Buff Puff

Can CU's new head coach find his team's animal instinct?

In a rare moment of privacy last Wednesday afternoon, Gary Barnett stood before a picture window in the dining room of the Dal Ward Athletic Center, gazing out at his world. Two stories below, the sunlit expanse of the Folsom Field gridiron stretched before him: an acre and a half of brand-new, high-tech natural grass, not the unforgiving AstroTurf that had been in place for almost three decades.

Fittingly, Barnett's view was as yet unobstructed by white sidelines, painted end zones or numerical yard markers. There was only the great vista of green grass growing in a huge bowl of empty stands. Virgin territory. Terra incognita. A work in progress.

So, too, are Barnett, the twenty-second head football coach at the University of Colorado, and his presumably talented roster of Golden Buffaloes. On September 4 at Mile High Stadium, the Buffs will face Colorado State in game number one for their new mentor and game number 1,001 in CU's long and often perturbed football history. All eyes will be on Barnett, and if he and his new balanced offense don't get off to a winning start, the grumbling will be audible in the alumni and student sections faster than you can say...Rick Neuheisel.

Patrick Merewether

Truth is, 53-year-old Gary Barnett carries a great burden with him into this football season. As the miracle-worker who lifted the long-dismal Northwestern University Wildcats out of the doldrums in the mid-Nineties and sent them to the Rose Bowl before leaving the Evanston, Illinois, campus under a cloud, he's expected to make more dazzling magic with better material in Boulder. As a coach who learned his trade in eight seasons under Bill McCartney, who led the Buffaloes to a co-national championship in 1990, Barnett is a man in a long shadow -- with promises to keep.

With that in mind, his bold motto for the year is "Return to Dominance."

"Sure, there's greater pressure [here]," Barnett says. "Whether I feel it or not, it's greater. There was no pressure at Northwestern...no one really cared about [football]. A few of the athletes and a couple of fans and the coaches."

Naturally, that changed after the Wildcats turned an all-too-familiar 3-7 record in 1994 into an astonishing 10-2 year and a Big Ten title the next year. But football at Boulder comes front-loaded with more assumptions. "Here I've inherited, on paper, a better team," the coach says. "I've inherited a team with more tradition and with higher expectations in the community and the state. There are state expectations here -- there were no state expectations in Evanston."

Indeed, Colorado boasts the nation's seventh-best record over the last ten years, returns 52 healthy lettermen (including thirteen starters) this season and ranks anywhere from number five to number 21 in pre-season polls.

That kind of pressure hastened Barnett's plans and firmed up his resolve. Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was evidently CU's first choice to replace river-rafting, guitar-strumming Rick Neuheisel, but when Kubiak turned the job down, Gary II leaped in with both feet.

Since January, he has visited the families of every player on CU's team (save three) in hopes of avoiding the emotional trauma of a "transition year" and sidestepping some errors he made in Evanston. His 1992 and 1993 Northwestern teams were divided between "Barnett guys" and players recruited by previous head coach Francis Peay. "I went in there with a plan before I knew what the problems were," he says. "I won't do that here."

After getting up-close and personal with the CU parents last winter, Barnett's putting their sons through hell this fall. Translation: Three-a-day practices -- at 9 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and 5 p.m. Each session is shorter than in the traditional two-a-day plan but more intense. He wants his kids "to practice like their hair's on fire," Barnett says. Three-a-days, he adds, are "more of a mental grind than a physical grind, and that's what we want."

Barnett and offensive coordinator Tom Cable, late of the University of California, have also scrapped Neuheisel's pass-happy offense -- which produced a 5-6 season in 1997 and an injury-plagued 8-4 last year -- in favor of a fifty-fifty pass/run attack based on multiple formations, complex motion, quick timing passes and constant pressure on the opposing defense. It's a brainy offense that catapulted an undertalented Northwestern team boasting good SAT scores to the top of the tough Big 10 Conference. It is also, Barnett acknowledges, the kind of offense that may suddenly look familiar to Denver Broncos fans. Head coach Mike Shanahan and Barnett share some ideas, and "it's scary how similar these offenses can look," says CU's new man.

To be sure, the Barnett Plan will keep the cobwebs off CU's swift but heretofore underused running backs -- all three of them. Last year the team averaged just 123 yards per game rushing, and that must improve. Meanwhile, the new offense is also designed to give the element of surprise back to senior quarterback Mike Moschetti.

He'll have help. As always, Colorado has a flight of superior wide receivers whose very names sound sleek and fast. Who would you like to cover, Mister Free Safety? Cedric Cormier, who's downfield before you can hiccup? How about Marcus Stiggers, who's run a 4.17-second forty-yard dash? Or Javon Green, who averages almost fourteen yards per catch? Give those guys a breather on the bench and you've still got to contend with Robert Toler and Eric McCready. Roman Hollowell is five-foot-six, weighs 160 pounds and might have trouble playing on Sundays in the NFL. But you won't catch him on Saturdays.

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