BOULDER - By the time late October hits - and here in Buffsville, it's arrived with a teeth-rattling smack - even veteran coaches are confounded by five-game losing streaks, one win in going on two months, and injury lists that go miles and miles past ridiculous.
As for first-year coaches, well, they're left to learn on the fly - and that's where Jon Embree finds himself as his debut season as Colorado's head coach staggers toward November. The Buffs' 2011 season took another unattractive turn Saturday at Folsom Field, with No. 9 Oregon easily hoofing it past CU, 45-2. (You make the call: Is 45-2 anymore attractive than 45-0? Didn't think so.)
October has been a sobering month for the Buffs; they've been outscored 145-33 in their past three Pac-12 Conference games after losing their league opener by four (31-27) in the final 90 seconds.
But Saturday's 43-point loss brought a dose of unwanted finality to a season gone south. Maybe the last of CU's preseason goals - reaching the postseason - is kaput. With five games remaining, the Buffs can't reach a bowl game, needing seven wins to qualify in their 13-game schedule.
That's what Embree wants to know.
In CU's locker room late Saturday afternoon, he "challenged the seniors to decide what they want for their last five games . . . what do they want? I had everyone stand up that's going to be here for 2012 so the seniors could see.
"It's up to them - they're the leaders, it's their team - to create a sense of urgency, a purpose, why you need to come out and practice . . . a purpose about coming in and working hard."
Embree isn't concerned that he's losing - or lost - his first CU team. He sees a disparity in talent - particularly against teams such as Oregon - but he doesn't see a lack of effort. If he does, he promises he will act: "We'll keep an eye on that as a staff, and if a guy is kind of checked out, then we'll go with other people."
By the boatload, he's lost players to injury but not to bail outs. "I believe the guys who are playing are all in," he said. "We're playing a lot of younger guys (15 true freshmen have played so far), so for them it's their first time going through and experiencing some of these things. I'm not concerned about that right now."
He's met regularly with this trial-by-fire freshman class and offered this advice: "It's not where we are, it's where we're going to be. That's what they have to keep focusing on. I told that to the young guys in the backend (secondary) especially - don't worry about the mistakes, just go out there and play. Understand that we might be playing these guys (Oregon) three or four years from now and it's your senior year. Understand that every time you go through this it's a learning experience. Focus on where we want to be, not where we are."
But for CU's seniors, living in the moment has turned into a living hell. The majority of them are on the frightfully ugly end of a road losing streak that stretches back to 2007, and they won't see a bowl game in their college careers.
In August, Embree talked regularly with his upperclassmen about their CU legacy. Now, with five games remaining, it's clear that legacies must be redefined.
I asked three seniors - guard Ryan Miller, nosetackle Conrad Obi, defensive end David Goldberg - what they would tell their head coach on Monday when he asks them what they want from their final five games.
Miller said he would tell Embree he "wants to play for my teammates now; these guys are my brothers. I live with three guys on the team, I spend my days with these guys. This is my family. I want to go out with these guys. We can still be a foundation."
Obi said he plans to meet one-on-one with Embree, although Embree might not have mandated that. The seniors will "let him know (what we want)," Obi said. "For me personally, I'll go up there (to his office) Monday and talk to him." What Obi will tell Embree "will be between me and him . . . no disrespect, but that's between me and him."
When I asked Obi what's left to list as a legacy, he answered, "I want to show that, yeah, we got beat down, we went through some stuff here, but we came all right and put some wins on the board, we came out with pride. That's the most important thing to me."
Goldberg also hit the pride angle . . . heavily: "It's pride, first and foremost . . . pride for the name on the front and back of your jersey, pride as a position group, pride as a defense, pride across the board.
"You've got to start somewhere. There's a lot of upside to this program; it's going to turn around. It's unfortunate I won't be here to see it be a top ten team, but I want to feel as if we helped lay a foundation.
"I believe the program is headed in the right direction . . . I want to be part of getting this ship straight, getting it going. We have to finish strong; every game counts. I don't care what the scoreboard, what the record says, I'll never quit. It all counts."
As a coach, this is all new to Embree. As a CU player in the mid-'80s, he experienced some of the same lean times, so he's drawing on that. "Sometimes you can lose focus on the bigger picture," he said. "I want these young guys to understand what the bigger picture. I want these young guys to understand where we're going - and unfortunately these are some growing pains you never like to go through.
"Yet at the same time, if they do it right and embrace it, they'll never have to go through it again. It is something I do share with them, but I try to do it in the right way. I tell them to always be respectful of the seniors, it's still about the seniors. But they have to understand why they need to play with a sense of urgency. When they're seniors they're going to want guys in their position (underclassmen) to do the same thing.
"That's one of the things that was different for me, because a lot of our freshmen redshirted. There was only three of us that played as freshmen . . . 'Mac' (former Coach Bill McCartney) just bit the bullet. I'm trying to get as many of those (young) guys out there that I can when the opportunity arises, because I want them to start getting some experience, start speeding up the process . . . what you learn from playing."
Embree was asked in his postgame media conference how hard this season has been on him. "It's hard," he said. "I'm smiling to keep from crying. It's hard, it really is. It's hard because I feel like we've missed opportunities. I feel like these seniors are going to look back a couple of years from now and woulda, shoulda, coulda . . . . it's been difficult. Probably the hardest thing has been injuries, because it's something you can't control or prepare for. We're getting decimated . . . and as a coach it's frustrating because it limits a lot of what you may want to do."
Come Monday, his seniors will tell him what they want to do, how they want to finish this. Winning out will be their goal, but on Saturday they slipped past the point of that doing them any good from a postseason perspective.
Win a road game, win a conference game, win a game . . . period - those still are on the board for this senior class. It's not what any of them wanted in August, but as November approaches it's all that's left.