Fall from grace
Embattled Gary Barnett has swiftly gone from savior to pariah
Updated: Thursday February 19, 2004 2:03PM
They named a restaurant after him. For all the awards, endorsements and lucrative contract offers, nothing said more about Gary Barnett in the mid-1990s than, well, Gary Barnett's, the sports bar that opened up on Orrington Avenue in Evanston, Ill., in honor of the coach who in 1995 led Northwestern to its first Rose Bowl in 47 years.
Eight years later, Barnett is still a celebrity, but for all the wrong reasons. Today, a coach who once enjoyed unparalleled job security, a man who was pursued by storied programs such as Notre Dame, UCLA and Texas among others, is a coaching pariah, placed on administrative leave Wednesday night by Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman. It now appears his name will be forever linked with allegations he and his staff fostered a permissive environment in which alcohol-fueled sex parties were used to lure recruits. Three women claim they were raped at a 2001 recruiting party, and former Buffs kicker Katie Hnida's told Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly that she was harassed and molested by teammates and later raped by one of them.
How could a man known at Northwestern for being principled and disciplined morph into the perceived sleazeball described by his critics? Why would he brazenly encourage criminal behavior that might jeopardize his self-proclaimed dream job, not to mention his reputation?
How could a coach with some of the most stringent recruiting policies in the country wind up with a lurid recruiting scandal bringing about his downfall?
"The guy I know is of the highest moral character," said Pat Fitzgerald, the star linebacker on Barnett's Rose Bowl team, who is now a Northwestern assistant coach. "I find it hard to believe in any shape or form he would condone or harbor an environment for these things to take place."
"He's always run a clean program in the years I've coached with him," said Bowling Green head coach Gregg Brandon, who played for Barnett at Air Academy High School and coached under him at Northwestern and Colorado. "He would never create a situation intentionally that would bring disrespect to him or his program."
Talk to nearly anyone associated with Barnett during his Northwestern days and you'll hear the same themes. He's principled, disciplined, revered. A master motivator. All figures interviewed expressed their confidence that Barnett would ultimately be exonerated.
But that was before Wednesday night's announcement by Hoffman. While his punishment technically ends with the April 30 completion of an independent panel's investigation into the football program, it now appears highly unlikely Barnett will ever return to coach the Buffs. Hoffman has been under heavy pressure to take some sort of action, and Barnett became the obvious target following his insensitive remarks Tuesday about Hnida's playing ability. ("She was awful," Barnett told reporters.)
If it can be proven that Barnett knowingly approved of or looked the other way at his players' indiscretions then, certainly, he should be fired. But Barnett isn't exactly acting like a guy with skeletons to hide.
Though he could not be reached for this story, in recent weeks Barnett has done countless interviews, held news conferences, appeared on radio talk shows, always exuding confidence that he will be vindicated. Barnett points out that his program is one of the few in the country that sets a 1 a.m. curfew for its recruiting visits and sends a letter to visiting players beforehand spelling out a code of conduct.
"Gary used to instruct the student host [for a recruit] to make sure the activities were upright, and [to] steer clear of trouble," said Ron Vanderlinden, Barnett's defensive coordinator at Northwestern, who is now linebackers coach at Penn State. "He used to tell players to tell him if a recruit was more interested in partying than winning. He'd say, 'If he's not a good person, let me know that and we'll stop recruiting him.'"
In the rush to crucify Barnett, few people have bothered to consider the possibility there might be other factors that are beyond a head coach's control. Colorado was recently named the biggest party school in the country by The Princeton Review, which, based on survey responses from students, also ranked the school third in widespread use of marijuana and fourth in the prevalence of hard liquor. A study by the school found that 63 percent of its students binge drink, a figure nearly 20 points higher than the national college average.
No matter how strict Colorado's football coach is, he's bound to face issues regulating player behavior in such a climate. That was certainly the case for Barnett's predecessors Bill McCartney and Rick Neuheisel, each of whom dealt with his share of disciplinary problems. In fact, another alleged rape at a recruiting party took place under Neuheisel's watch in '97.
"He's not the first coach there to have to deal with this standard," said ABC college football analyst and former college coach Terry Bowden. "You really have to overcome the party-school atmosphere that Colorado has ... it's something that was there before him."
In the current culture on college campuses -- the Girls Gone Wild era, if you will -- strippers, pornography and casual sex have become almost commonplace.
"It's unfair to indict coach Barnett or the recruiting process or college football, because it goes deeper than that," said Fitzgerald. "I think it's a direct reflection of society, that we need to do a better job educating our children about what is and isn't acceptable."
Does any of this make what allegedly happened to Hnida or to the three women who say they were gang raped at a 2001 recruiting party any more acceptable?
No. But it may help explain why, against seemingly insurmountable odds, Barnett continues to fight back, never deviating from his contention that he's done no wrong.
"[Stepping down] has not crossed my mind," he said last week. "We have not done anything wrong. There isn't a shred of evidence to this date to back up any allegation that's been made. And there won't be."
Maybe not. But the damage has already been done. Gary Barnett the one-time savior has been forever replaced by Gary Barnett the pariah.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.