Colorado Football: Jon Embree and His Coaching Staff

Stuart WhitehairAnalyst IJanuary 4, 2011

The 2011 University of Colorado Coaching Staff

Malcolm Blacken comes to CU from Washington Redskins

Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm Blacken officially joined the Colorado coaching staff on Wednesday.

Kennedy has long been known as the new wide receivers coach (see below), but the naming of Blacken as the strength and conditioning coach is news. Blacken comes to the Buffs from the Washington Redskins and will oversee strength and conditioning for all of CU’s 16 intercollegiate sports.

Blacken has worked in the NFL for the past 15 seasons, serving as the head strength and conditioning coach for the Detroit Lions from 2001-09 after his first run with the Redskins (1996-2000). Between 1990-95, Blacken worked in the college ranks, serving in strength and conditioning at South Carolina (1990-91), George Mason (1992-94) and Virginia (1995).

Blacken played for Virginia Tech from 1984-88, lettering four times at running back. A two-time winner of the “Super Iron Hokie” award, given to the team’s strongest player at each position.

Blacken earned a degrees from Virgnia Tech in both art and physical education.

“I got to know Malcolm last year with the Redskins,” said head coach Jon Embree, who served as the tight ends coach for Washington this past season. “He’s a former head strength coach in the NFL and collegiate levels, and he will be a valuable asset to our program.”

The delay in hiring a strength and conditioning coach will not hurt the Buffs, as team members will not start winter conditioning until next week.

Which Leaves Unresolved…

The name of the final assistant coach – the quarterbacks coach.

Speculation had been that the new Colorado quarterbacks coach would be coming from the NFL and would be named at the conclusion of the NFL regular season.

Sunday’s games came and went, and there is still no quarterbacks coach.

There are several rumors as to why that may be the case. One is that Jon Embree expected his new quarterbacks coach to be done with the regular season this past weekend, but that his choice unexpectedly made the playoffs. Most of the playoff teams were already known heading into the final weekend, so there is speculation that the new quarterbacks coach may be coming from one of the final two entries into the playoffs, Green Bay and Seattle.

The quarterbacks coach for the Packers is Tom Clements, who played quarterback for Notre Dame before enjoying a 13-year pro career (all but one season in the CFL). Clements has been with the Packers since 2006, and has Aaron Rodgers to work with, so that move wouldn’t make sense.

The Seattle Seahawks’ quarterbacks coach, however, may be a possibility. Jedd Fisch is 34, and attended Florida (though not as a player). He has been a quarterbacks coach in the collegiate and NFL ranks since 1999, joining the Seahawks in 2010.

Other NFL quarterback coaches still working: Matt Cavanaugh (New York Jets); Bill O’Brien (New England Patriots); Randy Fitchner (Pittsburgh Steelers); Frank Reich (Indianapolis Colts); Jim Zorn (Baltimore Ravens); Joe Lombardi (New Orleans Saints); James Irvin (Philadephia Eagles); Bill Musgrave (Atlanta Falcons); and Shane Day (Chicago Bears) (the quarterbacks coach for the Kansas City Chiefs was also the offensive coordinator – Charlie Weis – who is on his way to Florida).

Some of those names are familiar to football fans (Cavanaugh, Reich, Zorn and Musgrave all had memorable college and/or professional careers at quarterback), but it is difficult to make an argument as to why any of these coaches would be making a lateral move from an NFL team to the same position at a college team.

The other possibility is that Embree had a coach in mind, but with all of the new openings in the coaching world in recent days (Michigan and the Oakland Raiders, to name two) that Embree’s choice may be holding out for/expecting a better offer.

But that’s the speculation, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Kiesau Lands on his Feet

Former Colorado offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau did not stay unemployed for long.

The University of California has announced that Eric Kiesau will return to Cal to served as the Bears’ passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. Kiesau was the wide receivers coach at Cal for four seasons (2002-05) before joining the staff at Colorado for the past five seasons. “I feel fortunate to be able to return to a place that provided some of my fondest football memories.”

