Building blocks: CU coaches, AD excited about future of football, hoops teams

The University of Colorado isn’t just changing conferences. The Buffs made several in-house changes over the past year.

The most notable change came with former Colorado football player Jon Embree taking over as the head football coach, replacing Dan Hawkins.

“You couple the fact of hiring Jon Embree and the staff he’s put together; that is extremely impressive with their work ethic, integrity and passion,” CU Athletic Director Mike Bohn said during a recent visit to Grand Junction. Assistant football coach Darian Hagan and assistant men’s basketball coach Mike Rohn also made the trip to the Western Slope.

“Then to have 16,000 at the spring game, there is some nice tailwinds for the program now.”

Embree’s staff includes former Buff teammates Hagan, Eric Bieniemy and Kanavis McGee. Former University of Texas assistant Bobby Kennedy, longtime collegiate and NFL assistant coach Rip Sherer, Brian Cabral, Greg Brown, Mike Tuiasosopo and Steve Marshall are also on the staff.

Bieniemy and Cabral interviewed for the head coaching position and accepted assistant positions under Embree.

“It’s totally different,” said Hagan, who was an assistant for Hawkins. “Being under Coach Hawk, you lose the tradition that coach (Bill McCartney) laid.

“Being with these guys, who are pretty much like older brothers, we laid the same bricks. To be able to recharge, put our vision and Coach Mac’s vision we’ve always had together, is awesome.”

Hagan was McCartney’s quarterback on the 1990 national championship team and was a two-time Heisman Trophy candidate. Hagan played defensive back in the Canadian Football League for six years before returning to the program.

“My idol was (former Oklahoma quarterback) Jamal Holloway,” Hagan said. “We come from the same area and he won the national title his freshman year. When I was getting recruited, just to take a jab at him, my whole mantra was I was going to break every record he set. To win a national championship, run and pass for 1,000 yards before him was awesome. He never did it.”

Hagan hasn’t spoken much with McCartney, who also interviewed for the job, but said the former coach has expressed confidence in the staff.

“His main thing and our main thing in order for us to even be a good team, you have to have a physical approach to what you do,” Hagan said. “The most physical part of your team has to be your offensive linemen. If you can get your offensive linemen to be a dominant force, you will be able to run the ball and win some ballgames.

“I’ll never forget the Kansas game this past season. Coach Embree brings it up all the time, if we were able to run the ball three, maybe four series and even punt it, we would’ve won the game.”

Some of that pressure will fall on CU running back Rodney Stewart, who is on the cover of Athlon Sports’ Pac-12 preseason football magazine, which will be on newsstands later this month.

Embree and his staff hope to have success similar to that of the men’s basketball program last season under new coach Tad Boyle.

The Buffaloes made a postseason run to the NIT semifinals in New York after being snubbed by the NCAA tournament, winning a program-record 24 games.

The success translated into five home sellouts, three more than any year in school history.

“That was huge for us,” Rohn said. “It was a pivotal time for us. Coach did a great job of getting back to a good level head to prepare for the NIT. They were crushed because they felt like they put themselves in position to be (in the NCAA tournament).

“On the other side, it did an awful lot for us. It gave us three home games. It gave us more exposure to our fans. Obviously, we made it all the way to the (NIT) final four. The biggest thing about that group is they embraced a new staff. They kept an open mind.”

The Buffaloes lost two talented players, senior Cory Higgins and sophomore Alec Burks, who announced he would enter the NBA draft. Four other seniors are out of eligibility.

“Obviously, Cory and Alec scored an awful lot of points for us and did a lot for us, but Levi (Knutson), Marcus (Relphorde), Javon (Coney) and Trent (Beckley) had a lot to do with the season,” Rohn said. “We’re losing those five guys, their leadership, experience.

“Our team will be a lot different. A lot of guys will have different roles. It’s going the right direction. We’re going to be a very young team, but that’s good for the future.

“Coach wants to build the program. We don’t want one good year out of 100 years. We want to be a program that’s right there every year competing for a championship.”

Rohn believes the Buffs play an exciting style of basketball that will lure athletic recruits to campus and compete in the Pac-12.

“There are a lot of different ways to play the game, but we want to recruit a more athletic player,” Rohn said. “It definitely helps you in recruiting. We had five games over 90 points. We set an all-time record for most points in a season. A lot of that was a tribute to our defense.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to be a program based on rebounding and defense. The way we play offensively is more enticing for a young kid. The style of play we know is more important in recruiting.

“Better players make you better. Hopefully, we’ll continue bringing in young guys that are more athletic and I think we’re doing that.”


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