BOULDER - Come next fall, Jon Embree doesn't want his first Colorado football team to be remembered for playing from behind. But recruiting from behind, well, that's another matter; Embree's first CU signing class essentially was put together in 13 days. That's starting and finishing in catch-up mode - and in Embree's estimation, he and his staff did pretty well with it.
Of course, proof of that will come immediately in some cases and in another two to three years in other cases. That's the mystery of recruiting and National Letter of Intent Day. But here's what's known about Embree's first foray into recruiting as a head coach:
- He signed 19 prospects - another could be forthcoming - and that total is a handful more than initially expected;
- He and his staff used their NFL experiences - seven of his nine assistants' resumes list NFL playing/coaching or both - as a prime selling point to prospects;
- He and his staff might have taken "flipping" - changing the hearts and minds of recruits committed to other schools - to a new level. Of CU's 19 signees - No. 19, Stephan Nembot, announced he was on board Wednesday night - nearly half (eight by Embree's count) were "flipped;"
- He and his staff likely outfitted themselves with bulls-eyes for next season's march into the Pac-12 Conference. The majority of the flipped-out (off?) schools now reside in the Pac-10;
- He had to adjust to seeing a recruit off-campus only once - that's all a head coach is allowed. On the flip side (no pun intended), he was able to pull rank when a staffer lobbied to offer a scholarship to a visiting prospect. Embree now has veto power;
- He found the whole recruiting scene - specifically, some of the recruits - a bit different from what he remembered the last time around as a college assistant (UCLA, 2005). He used the term "entitlement," and it's clear he doesn't want any players who believe they're entitled to anything.
On signing day, most head coaches don't dwell on the ones that got away. Embree is a fast learner, but he did say CU missed out on "six or seven" prospects. But in the next breath, he added something that stuck with him from former Buffs Coach Bill McCartney: "Coach 'Mac' had a great saying: 'It's not the guy you don't get, it's the guy you get who can't play for you.' That's what hurts you."
Embree believes the guys he and his staff got can play here - but then every coach nationwide who spent the morning watching the faxes and FedEx packages trickle in were of the same opinion.
I asked Embree when he and his staff have the benefit of working during a full recruiting cycle if he expects to be the beneficiary of that much "flipping." Smiling, he answered, "Depends on who they're committed to . . . No, you're going to flip a couple. I don't anticipate the number being that high, because now we're going into situations where we can develop relationships.
"We have a great head start: I think we have about 30 offers out already to next year's class. And out of those 30 I bet I've talked to 12 of them . . . there's going to be great opportunity next year for a lot of people because we have a big senior class (27 total, 22 on scholarship). You're always going to flip two or three kids a year. That's probably the minimum.
"The kids that I targeted as far as flipping, those are kids we had previous relationships with, except Will (Harlos). A coach that we hired or was already on the staff had a relationship with these kids, so those are the kids we targeted . . . we're coming from behind, yet we found a way to put this class together; we flipped eight guys. That says a lot about our coaches. We're going to be a staff to be reckoned with."
CU changed the minds of prospects who initially committed to Arizona State, UCLA, Washington, Boise State and Wake Forest. Coaches who joined Embree's staff from other schools include Greg Brown and Mike Tuisasosopo from Arizona, and Steve Marshall from California. Eric Bieniemy, late of the Vikings, still has plenty of West Coast ties. Bobby Kennedy and Kanavis McGhee have Texas ties. J.D. Brookhart has global ties.
Said Embree: "I appreciate the fact there were some schools out there that said some real nice things about myself, Coach Bieniemy, Coach Tuiasosopo, Coach Brown . . . I appreciate that and am looking forward to playing them. I really am. So . . . I don't know if you detect that sarcasm. There were some schools out there that said some bad things, and there some other schools like (Kansas coach) Turner Gill. We have a good relationship and the situation where the kid (QB Brock Berglund) left and it really was a better fit for him . . . same with Rick (Neuheisel, UCLA) and Marc Mustoe (Arvada West O-lineman, who had committed to the Bruins). I think Rick ended up beating us on a kid we wanted - I'm assuming that's where the kid's going.
"Coaches can say whatever they want - our staff, we're not going to operate like that. We're going to sell the kid on what we have. Every school has something that's wrong with them. Yeah, I'm biased, this is the best place in the world as far as I'm concerned, but it might not be a great fit for them. I'm going to tell them why this is the best place to come play, and if that's good enough for them, if they have a good enough experience here on their trip and feel like this is the place to be, then we'll flip 'em. But I'm not going to point out negatives with the other schools . . ."