No word as to whether Kiesau’s ability to find a new position will have any affect on the $220,000 buyout due Kiesau from the University of Colorado (probably not, as Kiesau was let go by the Buffs, and did not leave CU on his own accord).

And Then There Were Eight

A week after naming seven of his nine assistant coaches, Colorado head coach Jon Embree appears poised to name No. 8.

Bobby Kennedy, wide receivers coach and assistant recruiting coordinator for Texas, is going to be named as the wide receivers coach at Colorado, according to the Daily Camera. Kennedy, a Boulder native, has been at Texas for the past seven years, and has coached in two national championship games, winning the title with the Longhorns after the 2005 season.

Last season, Kennedy helped recruit ten of Texas’ 23 recruits, including one five-star recruit and eight four-star recruits. Kennedy is also well versed in the Mac Brown philosophy of signing recruits early instead of late (the Longhorns annually have about half of their class signed the first weekend after signing day for the previous class, when the recruits are still juniors in high school).

Kennedy has coached at seven different BCS schools – including Pac-12 rivals Washington and Arizona - but Buff fans will be most excited about his recruiting talents. Combined with defensive line coach Kanavis McGhee, coach Jon Embree is making a statement that Texas will still be in play for Colorado recruiting, even though the Buffs are moving on to the Pac-12.

All that remains for Embree is the naming of a quarterbacks coach. The speculation is that the new coach will come from the NFL, and come from a team which is concluding its season this weekend.

Embree also has yet to name a strength and conditioning coach (which does not count against the nine total assistant coaches allotted by the NCAA).

What McGhee Brings to the CU Coaching Staff

There are many in the Buff Nation, myself included, who see defensive line coach Kanavis McGhee as the weakest hire of the new Colorado coaching staff.

The Buffs already have a linebackers coach in Brian Cabral, and an experienced defensive line coach in Mike Tuiasosopo, so why bring in McGhee when other potential assistant coaches with more experience are out there?

Jon Embree, of course, sees McGhee differently.

First and foremost, McGhee brings the Houston area back into play for Colorado recruiting. “Yeah, I think there’s enough people who still know me,” said McGhee, who has coached high school in the Houston area for 12 of the past 13 years. “How could they forget? I’m as big as all outdoors and my name is Kanavis … When I got this job, right away I had calls from coaches saying, ‘Just wanted you to know I’m over here now’. Yeah, they remember me.”

Without mentioning Dan Hawkins or his staff directly, McGhee says that he noted a decided lack of a Colorado presence in the Houston area during Hawkins’ tenure:

“In the past four or five years, I saw a lot of (coaches) from Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas … I said to myself, ‘What happened? Where’s Colorado?’ I want high school coaches to roll that name off their mouths and off their lips.”

In addition to recruiting, McGhee feels he will be an asset to the coaching staff when it comes to dealing with the defensive line as well. Embree calls McGhee, “a heck of a teacher, just an unbelievable teacher.” Said Embree: “I know this: All he needed was an opportunity, and I guarantee you, him working with (Tuiasosopo), I’m going to have to find a way to keep him here in two years. I guarantee you he is going to be highly sought after.”

“I know the passion and I think I can share it,” said McGhee. “I know what it means to be an 18-year old kid whose coming to Boulder to be a CU Buff … I also think I know something about the position I’m going to coach. I know about being able to hold the edge and bring pressure from the outside. I think I can teach that.”

It all sounds good. I’m not yet convinced that McGhee was the best option for the coaching staff.

But I’m excited to be proven wrong.

Head coach – Jon Embree

Why this was a good choice: I’ve posted an entire article on this question, but to summarize here: Jon Embree brings to Boulder everything the search committee was looking for: 1) A solid coaching background; 2) A good recruiter; 3) Ties to the University of Colorado; and 4) Leadership.

