Barnett never doubted he'd be back

Updated: September 3, 2004, 12:49 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BOULDER, Colo. -- The train wreck of 2004 has left no outward marks on Gary Barnett. He's never looked his age and doesn't now, even after the offseason from absolute hell.

Sitting in his office above Colorado's Folsom Field after a mid-day workout, there is so much boy on display: sandy blonde hair wet with sweat, belly flat, chest broad, dimples dancing, blue eyes sparkling. He looks only slightly removed from the floppy-haired high school coach of 25 years ago, who ripped around Colorado Springs in a 280-Z and once, for kicks, rode a horse to practice. No way he can be 58 years old.

The next 90 minutes reveal that the scars are on the inside, and they're still pretty fresh. He's bled plenty over the investigation of the past eight months, and not even the blessed change-the-subject return of football and the excitement of the opening game Saturday, against rival Colorado State, can completely stop the bleeding.

Colorado's Gary Barnett is happy to be back coaching.
He'll continue to bleed every time his name is linked to the words "renegade program."

"The very worst part," he said, "was having people believe it. The whole ordeal was so much not like me, or what I'd ever done. This is 34 years of having just the opposite reputation."

To the surprise of many, Barnett has survived what became known nationwide as the Colorado Recruiting Sex Scandal, a muddy affair that was rife with damning rhetoric but light on criminal charges. The architect of Northwestern's Rose Bowl miracle and the Buffaloes' 2001 Big 12 title has emerged smarter and in some ways stronger, even referring to the trauma as "an opportunity" to learn about himself. He remains utterly convinced of Colorado football's redeeming qualities and the moral caliber of his players, and he offers scant apology for his stewardship of the program.

But Barnett paid a dear price to survive.

"He's really pretty fragile," said Mary, his wife of more than 30 years. "Which is one of his most endearing qualities."

It's a very human quality, and that human side has produced more supporters than simply being a gifted coach. It has inspired great loyalty from those who worked with or played under him in 34 years of molding young men. It's a quality that helped him raise a daughter who graduated from Northwestern and did humanitarian work in Kazakhstan, and a son who graduated from Georgetown and is pursuing a law degree at Denver University.

It's also a quality that compelled him, time and again, to take up arms against the sea of troubles surrounding his program -- and sometimes caused the sea of troubles to churn harder. His staff and players appreciated having their coach go to bat for them, but he fouled a few pitches off his foot.

"As the pressure grew and everything started to happen, he stood tall," said assistant head coach Brian Cabral, who took over during spring practice while Barnett was suspended. "Our knees were buckling, but he stood tall. ... He want to take everything head-on. He probably took one thing too many head-on, but he wanted to deal with it."

That's because criticism doesn't roll off Gary Barnett's back. It slices through flesh and blood and bone and settles in his gut. That's a problematic personality trait for someone in the lightning-rod position of big-time college football coach, especially given some of the vicious proclivities of human nature.

"I don't like the fact that (personal attacks) are just part of it," he said. "I don't like that whole idea. What people can write in an e-mail and say can be so mean-spirited. I still don't comprehend that. I got an e-mail asking me to put a bullet in my own head. I don't understand how people can say that, but I learned that there are people willing to say those things. You just live with it."

He's working on thickening his skin, but he's 58. He is who he is.

"I think it's just my nature," he said. "There's a sensitive side to me that nobody knows about except Mary, probably, and a couple other people. There's a vulnerable side -- I don't know if it's a character flaw. It's a characteristic. It's one of my human characteristics.

"I don't think that side of me has ever changed. What I have to control is how I respond to that."

During the school's investigation into allegations of sexual assault by football players, sex-and-booze-drenched recruiting visits and other accusations that CU football was out of control, Barnett's routine response was a frontal counterattack. Convinced that his program was unfairly portrayed ("there isn't any more uptight or square program in the country"), he took his rebuttal to the people. Barnett wanted to answer every allegation, respond to every question, joust at every windmill -- and there were plenty, with Colorado football splattered on television screens and newspapers for months.

"One, it's my instinct. Two, no one else was answering questions," Barnett said. "No one else defended me, our athletic department or our program. No one else would go out there. I went on every talk show, every television show, defending our program. I got beat up over it, got assaulted over it, but I'd do it again. I'd do it better -- I'd do it smarter and obviously hold my tongue in a couple of situations. But I'd still stand up for our coaches and players and program. Especially in light that I didn't think anyone else was doing it."

