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As you read this, Colorado football coach Gary Barnett is probably in his well-appointed office overlooking Folsom Field, preparing for the 2004 campaign. He's hoping to avoid a second straight losing season (and third in five years) and perhaps taking some P.R. classes to learn how to avoid sounding like Archie Bunker when discussing female placekickers. Barnett somehow survived last winter's investigation into recruiting shenanigans and allegations of sexual assault within his program, in part because Colorado is too cash-strapped to cough up the seven-figure buyout needed to get rid of him.
While Barnett conducts business as usual (or not, we all hope), Vince Okruch is in Macomb, Ill., meeting with players and introducing himself to their parents as the new defensive coordinator at Western Illinois, a Division I-AA school with a strong pedigree (three playoff appearances in the past five years) and one of college sports' best nicknames -- the Leathernecks. For the past 13 seasons, Okruch was a loyal Barnett lieutenant who helped build strong defenses at Northwestern and Colorado. But instead of getting a chance to fix things at CU, which stumbled to 5-7 last year, Okruch was let go because the Buffs defense struggled in '03.
Now, assistant coaches get fired all the time. But Okruch's case is different -- and particularly disturbing. After the Buffs lost to Nebraska in last year's season finale, Barnett informed Okruch that he was out as coordinator. But Okruch said he was offered a chance to stay with the Buffs provided another coach left. He wasn't dismissed formally until late January. Is it possible that Barnett did this so that any players Okruch had been recruiting wouldn't think about switching schools? If so, that stinks. While other I-A assistants were riding the employment merry-go-round, Okruch had to wait. When he was let loose, just about every job was taken.
It gets worse. Around the time Okruch was formally fired, the CU scandal hit, and he was immediately tainted. Even though it appears he had nothing to do with it and he was never linked to any wrongdoing during the ensuing investigation, other schools treated him as if he had been setting up stripper-and-beer parties for recruits. He had a shot at the linebacker job at Kansas State. Should have gotten it, too. But KSU was wary of bad publicity, particularly in the light of quarterback Ell Roberson's curfew fiasco at the Fiesta Bowl in January. I can't blame the Wildcats. At the time, "Colorado" was synonymous with "Snoop Dogg's Girls Gone Wild." The gig went to someone else.
Okruch got other bites, but nothing panned out, mostly because of the scandal. So Okruch hung around in Boulder. He rode his motorcycle to clear his head. He trolled for work in TV and radio circles. He kept in touch with his friends on the CU staff. And, because Colorado's severance package consisted of only one month's pay, Okruch says he also started to drain his savings.
Last week Western Illinois coach Don Patterson called to tell Okruch that Leathernecks defensive coordinator Jeff Jamrog had left to take the head coaching job at Mankato State. Did Okruch want the job? At first, his answer was no. Okruch didn't want to leave his family for five months. And, to be honest, he wasn't sure he wanted to drop back to the I-AA level. Football is football, but it's hard to accept a step down at age 48 -- especially after 21 years in the big time. And after you've been sacrificed by a friend trying to save his neck. Okruch wasn't going to take it, but a conversation with his 15-year-old son, Jordan, changed his mind.
"He said, 'Dad, take the job,'" Okruch says. "I told him, 'I don't know.' He said, 'You did everything you could to stay here, but I watched you during [Colorado's] spring practice and saw how you hurt not being out there. You need to coach.'"
The kid deserves some AP credit in psychology. Trouble is, any advice Jordan has for his father in the coming months will have to be delivered by phone. Okruch won't be able to watch his son play football this season, either. Or pop by his daughter, Taylor's, apartment at CU, where she's a sophomore.
Nope, Okruch is in Macomb, Ill. -- a 13-hour drive from Boulder -- ready to help rebuild a defense that lost eight starters from a team that advanced to the quarterfinals of the I-AA playoffs last season. He'll forge the same strong bond with players and their families that he did in Boulder. And -- though El Hombre has no idea why -- he says he'll continue to remain loyal to Barnett and the CU staff, just like he did when he kept his mouth shut last winter while Barnett kept him in limbo. "My friendship with those guys hasn't changed," Okruch says. He's going to work his tail off, too, to prove he can still craft a nasty, no-prisoners defense. "My response to getting fired? Coach better," Okruch says. "That's all it boils down to." He'll take the high road, and not just because it's a smart career move. Vince Okruch is just that type of man. And he has too much integrity to traffic in revenge scenarios and calls for justice.
That's where El Hombre comes in. He can't wait for Okruch to get back into the I-A ranks, preferably in the Big 12, where he'll get a chance to jam it right down Barnett's throat. Of course, given the way Barnett's been going lately, the CU boss might not be around Boulder long enough to take his medicine.
Not that it would be such a bad thing to see Barnett go. If it happens, maybe he'll get lucky and be fired in time to find another I-A job. Or, he could just be covered in honey and tied down next to a colony of fire ants. But Okruch wouldn't want that. He doesn't believe anybody deserves that treatment.
Memo to I-AA offenses: Look out. Vince Okruch is back in business.
EL HOMBRE SEZ: If David Ortiz had just staged his bat-tossing tantrum a couple weeks earlier, he might have been invited to try to qualify for the Olympics in the javelin. Seriously, though, if he isn't suspended for at least a week, Major League Baseball has no cojones. ... Intrepid El Hombre field reporter "Magic" Dick Atkinson uncovered the sports promotion of the year: Next Wednesday, the Oakland A's are sponsoring "MUG Root Beer Float Day" to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. Anybody else see something wrong here? In a related story, one MLB team is negotiating to stage the "Eat Five Pounds of Scrapple Night," benefiting the American Heart Association. Stay tuned.
AND ANOTHER THING: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can scream all he wants about how the players receive "76 percent" of all league revenues for salaries and how the game's financial landscape needs to be changed, but he had better look in the mirror if he wants to see the real reason pro hockey is in trouble in this country. Bettman's need to keep pace with the ever-growing NBA and NFL created a 30-team league with clubs in sun belt strongholds that have little interest in the game. Meanwhile, Bettman is cranking up the Doomsday Machine if negotiations don't yield a hard salary cap. While Tags and Uncle David have brought their leagues unprecedented prosperity, and Bud Selig has even pushed baseball forward, Bettman has plunged hockey into red ink with his hubris. Worse, only the real hard-core puckheads care whether the upcoming season takes place or not. Hey, Gary, you want to make cuts? Start in the commissioner's office.
ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Next time some guy with an empty 12-pack of Busch beside him and the number three shaved into his back hair tries to tell you NASCAR is a sport, remind him that the only "excitement" from this year's season has come from Tony Stewart's misbehavior and weekly sparring between pit crews. Anyone else expect to see Vince McMahon on the podium when the championship trophy is presented?
El Hombre pursues truth and justice in the world of sports from his headquarters in suburban Philadelphia.