Embree has not been a head coach at any level, but he has coached in both the BCS ranks and the NFL. What’s more, he has coached offense, defense and special teams.

He brings to Boulder a solid resume. Embree also has a reputation as a solid recruiter, and, with his years as an assistant coach at UCLA, a background in recruiting the west coast. With Colorado joining the Pac-12 in 2011, this aspect of Embree’s resume stood out. 

Embree also has had a long and strong history with the University of Colorado. He came to Boulder as a star player when it was not chic to come to Boulder (a strong plus), coached in Boulder under McCartney, Neuheisel, and Barnett, and has always ”bled black and gold”.

If Embree is hugely successful, the NFL might come calling, but it would be a huge surprise if Embree left Colorado for another college program (an after-thought now, but an important factor when some of the other candidates for the position are considered).

Reasons for concern: As noted, Embree has never been a  head coach at any level, which becomes an even greater concerns when the fact that neither of his coordinators have been in those positions before is considered.

This fear is tempered somewhat by the fact that two of his other assistants (Walt Harris, J.D. Brookhart) have been head coaches at the collegiate level.

The other concern, which is not at the forefront today but may come back to haunt the Buffs in the next few years, is that Embree hired a number of former Buffs. It is hard to fault Embree for doing so. After all, the clamour amongst the Buff faithful during the Hawkins era is that Dan Hawkins did not cultivate former Buffs, and did not understand Colorado “tradition”.

The pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction with some of Embree’s hires (most notably Kanavis McGhee)—time will tell.

Overall grade: A-minus.  I would like to give Embree a full “A”, but there will always be the second-guessing about the “ones which got away”. Remember, we all agreed with Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn five years ago when he introduced his “home run” hire, Dan Hawkins.

Offensive Coordinator – Eric Bieniemy

Why this was a good choice: Up until about two weeks ago, Bieniemy was considered the front-runner for the head coaching position. When the search committee sent members to Washington D.C. to interview Bieniemy, it was just considered to be fortunate happenstance that Bieniemy’s Minnesota Vikings were in the nation’s capital to play the Washington Redskins, so that the committee could meet with Jon Embree as well.

As it turned out, the Buff Nation got both coaches.

Bieniemy also had many of the characteristics the search committee was looking for in a head coach, including leadership, ties to Colorado and recruiting skills. Now the Buffs will have Bieniemy to fulfill his role as emotional leader and sideline cheerleader while Embree can be the more reserved head coach. Bieniemy brings an undeniable love for the school back to Boulder.

EB can also be the Buffs’ “recruiter in chief”. Twice, while a member of the staff at UCLA, Bieniemy was twice named one of the top 25 recruiters in the nation.

One of the players Bieniemy recruited to Colorado, Brian Calhoun, had this to say about Bieniemy. “He was very genuine. He kept it real,” said Calhoun, who led the Buffs in rushing with 872 yards in 2003 before transferring to Wisconsin (and enjoying even greater success) after Bieniemy left to coach at UCLA.

“He was upfront, which I really appreciated…He was pretty much the sole reason I left Wisconsin to go to Colorado, because of him…When we were both at CU, he was a very positive father figure to me and a lot of us.”

Reasons for concern: Bieniemy is very emotional and, at times, it has gotten the better of him. By many accounts, the issues Bieniemy had in Boulder (DUI, run-ins with players, most notably Marcus Houston) are behind him, but these lingering doubts may have been the reason why the search committee opted for Embree instead of Bieniemy for head coach.

Again, Brian Calhoun defends his former coach on this subject. “Obviously, it is well documented that he is an ‘in-your-face’ kind of coach, and I wasn’t used to it at first” said Calhoun. “But I got accustomed to it. Really he was just trying to get you prepared for what was about to take place on game day, and he did a good job of that. He is definitely a great motivator.”

Overall grade: A-minus. Like the grade with Embree, this is just a qualificatioin away from being a solid “A.”

