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Wildcats' Barnett Was 'UCLA-Bound' Until Last Moment

College football: In new book, Northwestern coach says he stayed because he didn't want program to slide back.

August 10, 1996|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

If Northwestern had beaten USC in the Rose Bowl last New Year's Day, UCLA's football team might well be starting practice next Saturday under Gary Barnett, rather than Bob Toledo.

In his book due out later this month, "High Hopes" (Gary Barnett with Vahe Gregorian, Warner Books, $18.95) Barnett, who coached doormat Northwestern to its most successful season in half a century last fall, says that losing the Rose Bowl left him with unfinished business at the Evanston, Ill., school.

"We had become only the second school in history to beat Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State in the same season--Michigan State had done it twice, decades before--and if we had beaten USC in the Rose Bowl, we would have become the first to beat all four," Barnett writes.

"I felt like I'd pushed, pulled and thrown [Northwestern's program] to the top of the hill, but we weren't so solidly on the top that it couldn't roll right back down if I got off. . . . I didn't think I had quite seen it through. The program was so awful when I got here and I couldn't stomach the possibility of having it return to that and feeling responsible for it.

"Maybe losing the Rose Bowl was part of this feeling. It didn't tarnish the season, but it made me feel like we needed to come back and win it."

Northwestern, after a storybook season, came to the Rose Bowl with a 10-1 record and unbeaten in eight Big Ten games. The Wildcats hardly were ticketed for the Rose Bowl--they got in when Michigan knocked off second-ranked Ohio State in their annual season-ending grudge game, 31-23--when Barnett's phone began ringing.

Georgia and Oklahoma made offers and, after Terry Donahue had resigned at UCLA to take a TV job, so did the Bruins. According to Barnett, he met Dec. 31, the day before the Rose Bowl, with UCLA Chancellor Charles Young and Athletic Director Peter Dalis. And of all the offers, Barnett writes, UCLA's was the most intriguing.

"As the discussion went on, I could sense Dr. Young really wanting me to take the job. Everything they said was terrific, everything they did was terrific, and they seemed willing to go any extra distance in order to make it happen."

Barnett says he asked UCLA to wait until after the game for his answer, then the day after USC had beaten the Wildcats, 41-23, he sent his lawyer, Rocky Walther, to UCLA to discuss the specifics of the offer.

"We met as a staff while Rocky was at UCLA and I told them we had been offered the job at UCLA and I was really thinking hard about it," Barnett writes. "At that moment, in fact, I probably was UCLA-bound."

After returning to Evanston, however, Barnett says he had second thoughts.

"In the next few weeks, I was supposed to be accepting a number of coach-of-the-year awards for what we had done at Northwestern--not what we had done at Georgia or Oklahoma or UCLA or anyplace else. How could I be at one of these banquets and be introduced as--the UCLA coach? . . .

"What do I tell these kids is the reason I'm going to UCLA? . . . The only reasons I could give them would be that I like warm weather and I like to play golf, and those are pretty damned selfish. . . .

"If it were just me, personally, by myself, I probably would have gone to UCLA. But it wasn't just me, and so that reasoning wasn't important. . . .

"I wasn't going to make my decision until Thursday [three days after the Rose Bowl game], but by Wednesday night, my mind was made up. I called Peter Dalis at UCLA and I said, 'Peter, I want this job. But I can't take it.' . . .

"They had been [unbelievable]. They had done everything possible. . . . That was the hardest phone call I've ever had to make, but I haven't looked back for a second. . . .

"This decision was not about money. If it was about money, I wouldn't be at Northwestern. But why should money be the ultimate gauge? We had achieved something no one thought possible and I thought I might be able to keep making a difference [at Northwestern] that I might not be able to make somewhere else.

"You only get a couple of times in your life to make a difference. You've just got to recognize when those times are."

After Barnett had said no to UCLA's offer, the Bruins hired Toledo, who had been Donahue's offensive coordinator, as head coach.

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