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It's a Rocky Ride in Boulder for Barnett

September 12, 2002|Chris Dufresne

Gary Barnett couldn't talk long to a visiting reporter Aug. 20 because it was moving day on campus--players checking into dorms--and the fourth-year Colorado coach felt he finally had things moving in the right direction.

But now it's three weeks later, USC is hitching wagons headed east as the higher ranked team and Barnett is Sisyphus again in a town called Boulder.

Ranked No. 7 in the preseason, Colorado (1-1) already has taken two baby steps back, losing its fourth consecutive opener under Barnett and, last week against San Diego State, losing starting quarterback Craig Ochs to another concussion.

Only an optimist would think Colorado is right on track.

After all, is this not how Barnett's team stumbled into 2001, losing the opener to Fresno State, losing Ochs to an injury, then closing so hard and fast the Buffaloes missed a spot in the national title game by 0.05 of a point in the bowl championship series computer?

Let's see Colorado pull that trick again.

"I don't know if we're going to know that until we step on the field with another quarterback," Barnett, forced to start junior college transfer Robert Hodge against USC, said this week. "History says yes, history says this team had it happen to them last year, but each year is different, and the mindset of every team is different, so I don't think there's any way of predicting that until we get on the field and see what happens."

Barnett has made Colorado a talking piece since taking the reins from Rick Neuheisel, but there also have been avalanche warnings.

Seeking wide-open spaces after his noteworthy run at Northwestern, Barnett hoped to slip back into Colorado the way a man would into his favorite shoes. He coached two years at Fort Lewis in the 1980s before spending eight seasons as Bill McCartney's assistant at Colorado, an era capped by a share of the national title in 1990.

Barnett's homecoming, though, has been fraught with twists and turmoil and is only weeks removed from an off-season that could only be described as off-putting.

They weren't kidding when they said the Rocky Mountains were all peaks and valleys.

Colorado could not have been more sky high after its shocking, 62-36 home victory over Nebraska last Nov. 23, an event that seems years ago.

Colorado followed with a victory over Texas in the Big 12 title game, then was crushed to learn it had been edged for the second BCS title game spot by, of all teams, Nebraska.

Colorado grudgingly accepted its Fiesta Bowl bid and played like it in a 38-16 loss to Oregon.

Off the field, things were quiet as a circus:

Last December, six Colorado players and six recruits were implicated in a sexual assault complaint made by a woman who claimed she was raped at an off-campus party.

After a lengthy investigation and much public debate and clamor, the Boulder District Attorney's office decided not to press charges, although it did offer some scathing opinion regarding player behavior.

"The off-field stuff has been a war," Barnett said.

On June 9, Tom McMahon, the team's co-defensive coordinator, died at age 53 after a two-year battle with lung cancer.

"The kids saw Tom the last three months and knew he wasn't the same," Barnett said. "They didn't separate themselves, but they could almost see it coming."

Colorado then spent its summer vacation answering charges of 54 NCAA violations, 51 on Neuheisel's watch.

Barnett wondered why his program might have to pay for violations committed by a coach who left the program.

"If it's a situation where it was not institutional, just guys who went out to make decisions on their own to break rules, then I have problems with that following a school," Barnett said.

On Aug. 9, Barnett was in the room at Philadelphia when the NCAA questioned Neuheisel about the alleged violations, mostly technical stuff involving recruiting rules.

Surprisingly, Barnett came away fuming at the NCAA.

"It came down to them wanting to grill Rick, and they grilled Rick," Barnett said. "Rick probably pushed the envelope, and did it more creatively than anyone else, but what he did is no more illegal than what every other college coach in the country does. To just pick out a school and to slap us for what they're going to slap us with, for what everybody else is doing, they've got their head in the sand."

The NCAA's decision on Colorado is pending.

Colorado players have gone back to class on NCAA rules.

"We've been very educated in camp," offensive lineman Justin Bates said. "But all this stuff they're talking about was when I was a freshman and before I was even here."

Colorado also had to endure receiver Jeremy Bloom's public quest to play football and keep endorsement money he made as a world-class freestyle skier. After the NCAA rejected his argument, Bloom put his ski career on ice and joined the Buffaloes.

You would have thought Colorado players would have learned from mistakes.

"Don't get stuck out of the gate, like we did last year against Fresno," Bates said before the season.

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