Coach vows his name will be cleared
BOULDER, Colo. -- When Gary Barnett was hired to coach Colorado's football team five years ago, he was embraced as a disciplinarian who would end an era of loose recruiting practices and return the team to national prominence.
Now the coach is at the center of the school's biggest scandal in decades, perhaps ever.
Amid accusations that a boozy round of recruiting visits by high school prospects in 2001 ended in gang rape, Barnett faces a university investigation that was all but ordered by Colorado's governor.
The latest blow came this week when a striptease operator said he regularly sends lap-dancers to perform for Colorado athletes. The most recent performances were booked two weeks ago -- well after the rape allegations became public and just days after Barnett promised to step down if it was shown his staff had anything to do with what he called "tawdry" behavior by student-athletes.
To top it off, a former athletics official said Barnett seemed reluctant to crack down on entertaining recruits because it could give an advantage to other schools.
Barnett denies it all, telling The Associated Press he will be cleared by the investigation and disputes accusations in a federal lawsuit that the Boulder campus is a hostile place for women.
"I expect them to find that we have an exemplary program in every aspect," Barnett said.
The coach blames the players and students for the December 2001 party that led to the rape allegations and says he can't watch players and recruits 24 hours a day.
"No coach or any member of my staff had anything to do with that night," he said. "At no time did any coach take part in arranging, creating or encouraging a party of any sort. You just don't do that."
At 57, Barnett has led Colorado to a Big 12 Conference title and a BCS bowl game in his five seasons as head coach (his contract runs through 2006). When he took over from Rick Neuheisel in January 1999, his former players at Northwestern said Colorado was getting a new sheriff.
During the last two seasons, nine players were suspended for various violations of team rules, including curfew and behavior standards.
"Coach Barnett is such a stickler," receiver D.J. Hackett said. "He's really strict on rules and stuff."
Still, Barnett had his share of controversy even before becoming head coach at Colorado.
He led Northwestern to a pair of Big Ten titles and a Rose Bowl berth after the 1995 season. He was also there during a betting scandal in which four football players were indicted and accused of lying about gambling and point-shaving activities.
Their coach was not implicated. Barnett later called the scandal a "tremendous betrayal" by the players.
Barnett was also with the Colorado program as an assistant coach during some if its darkest days. Between 1986 and 1988, players were accused of crimes ranging from drunken driving to serial rape, and the school was featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story that still brings bitter memories.
Barnett himself wasn't criticized during that mess, which tarnished the tenure of head coach Bill McCartney but didn't stop the Buffs from winning a national championship in 1990.
Since then, the program has been slapped with two years of NCAA probation for violations that occurred mostly under Neuheisel. The problems included illegal contact with recruits and excessive reimbursement for recruits' travel and entertainment expenses. Barnett was cited for two minor violations.
Much more serious are the accusations leveled in federal lawsuits filed by three women who say they were raped during or after the 2001 off-campus recruiting party. The suit accuses the program and university of fostering an environment in which women are routinely sexually harassed, which would violate federal bans on gender discrimination in colleges.
No players or recruits were charged. But Boulder County's top prosecutor accused the university in a deposition of using sex as a recruiting tool. The school is appointing a panel to investigate, and the criminal investigation has been reopened.
The party took place during what Barnett calls a brief period of free time that recruits spend with their student sponsors.
"Their day is packed," he said. "As coaches, we're involved with them all but 3½ hours every day. And for those 3½ hours they're with one of our players, one-on-one. You try to eliminate as much risk as you can."
Still, for coaches to be with recruits 24 hours a day "would not be a college experience," Barnett said.
Barnett insists he responded properly when the rape accusations first surfaced. He imposed a 1 a.m. curfew on recruits and required their player hosts to sign a pledge to keep recruits from being exposed to inappropriate behavior, including underage drinking.
"It's obviously been working pretty well," Barnett said. "And the other way worked pretty well until one night."
Colorado's former senior associate athletic director, Robert Chichester, suggests otherwise. In his deposition in one of the lawsuits, he said Barnett seemed unwilling to set a tone of intolerance toward rowdiness during recruiting visits.
Chichester, now athletic director at the University of California, Irvine, characterized Barnett's position as: "If [players] weren't taking [recruits] out and partying, that it would be a recruiting disadvantage. ... If alcohol happened to be there, Coach Barnett never really voiced an opinion to me that that was objectionable."
For his part, Barnett insists he and his staff are in "complete control" of the program.
Asked about his promise he would resign if the probe turns up evidence of involvement, Barnett said, "There won't be. There won't be."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press