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December-28-2006,
Gary Barnett's On The Beach - No Kidding! (Part II)...By Nelson Lardner

Exemplary Bad Behavior in College Athletics, Chapter 72,384: Football Coach Gary Barnett's abrupt departure of Northwestern for a return to his roots, at Colorado.

As the recent AP story about Barnett put it: " . . . when Barnett scours over the last several years of his life, beginning with his awkward exit from Northwestern in 1999 . . "

Naaaaah . . . really?

It's a free country, and a man has every right to better himself -- but Barnett couldn't have fashioned and timed that departure with a greater disregard for the other guy if he'd tried.

After once again assuring his Northwestern players, for the umpteenth time, in mid-January, 1999, that he was staying put on the North Shore, he proceeded to kick all and sundry to the curb with his abrupt, sudden announcement that he was Colorado-bound, only two weeks prior to the national recruiting deadline. His departure left replacement Randy Walker precious, little time to try to hold body and soul together, while Barnett's express train to the Rockies also charmed some transfers and recruits loyal to Barnett into following him West.

A long-time Bill McCartney staffer, Barnett's promotion to offensive coordinator for the Buffs coincided with their Orange Bowl appearance against Notre Dame in 1991, a contest which happened to yield Colorado their first and only national championship in football. That'll leave an impression on a man, and no doubt, the gravitational pull back to Boulder was a strong one.

One's attraction to the University of Colorado is a matter of taste. With some 26,000+ undergrads, it's a big, outgoing state university with an established reputation. It's been voted the #1 Party School In America in its share of polls, from Playboy's (in 1987 AND 2002), to the Princeton Review's 2003 rundown - and there's been death from drinking/hazing, since. Over the years, national magazines have run material on the hard-drinking culture permeating campus life. $22,000+ for annual out-of-state tuition seems high for a seat at a bar with a mountain view, but different strokes . . .

. . . and Gary Barnett walks in, having inherited a female placekicker named Katie Hnida from the previous Rick Neuheisel administration. She didn't report it at the time, but subsequent allegations were that Hnida was raped by a teammate, subsequent to Barnett's arrival as head coach. But as so often happens in such cases, Hnida was embarrassed, and sat on the story . . . for the time being.

Segue to December of 2001, when the pot began to boil, big-time. Allegations of gang rape connected with an off-campus CU recruiting party came to light. Rather than kicking the accused off the team and/or out of school, Barnett pulled their scholarships, an action which Barnett felt was more applicable to the personal-accountability lesson - while keeping the names of those involved out of the public record, earning team points, for as Barnett told the AP: "The coaches knew we stood up for the kids." Whether said kids were deserving of being stood up for, in this manner, is another question.

But the smoke failed to clear, and any lessons didn't appear to be taken to heart by everyone. The flashpoint came in February of 2004, when a Sports Illustrated piece by Rick Reilly broke the Hnida rape allegations to a national audience, as the stories of alcohol-fuelled parties with paid strippers as entertainment refused to go away. Barnett endured a sustained leave/suspension in 2004 on the heels of Reilly's sensational story, though, as the AP notes, Hnida's allegations never resulted in criminal charges.

But. Later in '04, Barnett noted: "It was obvious Katie (Hnida) was not very good. She was awful. You know what guys do? They respect your ability. You can be 90 years old, but if you can go out and play, they'll respect you."

Then comes the money shot, which Barnett has long asserted was taken out of context: "Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible. OK? There's no other way to say it. She couldn't kick the ball through the uprights."

A case can be made that those last four sentences were Barnett's paraphrasing of what he heard from his players, regarding Hnida. But, as Barnett later told CNN: "I think I said the wrong thing, the wrong way, at the wrong time."

Some, defending the aforementioned recruiting inducements, have said, in so many words, "Everybody does it." That's not true, and all but the most cynical know it.

A Colorado grad, Rick Reilly wound up his SI piece on Hnida, like so: "You show me a coach who maintains he's unaware of recruiting parties featuring paid strippers, of four alleged rapes, or sexual harassment claims by one of his players against other players, and I'll show you a coach who is hell-bent on not knowing."

Colorado waved goodbye after a late-season on-field collapse wrapped up the 2005 season. Tougher recruiting regulations were implemented. Hurt feelings were assuaged by a $3 million buyout directed Barnett's way . . . money that provides license for contemplation, and time to wait.

But, now, as told by the AP's Eddie Pells, " . . . (during) a hiring season in which (Barnett) made it known he was available, (Barnett) never received so much as a phone call." This, in a season where retread Dennis Erickson was snapped up by Arizona State after only one year in exile at Idaho . . . not to mention that Gary Pinkel received an extension at Missouri, Barnett's alma mater and a possible landing spot had Pinkel been let go.

Believe me . . . Barnett is one of the greatest masters of applied football psychology I've ever seen. When he took the Northwestern job, the program hadn't been a consistent national powerhouse for 65 years, since the days of limited substitution, not to mention limited minority participation. But he recruited his kind of kid, believed ("Expect Victory"), made the kids believe, and Took The Purple To Pasadena, a scenario few thought possible in this day and age, and given big State U. resources at Colorado, he won consistently, as anticipated.

And the man knows how to pace a team that still has some upside. In 1995-96, Northwestern was a covering machine. But they didn't make one number in conference in '98, and it was time to go. And at Colorado, against consensus lines, the man was 49-39 ATS, and that was with negative ATS records the first two years. At both places, he took special pains to isolate one big-name foe (Michigan, at NU; Nebraska, at Colorado) and made it a special point to make their lives miserable.

Unfortunately, at this level, crime can pay. Clemson was a doormat in the ACC for years and years . . . here comes Danny Ford, and from nowhere, the Tigers won the 1981 national championship, sending 22 players to the NFL . . . and were immediately slapped with three years' probation by the NCAA for earlier recruiting violations. But the championship exposure was invaluable, and the Tigers have been a viable upper-middle-class competitor, since.

The history's still too hot, and Barnett (born in 1946) is no kid anymore. But can I see some Sun Belt outfit, or lower-level MAC team, looking to take a shot? Sure. With a $3 million buyout, Barnett doesn't have to listen to any overtures from the lower extremities of the NCAA hierarchy, but given that he didn't get a nibble from anyone, anywhere, last year, if Barnett wants better, he must be willing to sit for what may be quite the wait.

As one fabled, current college coach once said to college football fans, "Enjoy the spectacle . . . but don't look too closely." Should Barnett gain another Division 1-A position, he'll be watched - closely. Lessons learned? If Barnett doesn't think he needs to tweak his approach . . . perhaps not.

12-28-06
Nelson Lardner
MajorWager.com
lardner@majorwager.com



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