The Buff Nation was divided between Embree and Bieniemy when the two were finalists for the head coaching job. Now, instead of wondering “what if Bieniemy had been named head coach,” Buff fans get the best of both worlds. Bieniemy can be the great recruiter Colorado needs to compete with the powers of the Pac-12, and can be the emotional leader on the sideline the Buffs have lacked for the past five seasons.

Still, Bieniemy has never been a coordinator, and he is just one emotional outburst or defected star away from hearing “I told you so” from fans.

Quarterbacks coach – Walt Harris

Why this was a good choice: Walt Harris, 64, has been in coaching since 1970. He has coached at several major universities, including Cal, Michigan State, Illinois, and Tennessee, as well as with the New York Jets of the NFL. While Harris has coached on both sides of the ball, his main focus has been with the offense, in particular with quarterbacks.

On a staff with a head coach taking the reins for the first time, along with two coordinators who have never held those positions, Harris can bring experience and stability to the coaching staff. He was the head coach at the University of the Pacific (1989-91), Pittsburgh (1997-2004) and Stanford (2005-06). A known disciplinarian, Harris is also considered to be a great tutor of quarterbacks.

Reasons for concern: While Walt Harris has been a head coach at the BCS level, he has not been a particularly successful one. At Pitt, Harris went 52-44, with only two losing seasons. The highest final ranking for the Panthers, though, was a No. 19 finish in 2002. While at Pitt, Harris was often criticized for his play-calling, including a 2004 game against Nebraska (a 24-17 loss) in which he punted on third down on several occasions. At Stanford, the experience was even worse.

In two seasons under Harris, the Cardinal went 5-6 and then 1-11. The 6-17 overall record represents the worst winning percentage (.261) of any Stanford head coach. Harris was replaced in 2007 by Jim Harbaugh, who in three years has molded Stanford into a top ten team.

Overall grade: B-minus. On paper, there is not a great deal to lend Harris to an Embree staff largely consisting of young and fiery coaches. There is also the concern as to Harris’ reputation as a discipliarian, and that players have quit on him. Colorado only has two quarterbacks on the roster, and one, Tyler Hansen, will be a senior next season.

There may never have been a more important time (or opportunity) to recruit quarterback talent to Boulder. The Buffs have two quarterback prospects—Brock Berglund and Nick Sherry—amongst their five verbal commitments. Will they stick with the Buffs and Walt Harris?

Will other potential quarterback stars shy away from Colorado with Harris as its quarterbacks coach?

Offensive Line coach – Steve Marshall

Why this was a good choice:  Steve Marshall has a lengthy resume, almost all as an offensive line coach. A graduate of Louisville in 1979, Marshall coached east of the Mississippi from 1979 to 1996, with stops along the way at such schools as Tennessee, Marshall, Louisville, and Virginia Tech. After stints at UCLA, Texas A&M, and North Carolina, Marshall joined the staff of Gary Barnett at Colorado for the 2000-01 seasons. In 2001, Marshall’s offensive line paved the way for a running game which produced 956 yards for Chris Brown and 953 yards for Bobby Purify.

Of course, Marshall was there for the 62-36 win over Nebraska, in which Chris Brown rushed for a school record six touchdowns. From 2002-08, Marshall was an offensive line coach in the NFL, spending time with the Houston Texans and the Cleveland Browns. Marshall returned to the collegiate ranks in 2009, and was the offensive line coach for Cal the past two seasons.

Marshall clearly brings a wealth of experience, both at the collegiate and professional levels, to the offensive line. He also had a stint in Boulder, making him another “ex-Buff” on the staff. Buff senior guard Ryan Miller will be learning under his fourth offensive line coach in five years this year, but Marshall may well be the best of the lot.

