Gather ye round, children, for a holiday story of a college football coach, whose public reputation crested with his team's unlikely appearance in one of the more eagerly-anticipated Rose Bowls of our time . . . and whose subsequent decline and fall encapsulated so much of what's currently out of proper alignment in today's college football universe . . .
A friend slipped me the embargoed AP wire version of a story, a couple of days prior to release date. Read it . . . rolled my eyes . . . and eagerly awaited some daily with a voracious appetite for proffering lengthy wire features to run with the ball, Christmas weekend.
The New York Daily News didn't fail me, and dedicated an entire tabloid page to the present state of ex-Northwestern/Colorado head football coach Gary Barnett's career, complete with a charming photo of Barnett and wife Mary, at home.
This wasn't simply a holiday-weekend tale with a murky moral story. . . it was a valentine, love letter and resume, rolled into one, with enough selective fact-disclosure to coax many a guffaw out of any hardened, realistic college football aficionado. What was included - and what wasn't - provided a prototypical snapshot of much of today's big-time-football landscape.
Upon reading this piece, the uninitiated might presume that Herr Barnett is an unparalled football coach, stalwart role model and great American, unfairly railroaded out of the Colorado job due to the crashing end of the Buffs' 2005 season - and the subsequent drawn-out, wholly-distasteful denouement of the case of a Rick Neuheisel legacy, CU placekicker Katie Hnida (no typo - we're talking female, here). Barnett's a helluva coach - but his experience at Colorado is not one of unstinting, reflected glory.
There's much good to be said for Barnett - and as a Northwestern grad, I'll be happy to say it. A former Colorado staffer under Bill McCartney, NU hired Barnett to run the football commencing with the 1992 season. Outside the legitimate national title picture (barring a half-season run atop the polls in the early '60s) for more than a half-century, the 'Cats had been a national punchline for two decades, establishing the NCAA Div. 1-A record for consecutive losses (34). . . which held up until Columbia breezed to 44 straight in 1988.
Like many a worthwhile construction project, this took time . . . but Barnett's a superior recruiter, given a quality product to sell, and laid his style of groundwork during his first two seasons, broadly altering the mindset of a top academic institution inured to gridiron defeat (for a current parallel, think Duke). The observant saw some signs of life in the second half of the '04 campaign, but no others than relatives and close personal friends were quite prepared for what happened next.
We take you to 1995, when the 'Cats opened the season with a straight-up win over Lou Holtz and Notre Dame as four-TD 'dogs in South Bend, in what has turned out to be the final game (at least for now) in that long-sustained series. For any team to follow that up would have been tough, and sure enough, NU proceeded to drop a straight-up decision to MAC stalwart and coaching cradle Miami of Ohio. That loss provided the needed edge and focus, and the Purple didn't lose another -- then they needed Michigan's help in knocking off Ohio State to open the door to their first Rose Bowl experience since 1949.
That Rose Bowl was a helluva game, by any account - an ESPN Classic favorite, even now. Despite their (obviously) infrequent appearances on such a big stage, NU was pounded in the betting market, from +7 point underdog status to a +3 1/2 dog. The moneyline took a parallel beating, as the 'Cats were the darlings of the day. And, oh, the swings. USC ran off to a substantial lead . . . then the 'Cats came back, even assuming a brief, slim, advantage early in the fourth quarter. NU stuffed the Trojan RBs and drove USC QB Brad Otten to distraction. . . but they couldn't stifle USC receiver Keyshawn Johnson, whose every reception was good for either a first down or a touchdown . . . and Southern Cal edged away in the late stages for a 41-32 win.
Take my word for it. . . the '96 team was even better, but in their extreme fat-and-happy state, they somehow lost their opener to an inferior Wake Forest team. . . fell victim to Joe Paterno revenge in Happy Valley. . . and were finally exiled to the Florida Citrus Bowl, where they had the bad fortune to have to face Peyton Manning's Volunteers with a nicked-up secondary. Good night, and drive home safely.
By this time, Barnett - no dummy - likely had gotten the idea that he'd gone about as far as he could go in Evanston, where those pesky academic standards were going to keep him from assembling the kind of defense (especially in the backfield) necessary for a legitimate national-title run in this day and age. And while repeatedly assuring the local troops he wasn't leaving, he eventually spurned a lengthy dalliance with the Georgia Bulldogs, was broadly rumored to have relayed the Fighting Irish (who've long been looking to recapture that Ara Parseghian lighting in the bottle) his regrets . . . and then two consecutive losing seasons just North of Chicago amplified the sense of urgency . . . and, then . . . while Barnett continued to express eternal fealty to the 'Cats . . . Colorado came calling. And the rest, as they say, is history - not to mention a broad object lesson for NCAA football connoisseurs to ponder.
(Part II, to follow)