Portland State turned program around with new coach's 'Barny Ball' approach
Portland State interim coach Bruce Barnum kept preaching his message of blue-collar, tough, fundamental football to his team. And while his back-to-basics approach resonated with his players, they had a difficult time remembering the three elements.
"It was too many words," Barnum tells The Inside Read.
So to make it easier, Barnum's players came up with their own description for his old-school style of football: Barny Ball.
Barny Ball has taken the FBS by storm this season, as Portland State has claimed upset road victories at Washington State and North Texas. The latter was a 66-7 drubbing last Saturday night that resulted in Mean Green coach Dan McCarney being fired after the game.
It's been a wildly entertaining season for the Vikings and the culmination of the folksy, self-deprecating Barnum's dream of finally becoming a head coach. Barnum has his chance after nearly three decades toiling as an assistant in non-major college football, mainly in the Pacific Northwest.
Along the way, he has watched close friends like Florida coach Jim McElwain and Penn State coach James Franklin get their opportunities. But Barnum's only came after Portland State didn't have a new athletic director to replace former coach Nigel Burton after Burton was fired following last season's 3-9 campaign.
So the 51-year-old Barnum was promoted last December from offensive coordinator to his current position, initially just for this season with his contract set to expire Dec. 31. He calls it a "12-month interview," one that he has crushed with his team ranked No. 17 in the latest FCS coaches poll and boasting a 4-1 record.
Not bad for a guy who signs all of his text messages, "Love Barny."
"I'm too stupid to give up on a goal," Barnum says. "I like our model. Is it going to work? I don't know. Everybody tries this, but I have a lot of years of coming up with how I wanted to do it."
Barnum was smart enough to know Portland State needed a drastic overhaul upon taking over late last year. He had been the offensive coordinator during each of Burton's five seasons, only one of which ended with a winning record.
"Culture and expectations were gone in my mind on how you have to win," Barnum says.
Barnum emphasizes that he's not knocking Burton, who he still talks with, but it was the harsh reality Barnum had to change quickly. He knew the key to a turnaround would be hiring his coaching staff.
But that was difficult with uncertainty about Barnum's future beyond this season and financial limitations. So to make it easier, Barnum kept just $1,000 of the approximately $25,000 raise he was offered by Portland State and poured the rest into the salaries of his staff.
"I needed some dudes," Barnum says.
Barnum also started making significant changes off the field to help his team fall in line with his old school philosophy. He implemented what he calls Midnight Madness for players who miss class, are absent from study hall or are late to practice.
But instead of running for their transgressions, the players on the list are required to attend a study hall at the football offices on Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. On the third offense, the player, his position coach and entire position group are also required to attend Midnight Madness. Yet the first time Barnum held Midnight Madness last spring, he was unsure about it.
"I was wondering," Barnum says, "if anyone was going to show up."
The 13 players that were supposed to show did, and by the end of the semester no player made the list for three straight weeks. Barnum has always been baffled as to why coaches use running as a discipline tool.
"I need them to play fast," Barnum says. "Why the hell would I punish them with running?"
Offensively, Barnum describes his up-tempo attack that's averaging 34.4 points per game as a hybrid of the West Coast and Pistol offenses. The latter is what Burton had Barnum run upon his arrival six years ago from Cornell, where he had been offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for three seasons.
The Pistol is still Portland State's primary run attack, but the passing game has spread concepts with four- and five-wide receiver sets. The Vikings also use three varying tempos.
"I have a tough football team now," Barnum says. "We're putting them in the right spot and give them the keys. They're really fun to watch."
That's the definition of Barny Ball, but Barnum had to come around to the moniker. "I didn't like it," he says. "Using my name isn't me. It's about Portland State, not me. It bothered me."
But it's grown on Barnum. That's not just because of his players' enthusiasm for the style of play, but also because of the results the team has produced. Like a season-opening 24-17 victory over Washington State, which he only refers to as "beating The Pirate", a.k.a. eccentric Cougars coach Mike Leach, who is known for his pirate fetish.
Barnum has never met Leach, even after Portland State's upset last month. During the customary post-game handshake, Leach mistakenly shook the hand of a Portland State assistant instead of Barnum, who had been doused with Gatorade by his players, some of whom then hopped on his back.
"I don't think he knew who I was," Barnum says with a laugh.
McCarney did, however, and wanted to talk with Barnum before last Saturday's game. The only problem was that one of the two buses supposed to take the team to the stadium had broken down.
So Barnum had to pick a group of players for the first drop-off and stayed behind with the remainder for the next ride. "It was like Jaws where the captain was taking in water and everybody else is safe," Barnum says.
Once Barnum finally made it, McCarney had high praise for him and his team. "I want you to know this isn't a high or a low bull---- deal, but how your team is playing and what you're putting on the field is the return to what football should be," Barnum recalls McCarney saying.
Even after Portland State's blowout victory, McCarney reiterated a similar message to Barnum while congratulating him. "You're a tough-a-- football team," McCarney told Barnum.