Reasons for concern: At Harris’ last stop, California, the offensive line was good, but not great. The Bears were 52nd in rushing in 2010 (CU was 83rd). Cal was 60th in sacks allowed (CU was 49th). In 2009, Cal’s offensive line was marginally better (37th in rushing; 73rd in sacks allowed), but certainly not scintillating. Colorado’s offensive line has under-achieved the past few seasons under Denver Johnson.

The opportunity is there for a dominating offensive line, but it will need the right coach to make it happen. Is Marshall the answer?

Overall grade: B-plus. Based soley on his resume—which is what we have to go on—Walt Harris seems to be a solid pick. He has a history of success on the field, including success in Boulder with the Buffs.

He has coached the offensive line almost exclusively for 30 years, including seven years in the NFL. We’ll see if he can mold the Buffs offensive line into a cohesive unit which can protect the quarterback and create holes not seen in Boulder since…well, 2001.

Wide Receivers coach – Eric Kiesau

Why this was a good choice: Kiesau was the only Colorado assistant coach with a multi-year contract, so keeping him on staff for 2011 makes sense …at least financially.

It would cost Colorado $220,000 to buyout Kiesau’s contract, and with the costs of buying out Dan Hawkins coupled with the lost revenue from leaving the Big 12, it might have be a “no choice” situation for Jon Embree and the Buffs’ athletic department to retain Kiesau, at least for another season. The past two seasons, Kiesau has served as the offensive coordinator, but he did coach wide receivers at CU from 2006-08.

Retaining Kiesau may also help with recruiting, at least in the short term. Kiesau is responsible for quarterback recruits Brock Berglund and Nick Sherry, and was in charge of maintaining contact with in-state recruis during the period in which Brial Cabral was the interim coach. It might prove valuable to have retained Kiesau on the staff, at least for the benefit of the 2011 recruiting class.

Reasons for concern: If this was purely a financial move, it is unfortunate. While Colorado is “in the black” financially, as Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn likes to point out, the Buffs still have to be counting their pennies until the move to the Pac-12 – and the revenue from the new television contracts kick in.

If it turns out that Colorado had to give up its pursuit of Bobby Kennedy, or were unable to keep Ashley Ambrose, due to Kiesau’s contract, Bohn and the Buffs may someday soon lament giving Kiesau a long-term contract.

Overall grade: C-minus. The offense at Colorado has under-achieved during Kiesau’s tenure in Boulder.

In 2010, Colorado ranked 77th in total offense and 83rd in scoring offense, and that was actually an improvement over the Buffs’ numbers in 2009 (105th; 92nd). Colorado’s wide receiving corps under Kiesau has produced a record-setting walk-on (Scotty McKnight), but has consistently failed to get production out of its star talent (Josh Smith, Markques Simas, Toney Clemons, Travon Patterson, etc.).

There is little reason to believe that Kiesau will—of his own accord—be able to improve the Buffs’ wide receiving corps in 2011.

Tight Ends/Special Teams Coach/Passing Game Coordinator - J.D. Brookhart

Why this was a good choice: Brookhart, 46, is a Colorado native, and was a high school friend of head coach Jon Embree. Brookhart played wide receiver for Colorado State, where he caught 111 passes for 1,873 yards. After a career in business, Brookhart took an unpaid position with the Denver Broncos in 1995.

Two years later, he was hired to coach tight ends by the Pittsburgh Panthers. While with the Panthers, Brookhart also coached wide receivers (1999) and was the offensive coordinator (2000-03).

Brookhart was named the head coach of the Akron Zips in 2004, coaching there for six years. He accumulated a 30-42 overall record, with the 2005 team earning a trip to the Motor City Bowl. Brookhart brings to Boulder not only experience coaching tight ends, but experience as a head coach.

He joins Walt Harris as former head coaches who can assist Jon Embree in taking on that new role. He is also reportedly highly regarded by Mike Shanahan, who worked with Brookhart in Denver, and who—as the head coach of the Washington Redskins—was Embree’s most recent boss.

