He smiled, but he was serious too.
You look at Barnett, a man so dedicated, rational and reeking of integrity that it dawns on you he has actually had a plan for success ever since he walked onto the Northwestern campus, a plan that has to do with dedication and belief and sacrifice and togetherness and all the other dumb clichés that are clichés only because, when truly adhered to, they work.
Barnett has a punter, Paul Burton, who is so dedicated that he doesn't even date. "When I got here there were only three players who had been offered another Division I scholarship, not counting offers from the Mid-American Conference," said Barnett. "That first year we took anybody we could. We got William Bennett and [tight end] Shane Graham because I'd been recruiting them at Colorado. But later we narrowed in on players with the right fit and the right profile. We'd been going after everybody, but we'd just gotten discouraged. Kids would say, 'I just came by as a courtesy.' We'll still go after high school All-Americas, but most of them we can't get into the school."
So how has this turnaround happened?
"I don't know if it's one thing you can put your finger on. If you could, you'd make a lot of money selling it to businesses."
Each preseason Barnett takes his players up to a small college in Kenosha, Wis., to get away from naysayers, to bond, to believe and to do exquisitely silly things, such as sing the old kids' song High Hopes as loud as possible.
"If he told me I could run through a brick wall," says supposedly intelligent kicker Sam Valenzisi, a grad student working toward his master's in journalism, "I'd believe him, I'd try it, and I'd probably do it."
Barnett was an average wide receiver at Missouri, and his heart was broken more than once when his alma mater turned him down and hired other men as its coach. At Colorado he worked alongside the fanatical McCartney as McCartney took a 1-10 team in 1984 and built it into a national champion by '90. When Barnett took this death-watch job at Loser U in '92, he vowed he would make the Wildcats the best they could be or flame out trying. "What I learned from Mac is that you have to just keep looking straight ahead," says Barnett. "I didn't understand it then, but now I do. The scenery may be nice or ugly on either side, but you can't look. All that matters is what's in front of you."
So here's the Notre Dame game to start this season. It's early September, sunny and gorgeous in the environs of the Golden Dome, and the Irish fans have turned out to see the first lamb slaughtered en route to the national championship.
Only the lamb won't die. Northwestern holds a 17-15 lead late in the game, and it seems obvious that a now alert Notre Dame will drive downfield, kick a last-second field goal and win by a point. Your basic Gipper/Rockne/Rudy finale.