This just in: Turning around a college football program is hard

Our two pre-eminent state universities, Colorado and Colorado State, both sport football teams, although only the truly committed or slightly daffy pay much attention to them these days. From the outside, both appear to be stalled on the trip back from nowhere, spinning their wheels before hopeful fans who generally find an excuse to excuse themselves from the proceedings long before the game is actually over.

Each team saw its record fall to 1-5 with its most recent loss — Colorado’s to Arizona State by the woeful score of 51-17 on national television Thursday night, and Colorado State’s to Fresno State by the less embarrassing final count of 28-7 last Saturday.

Fresno thumped Colorado by a score more common to children’s basketball games — 69-14 — a month ago, so losing to the Bulldogs by just 21 was something of an in-state victory for the Rams, their second counting their only actual victory, over Colorado, in the first game of the season, when hope still shone through the clouds of their common plight.

A year ago, Jon Embree, then CU’s first-year coach, was an emotional wreck after each of his team’s 10 losses. He was devastatingly honest about his team’s failings, enumerating them in what seemed a combination of public contrition and confession. Hired in large part because of his connection to the program’s better days — he played under Bill McCartney and coached under McCartney, Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett — Embree seemed to take personally his inability to get his players to perform as well as those teams of yore.

This year, in Embree’s second season in charge, the results haven’t changed much but his demeanor has. He is much more equanimous after losses, owning up to his team’s failures matter-of-factly, often with a rueful smile, as if he has come to terms with the fact that good players make good coaches, and not the other way around.

When I pointed out this change of demeanor to him following Thursday night’s loss, he smiled.

“So you’re saying I’m boring now, huh?” he replied.

I asked if his greater calm in the face of adversity reflected merely the difference between a first-year coach unaccustomed to losing and a second-year coach facing reality, or more an understanding that his players — still college kids, after all, most if not all of them destined to make a living outside the sport — were trying as hard as they could, even if that effort didn’t mean much to the scoreboard.

“I think it’s a combination of those factors,” he said. “I do believe these kids are giving me everything they have, I really do. I see the hurt. The way they come out and prepare every week, what they do in the weight room, how they are pre-game. There’s no doubt that they’re giving us all we have. Like I told them, we’re not going to let up. We’re going to keep working hard. We’re going to keep preparing just like if we were undefeated.

“You can’t let your circumstances dictate how you prepare. It’s got to be an attitude, a mindset. It’s got to be who you are as a person. Because you’re going to have times that things don’t go your way, and if you don’t have that resolve about you, then you let those circumstances dictate what you’re going to be and how successful you can be. I know these kids want to have success and they know that they’ve worked harder and they’ve put in a lot more than they have in the past.

“But what we need to understand, and what I think they do understand, is that all that does is give you an opportunity. It doesn’t guarantee you anything.

“And now we have to find a way to play four quarters. I told the team right now we’re about a three-quarter team. We play well for three quarters, when it’s all said and done. And with the level of competition that we’re playing and the situations that we’re in, we’ve got to play four quarters to have a chance. So we’ll keep grinding. We’re going to keep working.”

Frankly, this is a kind assessment, and Embree knows it. Even if you take CU’s best three quarters of each game, it’s not good enough. That’s because, harsh as it sounds, the players aren’t good enough. In particular, the quarterback play isn’t good enough, and Embree knows that, too.

When I asked him what he thought of his offense, he stopped short of a John McKay condemnation, but he didn’t sugarcoat it, either.

“I’m not happy with it,” he said. “I’m not happy where we are offensively. There’s some things that you’d like to do and there’s some guys that (will) come in that we’ve recruited that’ll help some of it, but I’m not happy at all with what we’ve done offensively. So as an offensive staff we’ll take a look at some of that tomorrow.”

Whether that last line was his oblique way of saying he would look, again, at shuffling the depth chart, wasn’t clear. What is clear is that college football, like the professional version, is all about quarterback play. And Jordan Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas, is clearly a bridge at the position until Embree finds someone better.

Asked if he knew why Webb so often misses connections with open receivers, particularly on the deep routes that might produce big plays, Embree returned to his native honesty:

“I don’t. I know he’s had a thumb issue on his throwing hand. I don’t know if that’s it. That’s something maybe you’d have to ask him. But the way we are offensively right now, we don’t have a lot of room for error. So when you create those opportunities and matchups, you’ve got to hit on almost all of them, and right now we’re hitting maybe 25 percent of them. And it has to be the other way. It has to be at least 75, 80. But I don’t know why.”

Up the road in Fort Collins, first-year coach Jim McElwain is something of a cross between the first-year Embree and the second-year Embree. He shows the emotion and reverts to the philosophizing of the first-year Embree, but rather than lapse into despondency, he tries to laugh at it.

“How miserable am I?” he asked rhetorically after Saturday’s loss, the Rams’ fifth in a row. “I am miserable! You want to know how miserable? I’m miserable, OK? But I’m not ready to jump off the cliff because I saw in that room and I saw the fight in the comeback from what they should have been just embarrassed about the week before. So there was some resolve, I think is the correct word, even though I’m not sure I can give you the dictionary definition. But there was resolve. And there was a huge disappointment because I know what they put into it. But, as they know, we come back to work and we keep moving forward. And the guys that are on board, they’ll be out there.”