Reasons for concern: Just as was the case with Walt Harris, a selling point for Brookhart is that he was a head coach…but he was not a successful one. His best year with Akron was a 7-6 team which won the MAC East division with a 5-3 conference record.

There is also the fact that Brookhart worked for Harris at Pittsburgh, and then Brookhart hired Harris after Harris was fired by Stanford. Does this mean that the Buffs, in getting two former head coaches in Harris and Brookhart, are really getting just one? Also, Brookhart has never coached in the west and has not recruited at all for a BCS team since 2003.

Overall grade: B-plus. A positive grade, but still a cautious one.

Brookhart’s father and brother have been successful high school coaches, so coaching is in his blood. After years away from the game making a name for himself in business, Brookhart talked his way onto Mike Shanahan’s staff in Denver. While at Pittsburgh, Brookhart coached two Biletnikoff winners: Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald. All good.

But today is today, and Brookhart’s stay at Akron was not a great one. Perhaps, like Steve Marshall, Brookhart is best suited as a life-long position coach, and he can turn around two units—tight ends and special teams—which were unproductive in 2010.

Defensive Coordinator/Secondary Coach - Greg Brown

Why this was a good choice: Greg Brown and CU go back a long ways. His father, Irv, a Denver radio icon, was the baseball coach for the Buffs.

After graduating from Arvada High, Brown attended UTEP, returning to Colorado for his first coaching jobs (Green Mountain High; Denver Gold of the USFL). Since 1984, Brown has coached with six different NFL teams and for college teams.

Brown’s first stint with the University of Colorado came in 1991-93, when, as the secondary coach for Bill McCartney, Brown coached to Jim Thorpe award winners, Deon Figures and Chris Hudson. Brown returned to Boulder (from the New Orleans Saints) in 2006 to coach the secondary and act as the defensive pass coordinator.

In January 2010, Brown left the Buffs to become the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach for Arizona. This past season, the Wildcats were ranked 44th in the nation in pass defense, 37th in total defense, and 33rd in scoring defense. (Colorado’s numbers in those categories in 2010 were, respectively, 110th; 82nd; and 90th).

Brown brings with him credibility as a defensive backfield coach, having done so successfully at the highest level (In his final season with the Saints, in 2005, New Orleans was ranked 3rd in the NFL in pass defense). He is also familiar with Colorado, and recruiting in Colorado, Pac-12 country and in Texas.

Reasons for concern: Brown is an established secondary coach, but he has only one year under his belt as even a co-defensive coordinator and that was just this past season with Arizona.

He is taking over the defense at Colorado without any defensive coaches who have been head coach or defensive coordinator (Brian Cabral’s three game stint as interim head coach notwithstanding). Can Brown handle the job as defensive coordinator?

Overall grade: B-plus. This was a “good get” for Jon Embree. Brown is familiar with Boulder, and the limitations—and potential—of coaching at Colorado. Brown has had success in both the collegiate and professional ranks, and is a well-respected recruiter.

If Embree had head coaching experience of his own, hiring two first time coordinators would be less of a concern.

Defensive Tackles Coach–Mike Tuiasosopo

Why this was a good choice: Mike Tuiasosopo, 47, just completed his 21st year of coaching, the past seven of which have been spent at the University of Arizona.

Tuiasosopo was born in American Samoa, and was an All-Conference tackle at Pacific Lutheran. His first collegiate coaching opportunity came in 1996, when Tuiasosopo was named the defensive line coach at Utah State.

After four years in Logan, Tuiasosopo moved on to Nevada, coaching the defensive line for the Wolfpack for three seasons. After one year with Utah, Tuiasosopo earned a position with the Arizona Wildcats, where he has coached since 2004.

Tuiasosopo has coached some familiar names in his time. While a high school coach at Berkeley High in California, Tuiasosopo coached Hannibal Navies and Rashidi Barnes, both of whom went on to play for the University of Colorado and in the NFL.

