Tough for Buffs

CU football grinds on under the weight of the past.

Back in the day, University of Colorado football players bonded with each other at pep rallies. They matched appetites at the training table. For awhile there, they went on raft trips and listened to their coach strum his guitar. Always, they exchanged fellow-feeling by kicking serious ass in the grim heat of two-a-day practices and, later, by beating Iowa State or Missouri. If they managed to get past Nebraska, the black-and-gold team love-fest was complete. This past year was different, though. This past year, the Buffs became a band of brothers when eight of them were called to testify before a state grand jury.

"The bond that we've made over the last few months is unbelievable," senior running back Bobby Purify reports. "I truly believe that having each other's back is one of the ingredients to victory, one of the keys in the equation."

Ah, the equation. As CU's embattled Golden Buffaloes get ready for the school's 115th season of college football, it might take a couple of Einsteins, half a dozen psychologists and maybe a little wisdom from Ralphie the mascot to figure out the... equation. This much anyone can see: On the practice field in Boulder, there is no such thing as "scandal." The shocking, tabloid-style allegations of the off-season just past -- Rape! Liquor! Strippers! Prostitutes! -- are known euphemistically as The Ordeal. Before the picture windows of the Dal Ward Athletic Center, wherein beats the troubled heart of CU football, sixth-year head coach Gary Barnett calls the three-month suspension university president Elizabeth Hoffman imposed on him in February "my time off" -- as if he had been on vacation in Puerto Vallarta. His devotion to discipline and character-building and the well-being of student-athletes continued undiminished, as always. Despite the heat, he remained confident he would get his job back.

"We're obviously a team that's been toughened up over the last six months," Barnett told a roomful of reporters gathered on August 10 for CU's annual football media day. "We're a team that's gone through a lot of adversity...probably faced more adversity than some teams get to face in a season."

Whatever crimes were or were not committed inside the CU football program since 1997, the players and the coaches don't want to hear any more about it. They want to concentrate on practice. On X's and O's. They want to get ready for the Colorado State game on September 4, which will be broadcast from Boulder's Folsom Field to a national TV audience. They yearn for the drudgery of business as usual. Don't worry. The equation will solve itself.

"These are always anxious and exciting moments for football coaches," Barnett said on press day. "To meet their new team. There's hope in the air for everybody."

Hope in the air. That has to be a relief considering the other things that have been in the air since January, when the scandal -- The Ordeal -- erupted. Things like the accusations of at least nine women who claim they were sexually assaulted by CU football players or prospects over the past seven years. The stink of rumors about off-campus parties at which booze and sex were freely used as football recruiting tools. The wrath of three women who are suing the university in federal court. The unabashed declarations by employees of an enterprise called the Best Variety Escort Service, who say they were hired to service CU recruits at a resort hotel.

And who can forget the stunning non sequitur Barnett offered when talking about former CU place-kicker Katie Hnida, after she had gone public with the accusation that she was raped by a male teammate: "She was awful," Barnett opined. "Katie was a girl, and not only was she a girl, she was terrible."

That didn't score any points with the administration, and Hoffman put Barnett on leave. But it didn't earn the coach a pink slip in the end, which surprised even some longtime Buff fans. "Amazing that he got a pass," said Denver businessman Bob Haley, who has been going to CU games off and on since 1965. "I love the team, but this guy got off easy. Took no responsibility for anything. It makes you wonder who's running the show on campus -- the football team or the president's office. I think we know the answer."

Days after his reinstatement in late May, Barnett submitted to an interview session with CU football beat writers and described his "time off" in the curious patois of coaches everywhere -- a private language that combines the righteous fervor of the revival tent with the bureaucratese of a police-station briefing. "All the players that I've had have come to my defense," the Barnett transcript reads. "And that's all that's been really important to me -- my family, the people that I've worked with and the kids I've coached. When things like that happen, you just have to say that what is important are these kids, their parents and my family."

The scandal has already cost the university about $1,000,000, not to mention an avalanche of bad publicity, and the tarnished football program is sure to face relentless scrutiny this fall, on and off the field. No one can predict how fans and beleaguered players will handle the distractions. A campus maintenance crew has long since scrubbed three words of ugly, anti-football-player graffiti -- three words no one can seem to remember at this point -- from an exterior wall of the Dal Ward Center garage. Reports of players being scorned by strangers on the streets of Boulder have diminished. But the traumas of the past eight months are not over.

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