Embree was asked if he and his staff had made a statement during their abbreviated recruited cycle. He answered, "I don't know about a statement - you'll have to ask those other schools. But I know some of those other schools already have their opinions about us. What I hope this says more to our fan base than to people out there who compete against us is we have some pretty good coaches. We have some coaches who know how to recruit. We've got some coaches that are relentless. That's important in recruiting; you can't take no."
As an example of not accepting no, he cited linebackers Brian Cabral and the veteran linebackers coach's work in his home state, Hawaii. Embree said CU signed three of the four island players being recruited. Cabral talked Embree into making a trip to the islands, specifically to visit linebacker K.T. Tu'umalo, a Boise State commit. Embree didn't believe Cabral could turn K.T. But Cabral got his man - and a first-class seat on the flights going and coming while the head coach flew in coach.
Said Embree: "That's got to change."
Embree's time with the Chiefs and Redskins showed him another cut of athlete and another level of responsibility. "I got spoiled," he said. "At the (NFL) Combine, you have an 8 o'clock meeting . . . the guy shows up at 7:55. You show up at a high school to see a kid, he shows up at 8:02. I've got to get used to that; it bothers me a little bit. That aspect of it has changed . . . there's some kids out there with a little more entitlement. But to me, that shows you a kid you may not want in your program. I want kids who want to come and add, build on the tradition - not what are we going to do for them.
"(Some) kids want promises, don't want to compete . . . there's some kids who'd rather go to another school and be the seventh wide receiver at that school, not come to our school and be in the mix for playing time right away. That's OK, if that fits them. I had to get re-acclimated to it. But the great thing there about being a head coach is when a kid did that, I'd say, 'Hey, we're not going on him.' There were a few kids like that who were here on trips, wanted to commit, and they're going to school that we're going to play. We didn't take them; they're not the kind of kid we want. They had their hand out, the way they acted on the trip. I'm not going to take a kid just to take him because of the 'stars' . . . it has to be a kid that fits what we're trying to do."
Embree doesn't despise the recruiting "star" system - zero to a five-star rating - but believes developing talent is as important as loading up on five-star recruits.
"There's good and bad with it," he said. "I'm sure if you got all five stars (recruits) you're going to end up with some good players . . . to me it's about what you do to develop them. You've got to develop the kids and have kids that fit your system.
"Take Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State . . . there's certain programs that every three or four years somehow find themselves in the (national) hunt, but every year they don't have these highly rated classes. But they do a great job of developing the athletes. That's what you have to do as coaches - and that's why it was important to me to get the staff I got. The whole situation is fluid . . . I refer to my son (senior receiver Taylor at UCLA). He was a half-star and a one-star, and he's done pretty well."
The majority of Embree's full-time assistants - and Embree - have either NFL playing or coaching experience, or both. Those seasons at the next level played well to recruits with dreams of getting there. "NFL" on a resume also plays big in the credibility department.
"It helps . . . you know what's on the other side of the fence," Embree said. "When I built this staff, seven of the nine have either played and/or coached in the NFL. I think it's important because kids have to understand there are different ways to reach your goal. Some kids get demoralized because this kid was a five-star and you're a two-star . . . some kids get demoralized because you were their only offer and they wonder if they're good enough. Other kids who have 30 offers think everything is going to happen for them. You have to be able to manage all those egos and personalities, and when you coach in the NFL or play in the NFL, you're dealing with all those personalities.
"The difference is, they'll get rid of you before they get rid of the player. So you better figure out how to do it right. Nobody ever came to see Coach Embree coach Tony Gonzales (former Chiefs tight end), right? They all came to see (No.) 88 play, right? You've got to figure out how to manage them and help those guys get better."
When Embree puts together his second CU signing class, he'll deliver the same message to that group that he delivered to Class No. 1 - and to the returning Buffs: "I'm bringing in someone next year to beat you out; that's the object in this game of recruiting . . . if they can't beat them out, then great, that means all the kids in this class are raising their level. All the guys on this team know I'm bringing in someone to beat them out; if they can't, then they're handling their business. That's how it has to be."
Embree's first recruiting class is almost signed, sealed and ready for a summer delivery. Given the late start, Embree's start appears promising. Final grades won't be posted until several seasons into the Pac-12. Stay patient.