Overall, Tuiasosopo has coached ten players who have played in the NFL, and he has been a great recruiter. His University of Arizona bio states that Tuiasosopo “has been a key to UA’s recruiting efforts in the Islands and on the west coast.” When teamed up with CU’s Brian Cabral (who recruited Navies and Barnes), Colorado’s presence in Hawai’i and the islands of the Pacific should only be enhanced.

Reasons for concern: are hard to find.

Tuiasosopo has made a career of coaching the interior defensive line and recruiting. This will be his role at Colorado. With the Buffs moving to the Pac-12, and with the Pac-12’s stated desire to enhance its presence in the Pacific islands and Asia, Tuiasosopo and Colorado seem to be a perfect fit.

As a high school coach, he saw two of his players go on to play (and play successfully) for the Buffs, and he has spent his entire career coaching on the west coach. If Tuiasosopo has any aspirations of becoming a head coach (i.e., leaving Colorado shortly after arriving), his resume does not suggest that to be a near future possibility.

Overall grade: A-minus. Bringing in a coach for just two starters along the defensive line may may be seen as overkill, especially when the Buffs are losing out on a potential secondary coach (Ashley Ambrose) and/or a wide receivers coach (Bobby Kennedy).

Tuiasosopo seems capable of coaching the entire defensive line, but the makeup of the coaching staff is not of his doing. Tuiasosopo seems like a great fit for Colorado – a successful position coach with great recruiting skills.

Defensive Ends/Outside Linebackers Coach – Kanavis McGhee

Why this was a good choice: Wait, give me a minute…okay, McGhee was a First team All-Big Eight linebacker for the Buffs. He was half of the “Houston bookends”, teaming up with College Hall-of-Famer Alfred Williams to terrorize opposing offensese. He is most certainly a member of the “Buff family.”

A second round pick in the NFL in 1991, McGhee played five seasons for three different teams during his career.

McGhee does have – some – coaching experience, having coached high school in Houston and for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe.

Reasons for concern: By a wide stretch, McGhee is the least qualified member of the Embree coaching staff. What’s more, he is coaching positions (defensive ends; outside linebackers) which could be covered by other coaches—Mike Tuiasosopo has 15 years coaching defensive lines; Brian Cabral has 21 years coaching linebackers.

Unfortunately, the only conclusion to draw here is that McGhee’s hire was a monetary necessity. If Colorado had the money to buy out Eric Kiesau’s $220,000 contract, either Ashley Ambrose could have been retained to coach the defensive backs, or Bobby Kennedy could have been hired to coach the wide receivers. McGhee can help recruit in Texas, but that would have been more than covered with the hiring of Kennedy, who was a recruiting coordinator at Texas.

Ambrose was also quickly developing a reputation as a good coach and a good recruiter (CU will probably lose out on former Michigan defensive back recruit Vladimer Emilien, who said he would come to Colorado if—and only if—Ambrose was retained as coach).

There is also the Sports Illustrated story about paying players to play college football. McGhee was named specifically in a story by a former agent as one who accepted money from him. McGhee has denied the story, but if there are any future repercussions, it could come back to taint the era of goodwill begun with the hiring of Jon Embree.

Overall grade: D-plus. It is difficult to find a way to say this is a good hire. McGhee will bring enthusiasm to the sideline, and certainly can focus attention on an area (rushing the quarterback) which will be paramount for Colorado in the Pac-12.

Still, the upsides to either Bobby Kennedy or Ashley Ambrose were much higher, so this cost efficient move of hiring McGhee can only serve as a reminder of how far the University of Colorado has to go in the arms race which is modern college football.

Inside Linebackers Coach – Brian Cabral

Why this was a good hire: Other than the hiring of Eric Bieniemy as offensive coordinator, the only other “must get” on Jon Embree’s assistant coaches list had to be Brian Cabral. As a 21-year veteran of the sidelines in Boulder, Cabral is the bridge back to Colorado’s successful past.

