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?

March 08, 2004

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
title 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."

Now he claims not to know anything in this Colorado mess. I
haven't seen Barnett in some time, but I've written about him
often. In his book he wrote, "Rick Telander of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
and the Chicago Sun-Times really has the ability to lock in on
me.... I don't know where he gets his insights, but I've come to
really appreciate them. He has a tap into me as if he were a very
close friend."

But I don't understand what Gary Barnett is thinking now. If he
hasn't lost his mind, he has certainly lost his way.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"Giambi doesn't appear to be half the man he used to be"
--GUESS THEIR WEIGHT, PAGE 20

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