offense to a wishbone set, all but abandoning the passing game.
As a result, Jon Embree’s statistics took a nose dive. Embree again led the Buffs in receiving in his junior year, but instead of 51 catches and All-Big Eight honors, Embree led the team with just nine catches.
Jon Embree didn’t have to stay a Buff
Embree could have transferred after the announcement was made that Colorado was switching to the wishbone offense. Recall that Embree played as a true freshman in 1983, and had not used his red-shirt season. Recall also that he had been recruited by Oklahoma. Embree could have left Colorado after 1984, and could have been a star for the Sooners.
Those of you of a certain age will remember the name of Keith Jackson (not the ABC announcer, but the Oklahoma tight end). Jackson was an All-American for Oklahoma, playing from 1984-87, a year behind Embree. Jackson was a two-time All-American for the Sooners, and voted the Oklahoma Offensive Player of the Century (no small feat). After a nine year NFL career which included six Pro Bowl selections, Keith Jackson was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 2001.
That all could have been there for Jon Embree. Instead, in 1985, he was voted third-team All-Big Eight at tight end, leading the Buffs with all of nine catches.
Instead of brooding over what might have been, Embree stuck with the Buffs, and became a leader. “Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a leader,” said Lance Carl, another member of the Colorado recruiting Class of 1983. Carl, who came to Colorado from Iowa, referred to Embree as the “Huxtable from Cherry Creek”, referring to Bill Cosby’s character in The Cosby Show (1984-92).
Ultimately, Embree was rewarded for his willingness to stay and play for a team which would not showcase his talents. In 1985, Colorado rebounded from its 1-10 campaign in 1984 to post a 7-5 record, going bowling for the first time since 1976. In the 1985 Freedom Bowl against Washington, the Buffs threw only two passes, but one of them was from Barry Helton to Jon Embree on a fake punt. The pass was good for 31 yards and a touchdown.
Then, in his senior season of 1986, Embree received vindication for his decision to stay home and play for Colorado. Once again, Colorado shunned the passing game, and Embree had only eight catches on the season.
One of those catches, though, was very significant.
It came in the epic 20-10 victory over Nebraska, the Buffs’ first win over the Cornhuskers since 1969. Nursing a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter, the Buffs were trying to mount a drive and take time off the clock. Nebraska had just kicked a field goal, and had the momentum. Over ten minutes remained to be played. A three-and-out by the offense would have been devastating.
Instead, on second-and-six at the Colorado 24-yard line, quarterback Mark Hatcher lofted a pass just over the out-stretched arms of a Nebraska linebacker and into the arms of a waiting Jon Embree. The 29-yard gain put the ball into Nebraska territory, leading to a field goal and a 20-10 lead which the Buffs would not surrender.
The win over Nebraska was vindication for Embree, and players like him, who stuck with the program when the opportunity to play elsewhere would have been a safer choice.
“This is why I came here, to beat Nebraska,” said Embree after the Nebraska game. “This made up for the last four years I have been here. This is just forever, man. This is it!”.
Jon Embree has continued to be a leader
The merits of Jon Embree as a coach and a recruiter over the past 20 years will be debated over the next few months. Then—for better or worse—Embree’s talents will be on display as Colorado joins the Pac-12 in 2011. Still, it would be hard to argue that Embree has not already shown himself to be a leader.
When a former teammate, Anthony Weatherspoon (”Spoooon” to his fans) contracted Leukemia and was having a difficult time making ends meet, Jon Embree founded the Buffs 4 Life Foundation, an organization of former Buffs dedicated to assisting one another after their college years were concluded.
“He is a humble, selfless, goal-oriented leader,” said Joel Klatt, who played for one season under Embree at Colorado. “You don’t have a vision to start something like Buffs 4 Life unless you are selfless and you absolutely love the university that you played for.”
It remains an unknown as to whether Jon Embree’s diverse coaching background and proven recruiting talents will translate into turning the University of Colorado into a winning football program.
But it is difficult to find anything bad to say about Jon Embree the man.
It’s a new day in Boulder, and the Buffs have a new leader. Harping over what could have been is a waste of energy. It’s time to focus on the coaches Embree can bring in, and the recruiting class of 2011.