Barnett can contribute to CU's solution

Originally Published: March 9, 2005
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

My alma mater, the University of Colorado, is in a fine mess – and it didn't begin and end with football.

So be forewarned: This comes from the perspective of a Colorado alumnus who will argue that attempting to isolate CU's football mess, rather than considering it as part of a bigger picture, is folly. Don't we all at least recognize the theoretical model of football – even big-time football – as a potentially significant (and preferably positive) element in a university's image, fund-raising and vitality?

Elizabeth Hoffman stepped down as Colorado's president on Monday.
Monday's resignation of CU president Betsy Hoffman won't chase away the stench in Boulder, which drifts into areas of state funding, campus reputation and professorial disgrace. And if football coach Gary Barnett were fired or forced to quit tomorrow, that wouldn't be a panacea, either.

The problems must be attacked, and this is where the football program – and the entire athletic department – can accomplish something constructive for the university. It should lead the way in cleaning up CU's image.

Blame can't be isolated in this fiasco, and it even goes to some members of the media who all along have irresponsibly oversimplified the complex football scandal. That reached new heights this past week as some attempted to summarize in sound bites and caustic one-liners the unverified and old, but indeed very disconcerting, leaked grand jury testimony about the CU football program.

A case can be made that Barnett is culpable as a buck-stops-here chief operating officer. The system was broken and needed to be fixed. Yet the portrayal of Barnett as calculatingly and knowingly running a malevolent version of "Animal House" is unfair. Much of this has to do with a collegiate and athletic atmosphere in this era that stretches far beyond Boulder, and that's why coaches across the land have been reluctant to gloat about CU's problems, which played a major role in the exit of a university president.

While Hoffman only slightly outlasted the long-embattled athletic director, Dick Tharp, Barnett has been the survivor and even was named the Big 12's coach of the year last season. Yet as a program, Barnett and the Buffaloes are reminiscent of a small band of volunteer firemen repeatedly believing it has a fire extinguished, only to see it flare up again.

Over and over.

Despite predictions of disaster, university-imposed (and since watered-down) recruiting restrictions placed on Barnett and his staff in the past year were far from devastating, and CU had what appears to be a solid, if unspectacular letter-of-intent class this spring. That followed a 2004 season in which the Buffaloes closed ranks and the players – many of whom weren't even around Boulder when a lot of the alleged disgraces transpired – mostly remained fiercely loyal to Barnett. They managed to win the Big 12 North. (Hey, somebody had to.)

Yet this just won't go away. Hoffman had to deal with not just the football mess, but also:

• The fallout from the death of a student following a fraternity-rush drinking ritual, and a growing realization that Colorado's reputation as one of the top party schools in the country isn't always something to brag about.

• A CU Ethnic Studies professor, Ward Churchill, who mocks and seriously discredits not just the College of Arts and Sciences (which granted me one of my CU diplomas), but also the cause of the affirmative action sensitivity that led to his hiring and granting of tenure. Even as his suspect credentials and portrayal of his background unravel, he has the gall to present himself as a potential martyr for academic freedom.

Churchill should be fired not for what he said, but because it's a disgrace that he cynically worked the system to get where he is – and then didn't even have to brains to do what a fraud should do, which is to keep his head and voice down to avoid scrutiny and detection. CU alumni of every political persuasion, from left to right, should be embarrassed and angry that Churchill ever attained tenure in the first place. If CU buys out Churchill, that would be even more shameful.

• Deep cuts in state funding.

• A decline in out-of-state enrollment, which is bad news not only to the proprietors of ski areas, but to the bean counters, because affluent out-of-state ski brats help subsidize in-state tuition.

CU's national image is in the toilet.

It doesn't deserve to be, but it is.

And everyone involved, both now and in the future, has to ponder and tackle the future. That includes the next university president, the next athletic director, Gary Barnett, members of the board of regents, faculty, students, taxpayers, state legislators, and even Gov. Bill Owens, who has been more of a grandstander taking pot shots than a facilitator of change and recovery.

Here's what we all should be asking, and by "all," I even mean the many potential CU football recruits who actually care about issues beyond the field:

So where does Colorado athletics go from here?

Can CU continue to retain elite professors?

Will curriculum in prospective students' majors be affected?

Will the state legislature continue to cut funding?

And will students who care about something other than skiing and partying need to be sheepish about attending a university with such image problems?

All right, in this milieu, sports come first.

Gary Barnett should be part of the solution at Colorado.
A year ago, I called for Barnett's firing, but things have changed. When he was placed on administrative leave, I believed the university in general and Hoffman specifically needed to attempt to put the football mess behind them and more intently focus on the academic mission of the university.