A blocked punt in the final two minutes of the first half allowed Fresno to tack on a second score to what was a manageable 7-0 CSU deficit to that point. For McElwain, that symbolized everything he’s trying to excise from the program he found when he arrived.

“It’s like, ‘Now what? Here we go again.’ Right? Which is what you’re trying to bleed out of them. You know what I’m getting at? I mean, that’s what we’re trying to bleed out of the program right now. It’s not the ‘Here we go again.’ It’s not your dad’s same old Chevy, right? This is the new Rams. And we’ve got to bleed the bad taste, we’ve got to bleed the cancer, we’ve got to get rid of it.

“It’s just not how you think. To be successful, you just can’t think that way. So, you know what? Sometimes you’re going to get knocked down. My problem is I’ve probably been knocked down more than I’ve been stood up. But you know what? You keep getting up and you keep firing. And that’s what we’ll do.”

McElwain faces a challenge greater than Embree’s with respect to fan support. Colorado’s attendance is not what it would like, but Folsom Field, which holds 53,613, still draws roughly 40,000 fans for most of CU’s home games, even if the crowd tends to thin out in the second half of blowouts.

At CSU, Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium holds only 34,400 and usually draws considerably fewer. Saturday, the announced attendance was 25,814, but the stadium’s famed red-light brigade — three lines of taillights headed east, toward the only street that provides access — was in full force at halftime of a 14-0 game. McElwain goes out of his way to praise the fans who come out, trying desperately to cultivate a following for a program that hasn’t won more than three games since 2008.

This is at least part of the reason why university president Tony Frank and athletic director Jack Graham have launched a fund-raising bid to build a new stadium on campus. For students, faculty and staff, gathering at an on-campus stadium on an autumn day has an appeal that transcends the quality of the team they will see. Driving off campus to the egress nightmare and isolation of Hughes does not.

But in the meantime, they must make do with what they have, so McElwain encourages the few, the proud, the Rams loyalists.

“Very disappointed for the fans,” he said after Saturday’s loss. “I mean, this was a fantastic turnout, guys. It was the first cold night we’ve had and they were into the game. I want to really say thanks to the people who came out to the stadium because they helped on third downs and it was exciting. It’s disappointing that we’re not giving them something tangible to hang their hats on and feel good about, and, as I’ve said, I see what we’re doing and I see the guys we’re doing it with and you know what?”

He paused for a moment and frankly, I don’t know him well enough yet to know whether it was theatrical timing or actually needing a beat or two to check his emotions to keep his voice steady.

“The Rams are going to be a force to reckon with here in the future,” he said finally. “I can tell you that. And I guarantee that.”

As with Embree’s Buffaloes, the truth of the matter is disarmingly simple. CSU’s players aren’t good enough to comprise a winning team. Like Embree, McElwain found a cupboard full of holes when he arrived. His sophomore quarterback, Garrett Grayson, broke his clavicle two weeks ago, so M.J. McPeek, a senior who had never started before, got the call against Fresno. Asked how much responsibility McPeek bore for CSU’a anemic offense, McElwain went out of his way to absolve him:

“That’s a valid question, and I say none. M.J. did some good things; he’s going to want some things back. I’ll take the responsibility on that. We’re not doing what we need on offense to get it taken care of. And it’s obvious. I mean, shoot, let’s call it the way it is. And that’s my responsibility as a head ball coach. We’ve got to get a running game going, plain and simple, to be a successful football team. I mean, the team we just played, as much as they threw it, you know what, they ran the ball effectively, right? That’s where it starts and we’ve just got to get it going. And that’s not M.J. We’ve got to give him some help, all right?”

Like Embree, McElwain basically acknowledges his team’s lack of talent while honoring the effort of the kids in his charge.

“What you do is you keep working and you keep moving forward,” he said. “There are no quick fixes. I checked the waiver wire and they didn’t allow us to take any. I’m going to see if (Broncos) coach (John) Fox up in Denver might be able to throw us a couple, but you know what, I don’t want anybody else. I want these guys. I want these guys to get to where they’re going. That’s where we’re at.”

When he was finished dissecting the particulars of the latest defeat, I asked McElwain, whose last job was offensive coordinator for a national championship team at Alabama, to name his biggest challenge as coach of a 1-5 team.

“I think the biggest challenge is to keep them working every day and not stepping back,” he said. “That to me is going to be the challenge. And we’re going to be able to see the true character of a lot of individuals when you get in this situation. Everything you do in life throws you a challenge. Now, how you decide to step up and accept the challenge says a heck of a lot about who you are and what you’re all about. And there’s a lot of great lessons in that. And you know what? We’ll find out in those lessons who’s strong enough to persevere and see the things we need to make sure we get better at. And like I say, I’m not in any way, shape or form putting it on them. I’m saying, we’re going to do this together.”

It takes four years for a college coach to populate his team with his own recruits. This is the minimum timeframe required to determine if he has the wherewithal to attract players good enough to build a winning program. Whether Embree and McElwain are destined to turn around their respective programs remains a mystery. But there are no shortcuts. Both of them are learning that the hard way.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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