Embattled Barnett selected Big 12 Coach of the Year

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

BOULDER, Colo. -- From the brink of unemployment to Coach of the Year, Gary Barnett has, indeed, seen some very high highs and very low lows these past several months.

The Colorado coach was named the Associated Press Big 12 Coach of the Year on Tuesday, receiving eight of 20 media votes to outdistance Dan McCarney of Iowa State and Dennis Franchione of Texas A&M by three votes each. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops got the other two votes.

"These really are humbling awards because you know what goes into them," Barnett said.

On its own, Colorado's remarkable jump from a 1-4 start in conference play to a spot in the Big 12 title game would make Barnett worthy of such an award. Add to that the fact that Barnett has steered the program to success after months of turmoil related to the rape and recruiting scandal, and the feat seems even more amazing.

Then, there's the fact that Barnett wasn't even sure he'd have this job coming into the season. He was suspended for three months last spring in the wake of inappropriate comments he made about kicker Katie Hnida shortly after she said she was raped by a teammate in 2000. Calls for his job mounted on several fronts and have never completely abated.

"No. No. No," he said when asked if job security is always on his mind.

When Barnett returned from his suspension, he found not a team in disarray, but rather one galvanized by the turmoil. The team had found a personality and a voice while working under assistant head coach Brian Cabral during spring practice, as allegations of scandal swirled around campus.

Upon his return, a less secure coach might have injected his own personality into the situation. Barnett mostly stood to the side and let the players define their team.

"It's one of the most admirable thing Coach Barnett has done," quarterback Joel Klatt said."He never tired to turn the focus away or do anything different. He saw exactly the way this team had jelled and ran with it."

Barnett acknowledges that he returned to a changed team and didn't see any reason to tinker with that part of the equation.

"They had already created this momentum," he said. "As a coach, you don't care who creates it, you just want that momentum and we had it."

The Buffaloes gathered steam while Barnett sat in limbo, reading books, attending practices at other schools, never wasting a day during the suspension, even though he wasn't totally sure he'd be coming back.

It was a frustrating three months that gave the coach, now in his sixth year with the Buffs, plenty of time to think about what went wrong.

"The thing I learned the most was that where I'd thought there was a relationship of trust and respect, I learned that there wasn't," he said. "It wasn't anybody's fault. It just didn't exist the way I thought it did within the university. But rather than point a finger, I chose to look at it and say, 'What are some of the things we can do better?"'

It's too early to tell whether that effort has paid off.

Last week, athletic director Dick Tharp resigned under pressure, leaving Barnett without one of his biggest supporters. On Tuesday, the school hired former Navy AD Jack Lengyel to take Tharp's place on an interim basis.

Also in the past two weeks, allegations about fund-raising problems have surfaced. The school told the NCAA last week that a small booster club that had not been audited under university auspices bought equipment for the athletic department, an NCAA violation.

Barnett has two years left on his contract, a deal that could be terminated, extended or left alone -- it's anybody's guess. The school is supposed to revisit the deal after the season.

"Does this warrant an extension?" Barnett said of this season's accomplishments. "I think it warrants an extension. A lot of recruiting is based on those sorts of things. But that's not my decision, so ..."

University spokeswoman Michele Ames said the school is "still working on" a contract.

School president Betsy Hoffman released a statement congratulating Barnett on his award.

"We believe this recognition also honors the hard work of the coaching staff and student-athletes during a very challenging year," Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, the Buffs are preparing for Saturday's championship game against No. 2 Oklahoma. It is a huge task, trying to defeat a team with not one, but two Heisman Trophy favorites, a team that hasn't lost this season and is seeking a shot at the national title.

Barnett knows all about prevailing against long odds, though. He's been doing it constantly since the start of 2004.

"I really haven't thought about me very much," he said. "In the throws of the battle, you don't start feeling sorry for yourself. You worry about the people you're responsible for and getting them out of the mess they're in."

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