BOULDER – Jon Embree had it planned like this all along, but exercising the plan took a couple of weeks longer than expected.
On Friday night, Sept. 2 in a lush tropical setting – Hawai’i – Embree assembled his first Colorado Buffaloes football team in a spacious ballroom of the Ihilani JW Marriott hotel and turned storyteller.
“We’ve talked about belief, vision, trust, family...everything,” Embree began. “There’s no doubt from the day I was hired on Dec. 6 that we’ve become a family – that we like each other, that we know each other. We’ve talked about heritage and tradition...”
We’ll stop here and insert the tradition Embree has anxiously been waiting to restore – that of the wall of “big-game bricks” in a lower hallway outside the Buffs’ locker room in the Dal Ward Athletic Center. The bricks, an idea initiated by former Bill McCartney, signified CU’s most memorable or historic wins, citing opponent, date, national ranking for either or both teams, and score of the game.
It was an impressive, tradition-steeped and poignant wall . . . gold cinderblock bricks with black lettering that recounted the recent history of CU football. The very best of better times.
“How many guys have seen the bricks on the wall? Raise your hands,” Embree asked his players and staff on that night in Hawai’i.
Not more than a handful of hands were raised. It wasn’t surprising; the wall was painted over during the former coaching regime. Tradition was obliterated by a stiff bristled brush and a head coach who appeared blind to it.
Embree fondly remembered the “big-game bricks” from his 10-year stint as an assistant on the CU staff. “Every time we went out to practice, to play a game, we had to walk by those bricks...you guys are going to get a sense of what that feels like,” he said.
At his first team meeting when the Buffs reported in August, Embree called every player and assistant coach to the front of the Dal Ward Auditorium and gave each a brick, symbolizing the restoration that was beginning. The bricks, nearly 120 total, had been donated by Embree’s former CU teammate, Conley Smith, the owner of a local landscaping company.
“When Conley gave me all those bricks, he did something,” Embree recalled. “He put this on a brick he gave especially to me. It says “1986, 20-10; Coach Embree, Bring Back The Bricks.” It was the score of one of Embree’s and Smith’s most memorable wins – CU defeating Nebraska for the first time in 18 years.
“I came to Colorado (in 1983) to help change things, to help change the culture,” Embree continued. “Growing up there were three teams I didn’t like – Notre Dame, CSU and Nebraska ...”
Embree then held up the black brick Smith had given him and told his players, “This brick represents a lot of things. Every time as a coach I walked out through that hallway and I saw this brick, it would talk to me. This brick means this: starting that season 0-4, we lost three road games by four points or less – Oregon, Arizona, Ohio State. This brick means to me 18 years we had gone without beating Nebraska, 18 years. They were No. 3 in the country.
“When you walk by those bricks, they will talk to you. They’ll tell you a story. It ain’t about just that game...they talk about the struggles, the special things that happened in that game, in that season, the people, the sacrifice of putting that brick up in the wall.”
The Buffs didn’t “bring back the bricks” on the Hawai’i trip, losing their opener 34-17. Their home opener the next week brought a gut-wrenching 36-33 overtime loss to California, once again delaying the bricks’ return. But last weekend in Denver, the Buffs presented Embree with his first win – 28-14 over Colorado State – and a reason to refurbish that wall outside their locker room.
After Thursday afternoon’s practice, with their teammates crowded in the hallway around them, CU’s captains – seniors Tyler Hansen, Ryan Miller, Anthony Perkins and junior Jon Major – ripped off brown paper that had been taped over the approximately 8’ x 19’ wall. Featured on it were 53 bricks, 51 of them gold with black lettering and bearing scores of significant wins, one black one with gold lettering – the 2011 CU-CSU game – and one gold brick asking “WHO’S NEXT?” in bold, black letters.
Embree had wanted the lone black brick to signify an opening win in Hawai’i and an end to CU’s unsightly road losing streak, which stands at 19 overall as the Buffs prepare for Saturday’s game at Ohio State. They can earn a brick there, too.
The plan was for the single black brick to be a reference point for Embree, his players and anyone who views the wall. It still will be. The overriding hope is that it signifies a turnaround date and game, and said Embree, “For everybody who walks in, that brick is going to stick out. That brick is going to tell a story about how all those other bricks got back up there. That brick’s going to be the one, when you guys come back here 5 or 10 years from now, they say that was the brick that turned it around. That was the game.”
After the brown paper had been ripped away and the wall of mostly gold bricks exposed, players went to the locker room. All appeared touched in some way.
“It means all the tradition, all the past great players who have been here, all the hard work and everything they did has been put back on that wall,” Perkins said. “Just to see that is definitely humbling...and it just reinforces what we’re trying to do. We have to be able to build this program back up; it’s imperative that we do so.”
Miller was clearly moved. “That’s pride, that’s tradition... they’re back. They are back. We all knew something was coming, but not like that. To see it back like that and to have those great memories of walking those halls when I was younger is great. But now to finally be a part of it and see it, and to be able to put our legacy on that wall, that’s special. That’s really special.”
If you think yesterday means nothing to today’s players, you’re wrong. Bringing back the “big-game bricks” was well conceived and unbelievably well received – and when they’re earned, the wall has plenty of room for more.