BOULDER - Since his days as an assistant coach with the Washington Redskins, Jon Embree had his sights set on an African safari that would provide enough Wild Kingdom moments to last a lifetime.
Lions, elephants, rhinos, cheetahs . . . all viewed as up close and personal as personal safety would allow.
Colorado's second-year football coach and wife Natalyn recently returned from a two-week vacation, and after visiting with him earlier this week in his office I left with a strong impression that even while glimpsing the African wildlife was memorable, Embree's head was still filled with thoughts of wildlife closer to home.
Rams, Ducks, Cougars, Wildcats . . . such is the "down time" of a football coach.
Was his trip to Richards Bay on the Indian Ocean enjoyable?
"As much as it could be," Embree answered. "There was so much stuff going on back here I wasn't really able to 'quote' get away."
So do you feel rested?
"Not really . . . I guess that's what death is for - to catch up on your sleep."
Wow. Is this guy in need of a post-vacation vacation, or maybe some serious counseling? Not really. What he needs is a whistle around his neck and his team on the field. It's simply the time of summer when the march toward camp slows to a crawl and a coach's anxiety for the season to begin begins to peak.
"I go through it every July, but I think my family is ready for me to be out of the house," Embree said with a laugh. His wife, he added, "is like, 'Is it starting yet?' Which is all right; that's me. I'm just a little short on patience because it's time to go. It's time to keep this thing moving forward and get it back on course. I think about it every day: are we getting better? It's something that consumes you - at least it does me.
"I guess that's a good thing, depending on who you ask. It's just how I'm wired and how I feel about this place. I just want to win and see these kids win."
Football aside (if possible), his long-awaited safari did produce a mental highlight reel. At one stop he said he was six to eight yards - he was probably thinking third-and-long - from rhinos, and at another he was about 80 yards - could the Buffs get that in 10 plays? - from lions.
"Just seeing them in their natural habitat, you're thinking it's the humans who should be in the cage," he said.
The Embrees touched down in Colorado about 11 p.m. last Friday, and Jon was in his office on Saturday morning by 8. He's spent much of this week reviewing "final installs" with coordinators Eric Bieniemy (offense) and Greg Brown (defense), making sure things will be done to his specifications in practice, and watching tape of CU's first three opponents (Colorado State, Sacramento State, Fresno State).
Embree called his first August camp "very physical" and said this one will follow that model. The Buffs finished 3-10 in his first season, with two of the wins coming in the final three games - including the win at Utah that snapped CU's 24-game out-of-state losing streak.
Embree is hopeful that momentum from 2011's final month seeps into 2012. In light of losing as many upperclassmen as the Buffs lost and having to utilize a large freshman class, I asked him if there were enough returning players (46 lettermen, 10 starters) and enough leadership to make last season's finish more than a memory.
You might be surprised by his answer. Embree believes he has enough dependable returning players to help infuse high standards in the newcomers, but added, "It's the other way around, too. These new guys bring a lot of energy into the program. In their minds, they're champions. A lot of these guys, from what I understand, are serious in how they work."
He told of leaving the Dal Ward Athletic Center on Monday afternoon and encountering his players returning to the building following a voluntary afternoon workout. Their demeanors told him that "they're enjoying each other. We're becoming a team, we really are. I think these freshmen have done a good job of being seen and not heard. And the guys on the team have done a good job of taking them in and showing them how we do things and why we do things a certain way."
The incoming freshmen, said Embree, "did well in summer school for the most part and understand what our standard is here. It's an adjustment for some, asking them to do more than they've ever done. But the good news is, for a lot of them, they didn't blink. That's a testament to our upperclassmen for helping them and taking them in."
Reflecting on his first season as CU's head coach, Embree said it was apparent now that players still were adjusting to the standards he and his staff demand. "If you watched how we played last year, we didn't expect to win," he said. "We went out hoping to win, hoping good things would happen. At Hawaii we came out . . . I don't what was going on then. We decided to play the second half, but you go down 17-0 . . .
"Against Cal, we had them and didn't finish. You can go through the whole season . . . until really you look at Arizona and Utah, two of the last three games we played. I want that to carryover.
"Last year, from my chair, was a lot about trying to establish standards and high expectations on and off the field. Whether it's suspensions, whether it's all those other things that happened last year, we didn't have a good understanding. There wasn't that understanding of what your standard is or having a standard of how you do things, how you prepare.
"They get that aspect of it now. They understand how to prepare and what's expected of them in the summer. Morale is night and day different from what it was last year. Some of it is getting used to me. That has something to do with it. It's like I told them last year and will this year: You've got to start seeing yourself as what you're capable of being. We didn't (last season), but they're better about that now."
Since he returned from the African safari, Embree has had a parade of incoming freshmen through his office. A pair - tight end Vincent Hobbs and receiver Gerald Thomas - dropped by Monday and immediately saw a portrait of former Buff receiver Michael Westbrook making "The Catch" against Michigan in 1994.
Hobbs told Embree he had seen a replay recently of that miraculous finish at Michigan - and that was enough of an opening for Embree. He gave Hobbs and Thomas a detailed account of the astonishingly talented '94 team that produced 10 NFL draftees, featured a Heisman Trophy winner (Rashaan Salaam), a Butkus Award runnerup (Ted Johnson), the Thorpe Award winner (Chris Hudson).
But Embree also recalled one glaring shortcoming. "What didn't we have?" he asked. "We didn't have focus for 30 minutes . . . it's not 'The Catch,' it's 30 minutes of the bad football we played in Lincoln. We smashed Wisconsin (55-17), Oklahoma (45-7), I mean we just ran through people.
"But my point to them was that you can't take it for granted. It's hard to win, it's got to be an all-the-time thing. You just can't assume anything. Every time you go out there you have take victory. We didn't; we were better than Nebraska (CU lost 24-7). Give me a break. That's the one time out of ten they were going to beat us. But we didn't do it when we had to.
"There were a lot of crazy things around that game, but at the end of the day we didn't do it. When you play good teams - which we're going to do this year- if you're not playing for four quarters you're going to get beat even when you have talent - and we ain't at that level yet. It was kind of eye-opening to them . . . they just see 'The Catch' and Westbrook and Ty Law (Michigan corner). It was good to be able to share some of that stuff with them."
Embree and two returning players - junior offensive tackle David Bakhtiari and senior safety Ray Polk - will attend the Pac-12 Conference's media day on Tuesday, July 24. Next on the calendar: CU's players report for preseason camp on Sunday, Aug. 5 and begin practice the next day.
If you think it can't start soon enough for Embree, you've been paying attention.