McCarney's compliments wowed Barnum. He had followed McCarney's career closely from afar, dating back to McCarney's playing days at Iowa in the early 1970s.
Barnum also got a congratulatory text message after the North Texas victory from McElwain, who attended Eastern Washington with Barnum. It read, "Portland State beat Washington State. The Cougs beat Oregon. Therefore, Portland State best program in the state of Oregon."
"He's a good one," McElwain tells The Inside Read of Barnum. "He's a great guy."
Barnum's changes have also extended to how his team travels. Instead of flying to play at Idaho State last month, the Vikings made the 11-hour one-way journey by bus. They'll do the same for Oct. 24's game at Cal Poly, a 13-hour trip each way. It's what Barnum calls his team's "Americana Tour."
"It's like single-A baseball," Barnum says. "Our team right now because of those bus trips, they know each other. The camaraderie and raw factors are through the roof. It worked. That part worked."
With the money saved from the two flights, Barnum is using it to take better care of his team on the road. Now his players are staying in Marriotts instead of budget hotels and eating at nicer restaurants.
Barnum plans meals with defensive tackle Daniel Fusi, whose weight, he jokes, is down to 469 pounds. During the trip to North Texas, Barnum took the 6-foot, 340-pound senior and his teammates to North Main BBQ, a local favorite recommended by Barnum's grandfather that's only open three days a week.
"I try to take care of my kids," Barnum says. "I can't give them full stipend and all this stuff that's being talked about right now, but I can do them right."
That's why Barnum's bought tickets for his team to tour Alcatraz after its practices at Stanford in preparation for its game at Cal Poly. When playing at Idaho State earlier this year, Barnum was able to have his team practice on Boise State's blue turf and meet Broncos coach Bryan Harsin.
And if Barnum's players don't like the bus rides, he or his "Bitch Police" better not hear about it. Players who complain receive bitch tickets, which have a variety of consequences that include being taken off the field.
Should a player receive three such citations, he's unlikely to remain on the team. "If you complain about anything, you're not going to be around," Barnum says. "I'm not going to listen to it."
Sometimes Barnum wonders if his straightforwardness has hurt his coaching career. "I can't talk like McElwain; he's got the magic," Barnum says. "Franklin could sell you the oceanfront in Arizona. I'm not that guy. I'm probably too blunt and too honest with the kids, but you know what, they respect it. They're responding to it."
Barnum isn't saying much about his job status, even though he acknowledges he has received verbal support from school administrators about having his interim tag removed after this season. That backing is why he still feels awful about a nameless congratulatory text message he received earlier this season after his team's win at Washington State.
He's received more than 1,000 such texts this season and has answered all but that one in a timely fashion. He thought it would be rude to ask who sent it, so he didn't reply. Another congratulatory text message came to Barnum from the same number after his team won at Idaho State.
This time the sender included his name; it was from school president Wim Wiewel.
"Come on Barnum, you're on an interim gig," Barnum says with a laugh. "You need this guy to sign off on you and you don't even answer him? That was the biggest snafu."
But it hasn't slowed down the Barny Ball craze at Portland State, a commuter school with enrollment of just over 28,000, previously best known nationally for having Jerry Glanville as its coach from 2007-09. The must-have apparel these days are Barny Ball T-shirts that were given to those who participated in the Vikings' football camps this summer.
At the Vikings' first home game last month, many campers showed up wearing the shirts. Barnum's trying to find the money to have more of the shirts made so they can be sold at his team's home games.
If there are any proceeds from the shirt sales, he plans to use the money to buy his team an extra snack on its next road trip or give it to his young assistants.
Says Barnum with a laugh, "All of the sudden, it's a race to get a Barny Ball shirt."
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Missouri's D dominant behind coordinator Barry Odom
In preparation for Florida's 21-3 victory at Missouri on Saturday night, Gators coach Jim McElwain made sure to watch all of Memphis's games from last season. He did so to be ready for Missouri defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who's getting rave reviews in his first season in the SEC after moving from Memphis in December. While Missouri has struggled offensively in its 4-2 start this season, it is ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense (13.5 points per game) and 11th in total defense (275.8 yards per game).
That's after the 38-year-old Odom orchestrated Memphis finishing 11th nationally a year ago in scoring defense (19.5 points per game), the final of his last three seasons as the program's defensive coordinator.
"The guy's good," McElwain tells The Inside Read of Odom.
So much that McElwain expects Odom to get a head-coaching job sooner than later. An Oklahoma native with strong Texas recruiting ties, Odom could emerge as a candidate for North Texas' current opening.
He would also be a logical successor to in-demand Memphis coach Justin Fuente, who's sure to be in the mix for South Carolina's opening and at Virginia Tech (this season is expected to be the last for legendary Hokies coach Frank Beamer).
As the game progressed Saturday night, McElwain increasingly saw more of Odom's aggressive, physical scheme, a trademark of his days at Memphis.
"It's really good," McElwain says.
After the game, McElwain was stopped by Odom and the two briefly chatted.
"I was impressed by that," McElwain says. "This guy's got something to him."
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