Once the decision was made to bring Barnett back from administrative leave, though, his challenge was to try to be part of the solution. Barnett, who still has two years remaining on his contract, has responded with what I believe to be forthrightness in attempting to live with those initial recruiting and academic restrictions, which were ahead of the NCAA curve. He didn't whine. Much.

The program's academic "windows" for special admissions never completely closed, despite threats to the contrary. And Barnett has tightened his reins on the program, though I side with him on this: Those who believe it is either possible or desirable to monitor and control any students, whether football players or fraternity members or drama majors, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months a year are living in Fantasyland.

Yes, there is potential here for additional bombshell revelations. That could be further disclosures about how the money from Barnett's football camps was used. His own football administrator said under oath in the grand jury testimony that cash was stored in shoe boxes and dispensed without, shall we say, meticulous record keeping.

If that's the case, the best-case scenario is that the money was used to augment the budget in a petty-cash, relatively harmless fashion. The worst-case scenario is that the money was used as a slush fund, and that it or (more likely) money that came from boosters was passed out with the mandate to show recruits, ahem, a good time.

Also, when Title IX-based lawsuits against the university involving alleged sexual assaults at a 2001 recruiting party go to trial, it could add to the ignominy. The allegations in the grand jury testimony that an assistant coach was involved in sexual assaults on female trainers and that a female trainer was pressured by players to have sex with recruits were troubling as well. But it's also only fair to remember that grand jury testimony, especially when it isn't considered sufficient grounds for prosecution and isn't subjected to courtroom scrutiny, has to be weighed with something other than blind acceptance. That's neither whitewash nor sticking heads in the sand; it's fundamental fairness.

Barnett is a decent man caught up in a flawed system that tugs in all directions on even honorable coaches. No, there can't be a statute of limitations that grants Barnett immunity if something else comes out that indisputably proves he was running both a morally suspect and crooked program in the past. But at this point, barring that proof, as long as he continues to try to be part of a solution, he should keep his job.

And here's where CU can step up and make itself a model.

Use this. Proclaim to the heavens that the NCAA understood that CU wasn't alone in this imbroglio, and move toward tightening the recruiting process itself – nationally. That's a good thing. Move further toward attempting to make this an exemplary program, giving players from disadvantaged backgrounds chances, of course, but not carte blanche. CU doesn't have to become Vanderbilt, but if it means sacrificing a game or two for the sake of having a program students can be proud of on every level, so be it.

Know what? I honestly believe this: That kind of program not only can be, but is attractive to enough elite recruits that it can win. You see examples of that around the country, and I'm not going to insult coaches by naming a few and leaving out others. But it can be done. It doesn't mean having no exceptional admissions at all. Quality institutions and research institutes do have them for athletes, to a point. Not to excess.

The new president should demand that CU has high standards. The new athletic director should demand that, not just of Barnett, but of everyone associated with the department.

Barnett, despite everything, seems to be safe, unless that new athletic director – the search for Tharp's successor is ongoing – demands a housecleaning of both Barnett and men's basketball coach Ricardo Patton as a precondition to a hiring.

Patton is an enigmatic honorable man who runs a clean program. He also sabotages the chances for success with ridiculously unambitious scheduling, a lack of outreach to the students and the state, and a paranoia that causes him to attribute virtually any criticism to vendettas. Sure, it's a vendetta to wonder if CU might be able to do a little better than an 11th-place finish in the Big 12, and actually draw decent crowds to the Coors Events Center, isn't it?

But at this point, the new AD should stick with Barnett and Patton, giving them at least a year under the new administration – and another year under the tighter scrutiny.

Ah, but there's a Catch-22. How can CU recruit elite student-athletes if they are the sort of men (and women) who might ask about more than sports and athletic facilities and social opportunities on The Hill on Friday nights. They might say, hey, wait a minute, isn't this a university embroiled in serious academic turmoil and disintegration?

That's where everyone else needs to step in. Gov. Owens should be more concerned with restoring adequate state funding than he is with providing sound bites about the football team.

The CU faculty hasn't as blindly supported Churchill as some reports have led you to believe, but it needs to dump him as the poster professor for academic freedom and disown him as having done irreparable damage to the cause and the university. Hoffman was generally respected, even beloved, by most of the faculty for her ability to rally the troops, so to speak, and raise money.

The biggest upset in Boulder over the past year? It didn't happen in Folsom Field. It's that despite everything, CU has remained a first-class public (well, barely public, given the dearth of state funding) university.

Football, both fairly and unfairly, has been a part of the image problems that endanger that status.

Now it should help repair the damage.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of two books about college football – the recently released "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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