The longest tenured assistant coach in Colorado history, Cabrall has coached a “Who’s Who” of Colorado linebackers, including most of the leaders in all-time tackles (nine of whom have passed his career tackles total of 297, set when Cabral was a star for the Buffs from 1974-77.

What’s more, Cabral stabilized the program when Dan Hawkins was fired. Coming off an historic meltdown against Kansas, the Buffs could have gone south for the remainder of the season. A 3-6 record could have spiraled downward into a 3-9 record (and a six game losing streak to end the season, which would have hung over the off-season like a dark cloud).

Instead, Cabral inspired the Buffs into two home wins, and hope for the future.

Reasons for concern: are few. Brian Cabral bleeds black-and-gold. Even though he was passed over for the head coaching job in favor of Jon Embree, it would be a surprise if Cabral did anything other than focus on his duties as linebackers coach. Teaming up with Mike Tuiasosopo, Cabral can make Colorado a force in recruiting Hawai’i and the Pacific islands.

The lure of playing for Colorado, while still being on television as a member of the Pac-12, could prove to be an important bonus for Colorado in recruiting players from the west coast and beyond.

Overall grade: A-plus. The importance of retaining Brian Cabral as an assistant coach cannot be over-stated. 

Cabral did have what were described as “preliminary talks” with Northern Colorado as to taking the head coaching job in Greeley. Had Cabral left the Buffs, the positive energy created in the last three weeks of the regular season would have been lost. What’s more, Colorado would have lost a great recruiter and a great coach.

Even in the down times of the program over the past 20 seasons, the linebackers could generally be counted on to be one of the premier units on the team. Colorado, and Jon Embree, are fortunate that Brian Cabral has decided to stay.

The 2011 Coaching Staff – Overall

Life is full of “what if’s” and “what could have been’s.”

Was Colorado ever seriously in the running for Les Miles? For Mark Richt? Would Bill McCartney have sparked a resurgence in the program? Would Eric Bieniemy been a better fit? Will Gus Malzahn and Jim McElwain become household names as star coaches at other schools down the road?

Questions which are impossible to answer.

While perhaps not the “home run” hire we all (yes, myself included) thought Dan Hawkins would be, we do know that Jon Embree fits the criteria for success in Boulder. He understands that Colorado wants to be a top-25 program without a top-25 budget. He understands that building a successful program begins with great recruting (and starting with retention of in-state talent).

He has coached on both side of the ball, and done so successfully. He is a great recruiter, and has done so on the west coast. Embree sees Colorado as a destination, not a stepping-stone.

Embree has now assembled his staff. I would give the nine coaches an overall grade of B-plus.

The hiring of Kanavis McGhee over Ashley Ambrose or Bobby Kennedy may have been a necessity due to Embree’s being strapped with Eric Kiesau’s guaranteed contract. Having Bobby Kennedy as wide receivers coach and Ashley Ambrose as secondary coach (and dropping Kiesau and McGhee) to me would have given the new staff a grade of “A.”

As it is, Colorado and its fans have to face reality. Colorado has a top-20 program in terms of historical success, but is also a program which aspires to be more than it can afford.

Perhaps with the influx of Pac-12 television revenue, and a renewed enthusiasm for Colorado sports (baseball in 2020!; football in “Celestial Seasons Stadium”!), Colorado will return to new heights.

Jon Embree played on a Colorado team which went 1-10; he coached Colorado teams which won ten games a season. He knows the difference between the two … and he has a blueprint for how to get there.

“We have a good staff that can recruit,” Embree told the Longmont Times-Call Sunday.

“We’re going to have good quality athletes that people can be proud of. I think we match up well in the conference we’re going into. Everybody (in the administration) it feels like is on the same page and going in the same direction. When you’re doing it like that, you’re going to be successful.”

When asked where he sees himself in ten years, Embree responded, “Right here, getting ready for another bowl game.”

Buff fans would like nothing more than to see that happen.


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