I may have my head in the sand here, but I just trust that eventually the truth will be out, eventually people will see us for the program we've been and continue to be. Only the future will show whether that's the right way to look at it.
Colorado coach Gary Barnett

When he heard talk-radio hosts ripping his program on the air, he called in to correct their facts. He reminded people that a CU campus police study of its records showed only one arrest for sexual assault by a football player in the last 10 years -- and that the player was kicked off the team the next day. When reporters approached him last February about former kicker Katie Hnida, whose father, Dave, told Sports Illustrated that Barnett had not adequately addressed his concerns about sexual harassment of his daughter, he answered 28 questions.

And on the 29th answer he uttered the sound bite that soured a nation.

She was a terrible kicker, Barnett said, in response to a question about her kicking ability. It was a tactless answer and a tactical disaster. When scooped out of context it made Barnett look like an ogre whose response to a rape allegation was to say, too bad, your kid can't play.

That's when CU president Betsy Hoffman stepped into the maelstrom and suspended Barnett for what turned out to be three months. Saturated with negatives, Gary and Mary left Colorado to spend a couple of weeks decompressing at their home in Arizona. When he came back, Barnett worked out and walked the dog in the morning, then spent about five hours a day fielding phone calls -- lawyers, friends, family, media, everyone.

He paid for a week of personal media training from a consultant. He went into the office for an hour a day to read e-mail, trying to keep up with the positive reinforcement from those who knew him. He stood on the sidelines watching spring practice, but let Cabral run the show.

"It was really hard to watch him at practice," Cabral said. "We know how hard it was for him to sit there on the side."

Finally, when an independent university commission failed to find the coach guilty of anything more egregious than poor communication, he was reinstated. And he was ready.

"I could never see myself not coaching this team this year," Barnett said. "Even though I do think, on the outside, everybody thought the odds were against us.

"One thing I did learn was that every night, before I went to bed, I realized that whatever happened that day wasn't terminal. So I figured what happened the next day wouldn't be terminal, either. So we just managed it."

The ripples continue to be felt, including a grand-jury report that is said to be critical of CU but charges only a former graduate assistant with any wrongdoing. There are new recruiting restrictions that will be tighter than those of the Buffaloes' Big 12 rivals. There is a fan base that won't take kindly to a second consecutive losing season, despite the transfer of eight players. And there is a fractured relationship with the school's academic community and administration that is being rebuilt.

"I may have my head in the sand here, but I just trust that eventually the truth will be out, eventually people will see us for the program we've been and continue to be," Barnett said. "Only the future will show whether that's the right way to look at it.

"I think we're in a period of time where we're going to have to be very proactive in demonstrating that we are who we said we are. And that's to everybody -- to our administration, to the faculty, to the people. I think what's happened here is that we always assumed we had the respect, trust and backing, but what we found out was the minute we got accused of anything, everybody jumped to the other side of it. Their behavior demonstrated that they didn't trust us, didn't respect us and didn't believe us.

"Whose fault is that? It really makes no difference. It's reality. So we have to do a better job of managing the perception of us, showing who we are. We're not changing who we are. We've been a program of honor, dignity and honesty. We just assumed that everybody thought that as well -- our faculty and our administration. What we found out was that wasn't as founded as we thought it might be."

Now Barnett must test the strength of the program's bonds with the outside world. The results are vital. He's under contract through 2006, at roughly $1.5 million per year, but he sounds wary about the future beyond this season.

"I'm going to really look at this year and give it everything I've got," he said. "I want to give the university and everybody else a chance to rebound from all this, see how we're going to respond, and then evaluate it. I have no preconceived notions. I'm positive in the way I look at the way everybody's going to handle it and treat us and back us. I fully expect that to happen, and if it doesn't, I'll evaluate from there."

Mary Barnett expects to see her husband continue coaching, and very much wants it to be here, in Colorado.

"I don't think there's a reason to think about something else," she said, "unless there's something we don't know. And heaven knows, there's been a few of those things. But there would be nothing better than to stay here.

"It's way too early for him not to be doing it. He loves it."

And after the coaching days are done?

"I'm going to write a book," Barnett said. "Oh, yeah. When it's right. I've kept very detailed notes on everything.

"But first I've got to see how the story ends."

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He played high school football for Barnett during his sophomore and junior years (1980-81) at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., and he can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

ALSO SEE