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A Changed Man
Rick Telander
March 08, 2004
How did Colorado's Gary Barnett—once a cornball coach on a slow career track—wind up in the center of a college sports scandal?
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March 08, 2004

A Changed Man

How did Colorado's Gary Barnett—once a cornball coach on a slow career track—wind up in the center of a college sports scandal?

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I have a theory about big-time college football coaches. Once hired and entrenched in their gridiron towers, they begin to lose their minds.

What I mean is they lose touch with basic reality, the reality that says football is a game, college is for education, coaching is not the work of geniuses, players are students, boosters are weird, TV is not God, getting that big stud tailback from Central High isn't the same as curing diabetes.

I wonder about Gary Barnett, a coach I met years ago and who is now suspended from his job at the University of Colorado, his fate to be decided by an investigative committee appointed by the school's Board of Regents commission. Say what you will about "boys being boys," all this sexual assault stuff just being allegations and Colorado not being the only school that has recruiting parties that can get out of hand. When the governor of the state, Bill Owens, flanked by the attorney general, Ken Salazar, holds a grim press conference, saying a criminal investigation of the football program will begin and the goal is to "root out any misconduct," something is seriously wrong.

The Gary Barnett I knew has traveled far, it seems, from his days at Air Academy High, in Colorado Springs, when he suspended 11 of his starters for a game because they were caught drinking.

Barnett, 57, made it to the big time slowly and unsurely. He was a high school coach for nine years and never made $40,000 until after age 40. Before taking the head coaching job at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., in 1982, he seriously considered chucking it all and becoming a stockbroker. He worked at a University of Colorado summer camp in 1983, made a speech to the assembled masses about a man crawling across the desert looking for water and, as he notes in his 1996 autobiography, High Hopes—Taking the Purple to Pasadena, "the 500 or 600 kids there gave me a standing ovation." An assistant's job at CU under Bill McCartney followed.

From there Barnett moved, in 1992, to Northwestern, the cast-iron boot-scraper of the Big Ten. He was controlling—he had the phones removed from his players' hotel rooms on road trips—and hopelessly corny. Barnett told his players funny and inspiring stories. He got his boys to believe. Once a week they all sang that goofy song High Hopes, about an ant moving a rubber-tree plant.

His way worked. In '95 he led the Purple to its first Big Ten tide and Rose Bowl appearance in 46 years, and Moses himself—Northwestern alum Charlton Heston—greeted him in L.A. Barnett, whose 30-point-underdog Wildcats started the season by beating Notre Dame in South Bend, had done one of the most astonishing coaching jobs in the history of college ball.

But with success came change. Barnett threw out the first ball at Wrigley Field. He made big bucks. He wrote that book He was a celebrity who could do no wrong. Maybe this is where the mind-losing comes in. Suddenly Barnett was allowing himself to be courted by every school that expressed an interest. When an investigation revealed that Northwestern players had bet on games and shaved points in 1994, Barnett washed his hands and said of himself and his program in '98, "The stain is on the individuals, not us."

That attitude has hardened into a pattern. When former Colorado placekicker Katie Hnida alleged rape three weeks ago, Barnett called her a "terrible" player who didn't have the respect of the team. The stain is hers.

He told his players in 1997 he would serve the final 10 years of his contract. He e-mailed them in early 1999, saying he wasn't going anywhere—then within days bolted for Colorado. Asked if he thought he had lied, Barnett replied, "It's only deception if you knew something."

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